Sometimes, we take war for granted. Between arguing about its inevitability and lack thereof, there is also the constant debate over wars’ similarities to previous engagements, the historical justifications, mistakes, and results of previously wars, and the analysis of wars’ evolution through theory, technology, and influence. Since filmmaking arrived, a social relationship to war has changed as visions of the actual carnage have been brought back to viewers, a constant redefining of social relationships between cultures during wartime up to the infamous Desert Storm, the ultimate post-modern climax point of war AS entertainment, virtual reality, and institutional product wrapped up in full media exposure and alienating digitized distance. However, the essential thing people miss when they get caught up in these ideas is the point where regardless of whatever people believe about the “essential nature” of war or otherwise, and no matter how planned out the engagement from the military’s side, or the training of the military thereof, each war, unfortunately, is very different.
Iraq has provided filmmakers with another opportunity to bring up age-old questions about wars anew, but the relative failure of previous Iraq War films to stick, I believe, is because most of the new films are fundamentally structured around previously developed war films and their respective themes, meaning for the last seven years people have been desperately trying to turn Iraq into a visual desert-arena Vietnam. With a new arena, however, comes a new structure, and Bigelow actually points directly to the specific difficulties in this contemporary engagement. Choosing to relegate thematic statements to second-tier, Bigelow’s interest is in the arena itself, and the anxiety and fear of a core group of soldiers attempting to navigate a foreign maze of booby traps among a foreign civilization of nearly undecipherable motivations.
The Hurt Locker is a thriller structured with a classic horror trope: within the first five minutes, the film’s arguably biggest name star is killed off, and from there the audience is invited to guess at the rate of survival of the remaining cast. However, in most horror films the unknown revealed is the first step towards resolution and understanding of the “monster”, whereas in The Hurt Locker, the soldiers’ dawning understanding of the source of their conflict is met with uncertainty, indecision, and downright paranoia. James begins brash and under control, with enough experience to navigate the most web-like of demolitions, only to slowly fall apart as even the simplest relationships become a cross-confusion of static and misinterpretation. His impatience with radio communication at the beginning, in that regards, is significant: he goes into this engagement with no desire to understand, but only to do a mission. By the end, his own motivations and emotional addictions are in full question, and he is unable to remove his sense of mission from his own identity from the trauma of constant uncertainty.
As for the actual motivations of the Americans themselves, the movie is a little more straight-forward. Bigalow’s presentation of them is balanced basically because she lets them be selfish, kind, arrogant, and completely disturbed as the action goes along, rather than firmly placing any character into type from frame one. More importantly than tracing a specific character arc, Bigelow instead makes the movie a series of specific engagements, from IED set-ups to cross-sniper fire, from kidnapping to being kidnapped, and then formulates the characters’ relationships to each other from there. In each new “day” presented as the end of their service draws near is a new set-up for the characters to begin trying to understand again, both with the enemy and each other, and ultimately no clear standard of engagement is presented. This is exactly representative of the strenuous advance as it has been reported in Iraq, as each and every new day provides completely new conflicts for the soldiers to work out.