Images of War and Warriors

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Of all the films so far about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or their impact, The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, has emerged as the stand-out. It has been nominated for nine Oscars, including best picture. On its Web site, there is a listing of multiple major prizes to date in every category. Roger Ebert, Newsweek, and the Washington Post named it one of the ten best films of the decade. What is striking about all the acclaim is that the movie, which cost $11 million to make, is still apparently short of $30 million in world wide revenues. Avatar, by contrast, has swept past $2 billion in ticket sales. The Hurt Locker is a superb movie that very few people have seen.

The critical success of The Hurt Locker is foremost about craft. A. O. Scott in The New York Times wrote: "The movie is a viscerally exciting, adrenaline-soaked tour de force of suspense and surprise, full of explosions and hectic scenes of combat, but it blows a hole in the condescending assumption that such effects are just empty spectacle or mindless noise." The mesmerizing central character, played by Jeremy Renner, is Sergeant First Class William James, team leader of a U.S. Army explosive ordnance unit in Baghdad, whose awesome coolness and skill reflect an emotional hole at his core that only fear and danger can fill. If The Hurt Locker really is destined to be an iconic movie about war, the deeper meaning of the film is what it reveals about the way Americans feel about today's warriors, wherever they are sent. Iraq itself as a place, and the war as an issue, are bit players.

A generation ago, in the years during and just after the Vietnam War, the most celebrated and now memorable movies were filled with rage and decadence. Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Born on the Fourth of July, among others, were spectacles about the worst things that war can do to the people affected by it, physically and emotionally. Vincent Canby's summary appraisal in his 1979 review made the political point directly. Apocalypse Now, he wrote, "is about the disastrous United States involvement in Vietnam." The films of the era mostly conveyed the message that the American mission was sinister and corrupting to all involved. Returning GIs were met with hostility or disinterest, and their efforts to cope were wrenching. The dominant narrative was that warriors neither received nor deserved glory.

America's views about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan have a different tenor than the most turbulent days of anti-war fervor during Vietnam. But whatever attitudes there may be about the present conflicts, the soldiers in them usually are received with gratitude, and even admiration, by other Americans. War-related Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome is accepted as a condition that demands care at whatever cost, and anything less is an outrage. Sargeant James, the "hero" of The Hurt Locker, is not presented as a sympathetic character, given his willingness to push beyond the boundaries of sensible caution. But he is highly skilled at defusing bombs that would kill and maim. He and his unit are focused on the mission before them, and the film only once raises the fundamental question of why these men are in Iraq. The opening shot is a quote from the 2002 bestseller, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges (and proudly published by PublicAffairs). It says: "the rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug." The danger of sending young men and women into combat is that some few will find it irresistible.

But overall, the warriors of our time as represented in our culture are a different species than they were in the 1960s and 1970s. Elisabeth Bumiller wrote a fascinating piece in The New York Times last week about soldiers who have written memoirs, fiction, poetry, and even blogs about their time in Iraq and Afghanistan. "As part of a modern all-volunteer force, these explore the timeless theme of the futility of war--but wars that they for the most part support. The books, many written as rites of passage by members of a highly educated young officer corps, are filled with gore, inept commanders and anguish over men lost in combat, but not questions about the conflicts themselves"

Much of what has been written about The Hurt Locker deals with the fact that other movies with Iraq themes--The Brothers, In the Valley of Elah, and Stop-Loss--have done badly at the box office. In assessing The Hurt Locker's Oscar chances, Tom O'Neil in the Los Angeles Times notes that perhaps viewers don't think of it as a typical movie about the United States involvement in Iraq "because it doesn't have a political theme. It plays like an action thriller." That may be the case. But the film also conveys an updated sense of respect for soldiers sent to combat even when we have reservations about what they were sent to do and why they went.

Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment