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.
World War I, largely seen as mass carnage with no high purpose, inspired films fiercely antiwar – “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Big Parade,” “Wings,” “Dawn Patrol.” By contrast, World War II, seen as a necessary call to arms against an enemy bent on global domination, produced films reflecting that high purpose while underscoring combat’s hellishness – “They Were Expendable,” “Battleground,” “Twelve O’Clock High,” “The Best Years of Our Lives.” With Vietnam, widely seen as a bad war, Hollywood reverted to a fiercely antiwar stance – “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” and “Coming Home.”
Moreover, the characters portrayed in these films possessed a moral compass of some sort, which induced nausea in them about the act of killing they were forced to engage in, while also making them worthy for us to root for. Losing a grip on that compass is the Colonel Kilgore character in "Apocalypse Now," who exulted in “the smell of napalm in the morning.”
But “The Hurt Locker,” far from being antiwar, and despite the filmmakers’ professed dedication to our troops in Iraq, finally nets out as pro-war. Horrifying proof of this war-love is the ending, when Will, unable to connect to his wife and infant son back in the States, emotionally and morally vacant, mutely returns to Iraq for another tour of duty, another adrenalin fix of detonating bombs. The bottom line: War is Will’s only option, one that sooner or later will kill him – which, it is clear, is the end he seeks. For Will is a walking suicide, and so, it would seem, is his hurt locker of a culture. What a pity that Hollywood, in voting it Best Picture, was blind to the film’s death-loving heart, but then, so were many critics, a culture’s ostensible gatekeepers.
Instructive at this juncture is the prophetic work of the great Greek dramatist Euripides, specifically his tragedy “The Trojan Women.”
Writing of Greece’s sacking of Troy, an event by then 800 years in the past, Euripides sought to stir his countrymen to the nation- and soul-destroying perils of Greece’s resurgent militarism. From first to last, the play articulates the miseries that war visits on both conquered and conquerer, citing especially the hubris of the conquerer and warning: “How are ye blind,/ Ye treaders down of cities, ye that cast/ Temples to desolation, and lay waste
/ Tombs, the untrodden sanctuaries where lie/ The ancient dead, yourselves so soon to die!”
Moral weight clearly lies with the conquered, signaled by the play’s title and borne out in the suffering of the widowed women, who are assigned as concubines to the conquering generals. Cassandra’s curse leveled at the “winners” echoes Euripides’s brief: “To die in evil were the stain!” For all his valor, Euripides did not win his day’s Oscar, but met with such disdain from both the public and the ruling war factions that he exiled himself to Macedonia. Greece fell to Rome several generations later.
If America is to reverse its own unfolding tragedy, it will need to kick the suicidal habit of war. Thus the stories we tell ourselves will be key. Once upon a time, Hollywood, our preeminent storyteller, appealed to a high common denominator in telling our stories, of war and peace, life and love, but in recent decades, that denominator has been lowered. Yet, promisingly, there is a new yearning now in the American public for something higher – call it hope, change, “the upper air.”
Will Hollywood grease the skids down – or point the way up?
Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of the play “Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks” and is working on a play titled “Prodigal.” Her book, “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character,” was recently published. She blogs at Huffingtonpost.com.