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'The Hurt Locker': Hollywood's unsettling view of the Iraq war

‘The Hurt Locker’ is said to be apolitical. But shouldn’t a movie about the Iraq war have a strong point of view?

By Carla Seaquist / March 29, 2010

Gig Harbor, Wash.

In the long campaign leading up to this year’s Academy Awards, Hollywood was applauding itself for embracing the “apolitical” Iraq war movie, “The Hurt Locker.” 

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That applause grew louder when, earlier this month, Hollywood voted it the Oscar for Best Picture, choosing it over the “commercial,” billion-dollar-earning, 3-D extravaganza “Avatar.” The purring heard since then is that Hollywood went for the serious, artistic choice.

But hold the applause and consider this: How can artists, especially ones who call themselves serious, not take a political point-of-view of a war that, unlike a “good” war like World War II, is a seriously “bad” one – one that was premised on an audacious lie (weapons of mass destruction), fomented by official fearmongering, made torture an instrument of US government policy, and has killed over 100,000 of the people that we presumed, uninvited, to liberate? 

For an artist to take an “apolitical” stance in relation to such a war, a war that tramples all over the moral line, is to surrender the title “artist.” 

That this bad war may eventually have a good outcome – the democracy we forcibly imposed may actually be taking hold, with Iraqis turning out in elections this month in numbers higher than those of many American elections – just adds to the layers of irony and moral complexity that only a serious artist can engage.

“The Hurt Locker,” being apolitical by design and focus, addresses none of these points. Rather than a wide-angle critique of the war and its validity, "The Hurt Locker" focuses narrowly on one bomb squad whose mission is to detonate myriad improvised explosive devices (IEDs) set by what seems the entire Iraqi population. 

The main character, Will, is a “wild man” who takes wildly crazy risks in already wildly dangerous work; rather than principles, he’s got attitude. The conflict, as if a war movie needed more, is: Will the “wild man” go too far and get his two buddies killed as well as himself? “Band of Brothers” this is not; the focus, like the culture that sent him, is narcissistic, driven by self, in this case a self addicted to danger. 

How much more compelling if, as Will is c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y extricating the wires of yet another bomb, he were to ask: “I’m risking vaporization for a war based on lies?” or “The guys at Abu Ghraib just lost this war for us, why am I doing this?” (The torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison broke in 2004, the year this film is set). That would have been daring filmmaking.  

Equally unsettling, the film’s view of Iraqis is condescending and dehumanizing, the saddest illustration being Will’s contact with an Iraqi teenager who sells porn videos, a line of work made legitimate by American pop culture. The extent of Will’s “relating” to the boy is to complain about the technical quality of his last purchase. What this presumes to say about both cultures is beyond sorrowful. 

In these depths, we are far from Hollywood’s long and proud tradition of war films that, if not explicitly antiwar, then portrayed war as a necessary hell. Everything depended on the filmmaker’s political point-of-view of the war in question.