Tonight the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will likely bestow the “Best Picture” award on Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”, a film about a United States Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in the Iraq War, circa late 2004. The fact that (should voting go as expected) “The Hurt Locker” will be named “Best Picture” doesn’t much bother from me from an artistic standpoint – I’ve long recognized that the Oscars are more about marketing than truly awarding the so-called best movie, actress, screenplay etc. This year’s award will hold even less prestige in my eyes as the field of nominees has doubled from five to ten in a naked ploy that has diluted the field from Sunny D levels to Orange Drink.
No, my problem with “The Hurt Locker” being named “best picture” is the additional legitimacy and exposure the award will bring for the film and “anti-war” films of its ilk.
There is some debate with regard to whether “The Hurt Locker” does in fact qualify as an “anti-war” film. Some suggest that it is a straight-up action film or thriller that merely seeks to create an “accurate” depiction of the Iraq war without actually commenting on it.
To me, that’s a bunch on nonsense.
It is impossible to make a movie set during any war without commenting on it in some way – even implicitly. Mark Boal’s script does just that in its presentation of the Iraq War. This is evident in two key ways: the simplistic presentation of the insurgency and the moral dilemmas faced by Jeremy Renner’s explosive ordnance disposal unit.
First, the insurgency is painted rather with rather broad strokes of black. The insurgents are portrayed as opportunistic, draconian and amoral – in short, pure evil. While this wouldn’t be an inaccurate description of the insurgents led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which he led, it is an altogether simplistic presentation of the insurgency as a whole which is far from homogenous and has been made up of nationalists, criminals, and yes, religious zealots. Depicting the insurgency in almost soley Rumsfeld/Hiller terms is inaccurate, though it certainly plays an important role in directing the audience’s emotional reaction in the terms they seek.
Which brings me to the second, related point, the presentation of the American EOD team as having flawed, but basically good moral character’s. The three members of Renner’s EOD team are contrasted with the insurgency in the sense that despite the constant fear of being unable to distinguish between friend and foe in their fight against an opponent that uses asymmetrical means to confront their presence, they have a basic concern for Iraqi society. They constantly sacrifice their own personal safety when confronting threatening situations for the better possible outcome and more explicitly, Renner’s character develops a paternal relationship with a young Iraqi merchant, a relationship that the movie shows in a very graphic way that the insurgents would never have.
Both of these points are central to the near Manichean depiction of the American military and the insurgents that it is facing. Admittedly, the presentation isn’t completely black and white as there. The protagonist, Sergeant First Class Will James, proves to be fearless to the point of recklessness, though he, and his teammates, maintain a strong moral chore. Throughout the movie we learn how each character’s nerves are shattered by the pressures of the choices they have to make (is that person in their crosshairs an innocent person making a phone call or detonating a bomb?). We are fooled to some degree by the carefree attitude of Renner’s character until the epilogue when we learn that he too has been broken in a sense that was maybe not as overtly obvious as his teammates. By the concluding shot it is clear that, unlike his teammates, Renner’s character has lost pretty much all touch with his own humanity because of his zealous approach to the war. The ending, in my view, is quite pessimistic and displays the completion of the protagonist’s transformation to a soulless figure, despite the filmmaker’s odd choice to score the scene with celebratory thrashing power chords.
Whether the audience is left admiring the character’s final choice (I didn’t) or lamenting it, the end conclusion is the same: Sgt. Will James is meant to be regarded as a hero. And this is my main problem with the film, and “anti-war” films in general. Jingoistic, pro-war films of the John Wayne variety tend to be naked propaganda pieces with a blunt nationalistic message. Since the Vietnam War, they’ve also been a rare breed as their message would not resonate nearly as well with the more skeptical modern public that doesn’t believe in the existence of such one-dimensional heroes anymore.
On the otherhand, “anti-war” films create a similar, no less heroic image of the modern fighting man through depicting the complexities he faces. The audience is meant to have more admiration for the protagonists of modern war films because of the increasingly horrific presentations of the conditions that they face and their willingness to confront those conditions. In the case of Sgt. James’ partners, Sgt. Sanborn and Specialist Eldridge, we admire the soldiers more because, unlike John Wayne, they have real fear yet perservere. More than that we forgive the seemingly immoral decisions that they make and the often rapid dehumanization of the protagonists (like Sgt James) because of the morally ambiguous atmosphere they find themselves in. Anti-war films since the Vietnam era have been constantly playing with this neo-Clauswitzian theme that victory in war requires a certain moral laxity on the part of those who fight it and they should therefore be pitied rather than bemoaned for their participation. There is, however, a marked difference between pitying a subject and glorifying them.
In the end, I feel that “anti-war” movies, by sanctifying soldiers, merely reinforce a culture that makes war permissible. I fear that this feeling, rather than the technical feats and the visceral experience, will be the lingering impact of a Best Picture win by “The Hurt Locker”.