Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Whore Houses & Soccer Stars: The Hurt Locker

Why do this now?
Besides my love of fabulous films, as 2010's Best Picture of the Year, The Hurt Locker is not only in the mind of a film maker like Ben Affleck, releasing his Argo Friday, but as well, in the minds of viewers during films such as Expendables 2, Taken 2 and potentially Skyfall; because The Hurt Locker is by far the most complete statement of the War on Terror, and what it has done to us as a country, and the brave soldiers fighting, we can't help but somehow mentally reference the film that visually gave us the the metaphor of the Middle East as a bomb, and the costs of disarming it. Whether we realize it or not, The Hurt Locker provided us with an education regarding the war we are fighting, who we are fighting, and how they are fighting us back, and--most of all--when we see real-life images of anti-American protests in the Middle East, we seek solace in knowledge, specifically that knowledge of the war  which has come to us through this film.
With the opening quote, "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug," the second half of the quote, "for war is a drug," is broken away and left lingering as its own statement on the screen for viewers' meditation (War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, 2002, Chris Hedges). Does this automatically make The Hurt Locker an anti-war film? No. There are too many elements of undecidability to make a definite statement, which means, more than most films, The Hurt Locker aptly mirrors what the audience all ready believes about war and solidifies, rather than converts, the viewers' perception about what war is (whether it's a drug or not).
It does several things well, and one of those things is inversion: whereas the big star usually survives the film and takes the lead as the hero, both "big stars" of the film, Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce, have only one scene and die in that scene, shifting the binary scales to the "unknown actors" and giving them the stage. It is possible, as numerous other interpretations of the film, that one can see that as a statement of international politics, i.e., the big players, such as the US and Great Britain, are going to have "regulated roles" in the future of global politics, while leaders heretofore unknown will take the center stage and save the day. Again, another liberal, anti-American way to view the opening scene with Staff Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce) is that the American Army sends out a wagon with disarming explosives and the wheel falls off, suggesting that the entire Army is a "flat tire." If you are a liberal, that is something you would pick up on as a reason for being against the war, you despise the military and the broken wagon symbolizes the "broken vehicle" of war and American power; on the other hand, if you are like me, and believe in the honor and dignity of our soldiers, and the incalculable sacrifices they (and their families) make for the safety of the country and the world, you might see a brave soldier going to do his duty regardless of the risk involved to protect innocent people in the path of the explosion because he is man enough to do it.
When we first meet William James (Jeremy Renner) he plays loud rock music and even though the musical genres are different, it reminded me of Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) playing Ride Of the Valkyries after a napalm strike in Apocalypse Now. This, along with Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) calling James "red-neck trailer trash," can be taken as a visual image on Teddy Roosevelt era foreign policy and America becoming a super-power on the world stage. The argument is, the American military is only as good as its soldiers, and liberals can easily see James being their poster child for doing away with the military, while conservatives, such as myself, can site the expertise in James' fulfilling his duty fearlessly and his relationship with little Beckham as typical of military personnel and why they, as individuals and representatives of America, make such an important difference wherever they are called to serve.
As usual, a mature female symbolizes the motherland, America, and James' complex relationship with his wife/ex-wife reflects Bigelow's view of the military and the homeland it protects. Her coldness and indifference to his experiences in war can be taken as an example of how we should act towards the mission of the War on Terror, but it can be a chilling lesson of what not to do and how not to act. Why does James seem to say he loves disarming bombs more than his wife/ex-wife and son? Well, if you were in a "relationship" with her, would you be fulfilled? There is really no other way to describe it but her "interior poverty" of love and nurturing lacking to aid James' healing from his war wounds perpetuating his emotional and psychological damage, so, for the sake of his sanity, it's easier to be in a war that is exterior to you, than to be stuck in a war inside you from which you can't escape. Its not that James doesn't love her and his son, but the "home front" is a losing battle for him and to survive, he needs to be able to have a shot at overcoming his battles.
While we experience intense and thrilling sequences of James disarming bombs and "saving the day," it's the bombs he can't disarm that liberals see as indicative of flaws embedded within American foreign policy: for example, when Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) gets shot in the leg and has to go "to the hurt locker," (off duty due to injury), Eldridge "explodes" at James for his reckless need for an adrenaline rush which liberals would certainly seize upon as using war as a drug which brings only harm and damage to all. On the other hand, we can see Eldridge as a soldier psychologically troubled by the demands of combat and his "explosion" at James is really the anger and guilt transference within himself onto a scapegoat.
The other bomb James can't disarm is the vest of the forced suicide bomber: "There are too many bombs, there are too many wires!" Given the man has four children, we can look at him symbolically as being an elder or "founding father" of the country who has been forced into this role of suicide bomber with re-enforced steel locking him into the vest, and that vest symbolizes the bombs waiting to go off throughout the Middle East they themselves are responsible for (including religious powder kegs). Seeing this imagery, understanding this Gordian Knot, do we leave the powder kegs unattended, as liberals would have it, or do we make the best attempts we can at disarming it? Because of your politics and your morals, you all ready have your opinion formulated when you watch this scene, but the scene "arms you" with the reasons you believe what you believe.
The box of things that almost killed him could be a sign of why James went into bomb disarmament: everything else in his life was exploding (like his relationship with his girlfriend/wife/ex-wife) so he transfers the emotional and psychological bombs in his life to the real bombs he learned how to disarm because that provides a sense of control on the battlefield he doesn't have in his inter-personal relationships.
What is most likable about James (besides his incredible confidence level when it comes to disarming the bombs) is his interactions with the young boy who wants to be called Beckham. This creates an interesting situation because, whether or not he actually wants to grow up to be a professional soccer player, he has identified himself with that role, creating a dual identity for himself so that, when James mis-identifies the dead boy with the body bomb as Beckham, it reveals James' own inner-psychology and what he thinks of the situation in the War. The boy with the body bomb doesn't look anything like Beckham, but just as Eldridge does some psychological transference later in the film, James does it now: he mistakens the boy with the body bomb for Beckham because he sees Beckham "exploding" as he gets older. Whether it's some personal defect in the boy, or the situation the boy is in where he is growing up is not clear but it doesn't have to be. It could also be James' fatalism that, since he has bonded with the boy and his personal relationships haven't worked out, Beckham--like everyone else in his life--is going to "explode" on him and that is why James actually explodes on Beckham later to pre-empt "losing" Beckham's friendship twice (the first time being with the young boy with the body bomb).
Technically, "the hurt locker" is a term used to describe when someone has been put on the injured list and is out of active duty; we could easily identify all kinds of "hurt lockers" in the film. We know Eldridge is, technically, but is Sanborn, as we see him in his pain after Thompson's death? How often do we see James experiencing pain in the film? Is the whole country of Afghanistan in "the hurt locker?" What about all of America? Locating the hurt locker(s) in the film, and who belongs there or who has ended up there, and what was the cause?
Another important point about Beckham is the relationship to personal fulfillment and the realization of the American Dream for everyone. David Beckham typifies a person who has skill and talent, works hard and achieves--not only success--but also the personal enjoyment of doing what one does best. This is another way in which Beckham is a dual personality since he works harder at selling cheap, pirated DVDs instead of playing soccer. The Hurt Locker seems to offer the viewer a choice: either we can see Beckham as a future filled with potential and promise, or he's going to rip us off.
More revealing than possibly any other moment of the film is when James goes on his solo mission to find out what happened to Beckham (after mis-identifying him) and ends up at the house of Dr. Nabil; when James returns to base, he tells a soldier he was at a whore house. Does James lie about where , was? No, I don't think so. Psychologically, when Dr. Nabil realizes he is there, Nabil is kind and welcoming then his wife comes out and starts getting hysterical; in terms of policy, we can see this as being an accurate depiction of how some countries in the Middle East seem to be welcoming us one minute, and then getting wild and protesting the next. The question is, how exactly does James see the country prostituting itself? By pretending to like us when it really wants us to get out, or by really wanting us there to help maintain order but it prostitutes itself to hysteria and irrationality? 
This is a bit of a stretch, however, I think it is something to consider: the bomb suits Thompson and James wear, and how they move in them, resembles--to me--the Apollo astronauts moon suits when they first landed on the lunar surface, winning the Cold War era's Space Race. Is this a legitimate interpretation? Given technological dominance propelling America ahead of other countries during that historical period, and the global leadership position we have taken because of technological superiority in innovation, yes, we can say that we have a duty--as international leaders--to "diffuse the bombs" of regional instability the best we can for the safety of the world. Liberals, on the other hand, can scoff and claim that we are no longer that country and, even if we were, we would have no right making such an ethnocentric boast and "assume" we are best to lead the world; what egomaniacs, they would think.
 In conclusion, we can't conclude: the film challenges us on every level, and while I have only scratched the surface, I hope it will help you in your engagement with the film and foreign policy. Currently, President Obama has accused Romney of wanting a "chest-pounding" and "sabre rattling" foreign policy
in relation to the attacks on the US Consulate in Libya. Since James can stand-in for that kind of American machismo, The Hurt Locker could be a timely lesson for all of us regarding the direction we think foreign policy should take and why. War can be a drug, but war can also be medicinal and teach us  what we have done in the past and why we have done what we have done and make us into better Americans and better people.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner