Feb 01 2010

Finding Deeper Meaning in The Hurt Locker’s Carnage

Published by at 1:00 pm under Columns,Movies

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One of our more memorable movie reviews this year was when Madison took the reins on The Hurt Locker, one of this year’s big Oscar favorites, and essentially tore it to pieces. I hadn’t seen the film yet when he reviewed it, but I’ve seen it twice since, and my most recent time was last night, where I used all my analytical powers from AP English, and saw the film for the grand metaphor it was, something myself and Madison both missed our first time through.

Madison claimed that he liked that the film didn’t really have a political message, but I maintain that it did have one, buried within the subtext of what we were seeing. The movie as a whole, and individual scenes I believe were meant to convey larger truths about the war and our country as a whole. You’ll see what I mean.

First of all, I believe Renner’s character, Sgt. James, is supposed to represent America, with his badass swagger, and death-wish-like approach to war, which results in both putting himself and his allies unnecessarily in harm’s way, while neglecting his more pressing responsibilities back home (his wife and child he doesn’t feel like dealing with, much like our own domestic problems shorted in favor of war funding). Instead he’s happier wandering around the desert, waiting to get blown up at any given moment by a dangerous situation that he can’t diffuse in time, and he’s already suffered scars from previous events like the ones he now encounters every day. The mantra of the film, “war is a drug” isn’t mean just to apply to James, but to America in general, and how recently, when there was no war to be fought, we instead created one with “preemptive action.”

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Outside of its larger picture of America, I believe individual scenes within the movie strengthen this parallel, and have more specific interpretation. For example, in one scene, James enters an abandoned school and finds a local boy, a friend of his, dead on a table and rigged to explode with bombs. After cleaning up the mess, James heads to a local he believes knew the boy, and forces him at gunpoint to show him those responsible. The man drives him to a house, and then speeds away the minute James is out of the car. The house James invades is not the one he was looking for, and is instead the house of a local professor who had nothing to do with the boy’s death. While the professor invites James to calm down and have a drink, and that he’s “honored” he’s there, his wife takes an opposite approach, and throws pots and pans at James while screaming at him to get out of their house.

Maybe you don’t see what I’m going for here, so if not, I’ll spell it out for you. The boy’s death is the tragic horror of 9/11. Looking for answers, James (America) turns to a local intelligence source for answers. Instead of helping, the source gives incorrect information, which results in the invasion of the wrong house entirely (us invading Iraq despite it’s non-connection to 9/11). Inside the locals are split between scared civility and full-on rage for the desecration, and chase James (America) out with harsh words (public opinion) and pots and pans (IEDs, insurgent fighters and the like).

There’s another scene later that’s a sniper battle between James’ unit (along with a British brigade) and an insurgent sharpshooting group. The battle drags on for what seems like hours, and in the end, both sides are exhausted and many are dead on either side. I view this as a comment on the seeming endlessness of the war, and when James finally says, “I think we’re done here” I believe that’s a bit of that political analysis we thought was missing. The same could be said for one scene where James cuts the detonator to one bomb he finds buried in the desert, and then realizes it’s just one piece of a massive system of bombs in the same region. This seems to me that its a representation of the structure of our terrorist enemies, and how we thought we had one threat, then realized it was spread out in a network more vast than we could have imagined.

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A picture of us getting more than we bargained for in the desert?

I don’t have analysis like this for every scene in the movie, and I will maintain that the film is often awkwardly structured and its character motivations are inconsistent, but I think I might be on to something here. You may say I’m reading too much into this, and you may be right, but just think for a second and I believe you might come to some of the same conclusions I did. And on the other hand, if you think this is a kind of “no duh, you idiot” moment for me, then that’s fair too, but it’s something I didn’t catch until this time around.

If all of this was done intentionally? I think The Hurt Locker is a lot smarter than we gave it credit for, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it pick up a few Oscars for being the best film commentary on the Iraq War to date.





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18 responses so far

  • Madison

    Pretty good interpretation and analysis. Were this a, say, David Lynch movie, I’d think that you were really onto something and that I missed the grand metaphor.

    But methinks you’re giving Kathryn “Point Break” Bigelow just a bit too much credit. That said, when this comes on television, I’ll watch with your interpretation in mind.

  • matt

    I haven’t seen the movie so I can’t really say. I’m sure I’ll watch it but to be honest I’m already pretty tired of people making movies about a war we’re still in as award bait.

  • danapoint

    “”badass swagger, and death-wish-like approach to war, which results in both putting himself and his allies unnecessarily in harm’s way, while neglecting his more pressing responsibilities back home “”

    many ways to interpret the movie, and also our nation.

    I find your analogy to be reflective of the current left leaning liberal pov, and find that pov to be sadly lacking in true historical perspective.

    perception is not reality, but you would be hard pressed to find people willing to agree with this today. very sad in my opinion.

  • Justin

    Another poorly written and specious piece from this site. Pretty much par for the course these days around here.

    The “war is a drug” quote at the beginning of the movie is not a “mantra” for the movie, it just happens to tie in. If you had read the Chris Hedges book “War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning” you would know the quote and know that it’s taken a bit out of context. Read that book THEN come back and watch this movie and you might have yourself a pretty different view of it, not that the movie is based on that book, but it givs you a lot more perspective on modern conflict.

    I have no problem with the movie being set in a modern context like a previous poster because I think it’s important for people to see that it’s not all flagwaving bullshit. While this movie is not the most accurate representation of war, or the roles that people play in battle, it is important to give people the perspective necessary to get that wars don’t end when someone walks off the battlefield.

    The conceit of this article is that you had a couple of ideas about the overarching ideas and then in the end you simply “think” you are on to something. You really should have watched the movie a couple more times and made a more coherent article than say some interesting (if not a bit too “read into”) things at the beginning and then peter out at the end when you kind of talk yourself into a corner.

  • Stan

    Yikes…It was going so well until this

    “The same could be said for one scene where James cuts the detonator to one bomb he finds buried in the desert, and then realizes it’s just one piece of a massive system of bombs in the same region. This seems to me that its a representation of the structure of our terrorist enemies, and how we thought we had one threat, then realized it was spread out in a network more vast than we could have imagined.”

    Earlier you indicate that the scene in the professors house represents mistaken identity in leading up to the Iraq war, what then does the multiple IED scene represent? A complex terror network in Iraq? I think you just contradicted yourself…Proof read if you’re going to spew left talking points.

    Oh, and don’t be afraid of using periods. The run on sentences were classic!

  • UltraMarine1302

    I’m neutral about your review and the comments following. However, another piece of the movie for you to consider is the arrogance of the Colonel during the scene where Sgt. James finds the local dead boy. The Colonel approaches a group of Iraqi’s, bowing down from his superior position and “giving” them a moment of his time. When, in a friendly manner he asks them to leave (for their own good) and they don’t comply he then reacts with mounting anger culminating with gunshots as warning. They leave and he get’s blown up.

    As a combatant commander there are several take-aways I noticed. First, anyone above company command shouldn’t really be out doing ground work. I understand this is just a movie and this portion of it was to tell a story but, secure your area of operations. Don’t swagger in and believe your invicible because of your armor, your guns, etc. An explosion can defeat anything we can put on the ground and if it doesn’t do it the first time any follow-up will.

    To dispell a few myths (from a Marine’s POV), this movie is rife with “cowboy” attitudes. Watch the movie again and notice to absolute autonmy the main characters have i.e., they are alone and unafraid in almost every scene outside the wire and have almost no oversight. This autonmy would be fine if the characters would give the impression to the viewer that they were well-trained and have a thorough understanding of Rules of Engagement and Escalation of Force. Also, NO ONE goes out by themselves even if there is an Iraqi whorehouse (which I’m sure there isn’t, Western Values do not apply in the Middle-East). The sniper-scene was laughable, one lone truck with EOD isn’t going out by itself to help British Mercs. That scene would have been more accurate with a Platoon of Heavy Infantry escorting EOD and when the sniper started his ugly business you would have seen an forward observer marking the building then a smart-bomb plastering it. The scene where the soldiers abandoned their truck to hide in a small enclosed explosion friendly area is just laughable. However, the most painful one to watch was the Colonel telling his medic that the insurgent “Isn’t going to make it.” The medic, all the soldiers standing by, any junior officer or NCO should have stood up and said, “No.” But, this is the stuff the American public is fed either by movies or the few atrocities with loads of media coverage.

    Also, 99% of the time when an IED is discovered it’s just blown up in place saving everyone the effort and drama.

  • http://paul@unrealitymag.com Paul Tassi

    @Justin

    Well bah, humbug to you too.

    What would rewatching the movie three more times have done? These are conclusions I’ve drawn from my viewings so I have to say I “think” that’s what was being expressed, as I’m not going to be so bold to claim I for sure “know” what the film’s intentions were. The innocent Iraqi forced to carry a suicide bomb could be a representation of the burden the innocent citizens of the middle east carry as a result of their violent minorities who thrust military action upon them. Or it could not be, who knows? These are just observations.

    But the fact is I can’t come up with an allegory for every single scene, but in a lot of the major moments of the movie, these parallels jumped out at me. And so I wrote them down.

    And really, you think I should read an entire book that contains the movie’s opening quote before I can use it in my article? Hellooo! Can you even see me way down here from your ivory tower? Good lord. I appreciate your readership, but you should take a look around at what kind of site this is and take things a little less seriously.

  • http://paul@unrealitymag.com Paul Tassi

    @Stan

    I can say that the film is saying Iraq was the wrong country to invade, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an elaborate network of people in the country trying to kill us. It also speaks to the larger “war on terror” where we initially thought we were fighting just some enemy we could bomb once and be done with it, and it’s turned out to be a much harder and longer fight than we anticipated.

    The “leftist talking points” I’m drawing out of the film are what I observed, and I’m saying I believe they reflect the politics of the writer/director when we previously had asserted there was no political slant to film.

  • Mason

    Well Paul, if it means anything, I loved your analysis.

  • Chris

    I just saw this film for the first time over the weekend, and your analysis has given me a lot to think about. Thanks.

  • Rob Jacob

    Interesting take – but me think you think to much. I see the same scenes as a collection of stories told to the screenwriter by military correspondence. Too simple?

  • Marsh

    Um, you do realize we’ve already won in Iraq, right? We’ve been sitting on a victory in that conflict as far back as 2007 when sectarian violence and the insurgency itself plummeted to almost non-existence thanks to the Bush backed troop surge. The insurgency is all but dead and the democratically elected Iraqi government is much too powerful to be overthrown at this time. There’s still the risk of sectarian violence erupting again due to the racist and islamist nature of that region but, knock on wood, it hasn’t happened again.

    I also have to take issue with the very premise of your view that our efforts during the Iraq War were a mistake and those of us who supported revolutionary regime change in Iraq are the ones who have the need to explain ourselves and to justify our positions. Where do you so-called anti-war types even begin to get on your high horse and declare yourselves morally superior to people who supported the policy of regime change in Iraq? Let’s take the time to imagine what would have resulted had the U.S. government heeded your council shall we?

    In the interest of saving time let’s start with the first Gulf War at the earliest. Saddam Hussein would be the owner and occupier of Kuwait. That country, which was a sovreign arab and muslim state and a member of the arab league and the United Nations, would simply no longer exist today, but would rather be under Saddam’s iron fist. And with the huge amount of excess wealth that he would have received from stealing a huge percentage of the worlds oil supply, we now know he was planning to use those funds to further advance his WMD programs (according to post-war investigations mind you) and to fuel his war machine for the lovely purposes of invading and occupying even more nations in the region.

    Here’s what else would have happend: All of the muslims in south eastern Europe would now be ethnically cleansed from the entire continent. Something which the islamofascists, who accuse us of being “Zionist Crusaders” with the goal of destroying islam, convientently forget. Not to mention that the taliban would still be in control of Afghanistan and al queda would still be their guests, and Saddam with his deranegd crime family and his regime of henchmen would still be in power in Iraq and terrorizing an oppressed people in a situation that can only best be described as a mass grave below ground and a concentration camp above ground.

    Now if I had that record I’d be EXTREMELY modest. I wouldn’t be demanding explanations from those of us who advocate that it’s about time that we stop this continual appeasment of racist, totalitarian, barabric and imperialist tyranical regimes. And that we didn’t allow the same kinds of failings that were occuring in Iraq like those that took place in Ruwanda, Afghanistan, Bosnia, etc. The supporters of revolutionary regime change in Iraq take pride in our positions thank you very much. We especially take tremendous pride in our our Kurdish and Shi’ite Iraqi friends who took part in that struggle to save themselves from genocide and to establish a thriving free press and democracy based on the rule of law.

    Oh, and did I forget to mention that the anti-war left heartlessly and unforgivably wanted us to pull out of Iraq years ago even though they had been told time and time again by experts on the ground that it would have lead to civil war and genocide? I think even Obama made a statement saying preventing genocide in Iraq wasn’t a good enough reason to keep U.S. troops stationed there. Not to mention the anti-war left’s support for continued sanctions on Iraq which were literally starving millions of civilians to death as their insane dictator built himself dozens of lavish palaces all across ancient Mesopotamia.

    You should be ashamed of yourselves. Not lecturing the rest of us on our support for arab and muslim democracy.

  • Jeff

    I liked your take on the film. I wonder if the writter or director will comment on their meanings?

  • IFailedMath

    @Marsh

    Holy F_cking Sh_t…. Where does one begin? Do me a favor and look up the term ‘historical context’. Or you know what? Lets keep it simple, just look up the word ‘history’ in the dictionary.

    Ok first of all there’s this little place called Iran (they serve a good joojeh kabab). Now if I remember correctly, Iran and Iraq had a little lovers quarrel about oh, 30 years ago? Iraq thought they were the cock of the walk, and decided to go mess with Iran, when Iran was re-arranging the furniture no less! Well, it turns out Iraq was cock of nothing. Iran messed Iraq’s sh_t up. Big Time. (For right now lets ignore what ol’ Rummy was up to…) So Iran remained top dog in the middle east. Lets FF about 10 years? So Iraq is getting all itchy and they gotta scratch it. So the roll right in to little defenseless Kuwait. Not cool Iraq, not cool. (Again lets ignore that all the advanced weaponry and tactics came from….. Who? Damn I forgot… oh well) Well now what? Let’s say we treated Kuwait like our good friends the British and told them to suck it. So Iraq feels all big and bad because they blew down the house of hay. Well here we go again… Eventually Iran would have to give another beat down. There’s no jews chance in Iran that Iran would let it’s little brother call the shots. So Iraq was NEVER a problem.

    Ok Secondly what they hell were you you high on when you came up with this jem? “All of the muslims in south eastern Europe would now be ethnically cleansed from the entire continent.” We all know Turkey has its problems (it’s too dry, Ba-Zing!), and one of the big ones is balancing it-self amongst its many ethnicities. Turkey would love nothing more than to roll into Iraq and mess sh_t up for the Kurds (and they have). I said earlier that Iraq is cock of nothing, but at least they’re not Turkey. Because we crashed the party, Turkey said why not us too? So since we’ve been there, they’ve been sending commando raids into Iraq to…. can you guess?…. ETHNICALLY CLEANSE the area of Kurds :-O shock and awe!!! Remember now, this is with a WEAKENED Iraq, not an emboldened Iraq. (for all you smarty pants out there, yes I am well aware of how ol’ Saddam felt). If you were in a bar, and I came up and just kicked the sh_t out of your knee, you’d hit the floor and crawl away. But more importantly the space where you were standing would open up, and quickly be taken up by someone, quite possibly less cool than you :-(, just like a vacuum! Science is fun! Weakening regional powers is rarely (i.e. never) a good idea.

    Oppressive Regime? Starving Civilians? Mass Graves? Oil Profits Used Maliciously? Why are you bringing up Saudi Arabia? How dare you sir. They are our allies! Oh wait a minute….

    Now I can clearly see that you’re not a smart man, so please allow me to explain how an argument works: Someone (lets call them party A) says something… We’ll go with “Marsh’s mom is a whore” Now someone else (lets call them party B) retorts “no she is not” Who has to provide the proof? Obviously party A. The positive (or rather that which is to be acted upon) is charged with the burden of proof. So if you want a hooker to put you in a diaper, and call you an ignorant slut it is up to YOU to sell it. If you want to strap on a gun and go play cowboy, people are going to (rightly) expect a reason why. Even if the reason is valid, or obvious you still have to present it.

    Lastly just because you THINK someone said something doesn’t necessarily make it true. Like I’m pretty sure I heard someone say you like to munch on scat… But sadly without empirical evidence it’s just libel.

    p.s. What about Darfur? oh that’s right it’s not tactically or resourcefully significant…. Marsh you are what is wrong with this world. Think then act. Repeat as necessary.

  • FrankenPC

    Hurt locker passed my acid test: re-playability. I’ve seen it five times and it’s still not boring. It kind of reminds me of Aliens. There were crazy plot holes in that movie but I can never get enough of it.

  • nixon

    LOL @ all these historical retards farting into a fan and enjoying their own stench. It’s just a fucking movie. AMERICA FUCK YEAH, n’uff said.

  • eggnostriva

    God bless America. I find most of these comments strange, coming from a non American viewpoint. This is a fairly poor war movie, and cant get close to black hawk down. The navel gazing that originated this blog, is not wrong. Most decent films need to work on many levels, and I think this one just punches you in the face with the fucking obvious. Still it was good not to see Avatar get best film / director.

  • Slone

    It would be meant. Bigalow was married to James Cameron, who imbues his films with subtext. It stands to reason Bigalow would too. My problem with the film is that it is not subtle enough! When you watch, for example, a Stanley Kubrick film, you just sense there is a hell of a lot more going on than meets the eye. With this film, there’s not that underlying current. If it wasn’t an Oscar winner, I wouldn’t give this film another thought. I am guessing it should have hidden meaning, as it was so well regarded at the time, but I am not sure. I’m not convinced. It’s a good film, no doubt, but I don’t think it is nearly as clever as it wants to be.

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