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March 01st 2010 print

Philippa Martyr

Bombs, Away

There is a staggering gulf between Western good intentions, albeit ham-fisted, and a local world view of fatalism, neglect and corruption which has pervaded an entire region for centuries. The Hurt Locker manages to show this without a single word of pontification.

The ‘war is hell’ genre of movies is nothing new, but don’t let that put you off The Hurt Locker. Also, don’t get sucked into New Idea-level discussions of Team Bigelow versus Team Cameron (ex-husband and wife) in the great Oscars faceoff. Equally, if you think this is going to be an anti-Iraq-war tirade, you will be wrong again. 

The Hurt Locker is, quite simply, a very good film indeed. It is well made; it is well-structured, exciting, and plausible. (Unless you’re an ex-serviceman from that particular theatre of war, of course, and they have been vocal in their criticism of the technical mistakes in the movie). However, unlike the ex-Mr Bigelow’s rival anti-war flick, Avatar, The Hurt Locker remains plausible on a deeper human level. The characters, all of them, have depth, development, and plenty of subtlety. It deals with a complex culture-clash in a sensitive and nuanced way. It’s a thinker movie: if it weren’t, then we could send in, say, Bruce Willis or Matt Damon, or possibly Barack Obama, to save everyone. (Pace Mr Damon; he’s in Green Zone just at present and can’t make it over to defuse any bombs. Bruce Willis is too old, so I’d like to know what Barack’s excuse is.) 

Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is an Iraqi-deployed unit’s new bomb disposal technician. Guy Pearce in a startling cameo was the original bomb disposer; no prizes for guessing what happens to him in the first five minutes of the movie. At first, James seems an ideal soldier – mentally resilient, disciplined, and with a connoisseur’s interest in his subject. By contrast, characters like the marvellous Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and the corn-fed boy Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) seem fragile, over-emotional and full of doubt. Eldridge has sessions with the company psychiatrist, Dr Cambridge, a masterfully banal performance by Christian Camargo. I did try to find out if Bigelow is a Scientologist; it might account for Cambridge’s overly-exciting exit from this movie. 

Thus far, a straightforward war movie about resilience and survival. We even bump into Ralph Fiennes as a languidly-spoken ‘contractor’ with a couple of hostages in tow with bags (and substantial prices) on their heads. It’s only as the film develops that you realise – to your considerable horror – that the confused Sanborn is the sanest man in the whole movie, and that Eldridge’s ultimately shattered leg is going to be his salvation, because it will get him out of the war zone. James, on the other hand, is a deadly and incurable trauma victim – a walking, talking zombie; an adrenalin junkie whose habit will endanger the lives of all those who have to work with him. 

The hatred of the local people for the invaders, and for each other, is patent and potent. Local well-dressed and well-fed men with posh camcorders watch the bomb disposal units at work while garbage lines their own streets; schools have been turned into insurgent bomb factories; a child is murdered and stuffed with explosives, and left lying as a ‘body bomb’. In the film’s most terrible scene, a suicide bomber recants and begs for help from the Americans, but has been encased in a hardened-steel padlocked waistcoat of explosives, with a timer. James tries to release him, and cannot. 

This is the most valuable metaphor for the whole US experience in Iraq: people who can do that to one of their own are in fact beyond help, and indeed it is questionable whether innocent lives should be wasted in such a futile exercise. I can understand seizing oil fields, rendering them impregnable and annihilating the population: this is the sort of thing the former Soviet Union was so good at, and at which the US fails so dismally because they have these idiotic ideas about providing sanitation, education, training, decent roads and a fighting chance for the locals. 

There is a staggering gulf between Western good intentions, albeit ham-fisted, and a local world view of fatalism, neglect and corruption which has pervaded an entire region for centuries. The Hurt Locker manages to show this without a single word of pontification. This film – and Syriana, et hoc genus omne – simply make me want to build a large wall around the whole of the Middle East, seal the last brick in place and walk away.