Hurt Locker, The (2009)

Rated: R for war violence and language.
Length: 131 minutes
Grade: ADAA=A
Budget: $11 million
Box Office: $16 million (13 U.S., 3 Intl.)

Written by: Mark Boal (In the Valley of Elah)
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow (Mission Zero, K-19 The Widowmaker, Weight of Water, Point Break, Blue Steel, and the sci-fi classic Strange Days)
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty, with appearances by Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, and Evaneline Lilly.

Set in present day Iraq, this is the story of the men of EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal--the Army’s bomb squad) when their leader is replaced by a far more experienced and aggressive commander nearing the end of their duty tour.

Entertainment Value: A
If you know that Bigelow is married to James Cameron and that Boal wrote In the Valley of Elah, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect here. It’s a psychologically honest war movie with just enough of the right sort of tension to make you appreciate the situation and people being explored. This movie has made loads of top 10 lists for 2009 with a ludicrously high 97% positive rating from Rotten Tomatoes. Why, then, did it only make $16 million? Well, it isn’t because it’s a lying piece of anti-war propaganda. The woman who rented it to me said that her husband, an EOD man himself, loved it. I think the reason it failed at the box office is because of two things: marketing and the fact that it stubbornly refuses to give Americans what they want in their war movies: Rambo. Many are calling it the best film on the Iraq war, and having seen most of them, I’d have to agree.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity B, Violence D, Language D
The characters drink and get drunk several times. They swear as much as you might expect in a war movie. There are some sex-related jokes, but no other sexuality to speak of. Violence is the main concern, and the war violence is very realistic, including people being killed on screen by bombs and gunfire and several images of bloody bodies or body parts. This is quite properly rated R, but I think R-15 is probably right with adult supervision. Actually, the movies advertized on the DVD are probably more risqué than the movie itself.

Significant Content: A
The movie opens with it’s one and only main point, a quote by someone named Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” War is chaotic. War forces people to find a way to think about the meaning of life and deal with the fear of death. The feeling of responsibility for the lives of others and yourself is a tremendous burden to bear. Different people handle all these things very differently, some by denial, some by avoidance, some by rational justification, and some by simply embracing the chaos of it all. When people sign up for repeat tours, it might be because they value the endeavor, but it also might be because they find the experience of war so novel and enjoyable that nothing else is satisfying to them anymore. There are more reasons than the obvious ones why families are torn apart by warfare.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
First, know that Boal was writing this after having been an embedded reporter with just such a unit in Iraq. So, as you would expect, the triumph here is in bringing an overpowering sense of realism to the screen, showing life in the EOD rather than telling it. In fact, the lack of much dialogue is itself one clear artistic device in this movie. Some Iraq war movies leave you wishing there was something to talk about. Others leave you wishing the movie itself hadn’t already said everything so obviously. This is a movie which will make you sit and think…and think…and talk a little…and then think some more. Sometimes when I see a great movie that did poorly at the box office (or a mediocre one that did quite well), I’m embarrassed by my fellow American movie consumers. This is one of those times.

Discussion Questions:
~What does it mean to say war is a drug? Do you believe this is ever true? Do you believe it is always true? How might many of the things we know about returning veterans fit an addiction/withdrawl paradigm?
~Why might a returning veteran feel like he no longer has the opportunity to be fully utilized as a man and with his skills? Is this a meaningfully different thing to say than to call war an addiction?
~If you thought that soldiers actually enjoyed or reveled in what they were doing, how would that change your tendency to think of them as heroes doing a task you would never want to do? Does it diminish your admiration for them if you imagine them liking what they do? Does it change your notions about their service being a sacrifice if this is true? Does it seem weird to want someone to hate what he does?
~If you had to say exactly why SSgt. James behaves as he does, how would you describe it? What is his attitude toward the danger of dying? Having survived so many bombs, what else is there in the world to scare him? How are both numbness and terror dangerous responses to real danger? Would you describe him as reckless or powerful?
~Discuss some of the coping mechanisms used by the various soldiers in the unit. Is being missed by family a meaningful thing to judge your life by? If God is love and love is therefore the central nature of the universe, does this seem more like a Christian concept?
~Why do you think this movie did so poorly at the box office? Is it because Americans don’t want to really think about the implications of what this movie has to say? What would it say about someone who supports the war in Iraq and the American military but does not value seeing this movie?
~Why does the DVD kid bother SSgt. James so much? Discuss his reaction to this kid compared to how others treat him.
~Is there a difference between SSgt. James and Ralph Fiennes’s character (the contractor team leader)? Is there a reason for their different fates?
~If idolatry is loving anything other than God, what does this movie have to say about idolatry? Is SSgt. James different from the rest of us, or is he just more honest and self-knowing than we are?
~Who in this movie is sane or the most sane? Is anyone insane?
Poignant or memorable scenes:
~SSgt. James pulling the seven interconnected bombs out of the rubble.
~SSgt. James’s handling of the car bomb. Why does he behave as he does?
~Col. Cambridge’s encounter with the locals. How would Ssgt. James have handled this differently?
~SSgt. James shopping with his wife in the grocery store. Does this scene affect the way you feel about American prosperity? Why is the contrast so absurd? What do you imagine going on in his mind? What must it be like for a returning veteran?
~SSgt. James’s conversation with his toddler son through the end of the movie.

Overall Grade: A
If you want a movie to condemn war or to celebrate it, you’re looking in the wrong place. But if you want to understand war, here you go.

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