|Jeremy Renner as |
Sergeant William James
in The Hurt Locker
This film is set in Iraq in 2004, and follows the experiences of a fictional namesake of this reviewer, Sergeant William James.
The sergeant’s and my combination of first name and surname is by no means uncommon; but its most famous possessor, who lived 1842-1910, was an American psychologist and pragmatist philosopher, and the brother of the novelist Henry.
In his Varieties of Religious Experience, he drew his famous distinction between the “healthy-minded”, who are mindlessly optimistic, and the “twice-born”, who have grappled with meaninglessness, fear or guilt.
Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner) is the team leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, which is responsible for disarming improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and he doesn’t fit neatly into either category of the “healthy-minded” versus “twice-born” dichotomy.
Not a lot seems to worry him, but that is because he is fatalistic rather than optimistic; and if he has grappled with fear in the past, the struggle doesn’t appear to have left much in the way of emotional scarring.
Late in the film, he is shown on leave in America telling his uncomprehending baby son that while he presently loves many things, (Mummy, bottle, toys, cot), the day will come when he will discover the one thing which he truly loves and lives for.
For James, that one thing is disarming unexploded bombs.
Striding jauntily down a cordoned-off street, wearing an anti-blast suit and helmet that makes him look like a deep-sea diver, he throws himself into excavating and neutralising IEDs with an enthusiasm which leaves his accompanying guard team cowering behind walls and vehicles.
During one complicated operation, involving an abandoned car rigged with wires and ordnance, he throws off his protective gear, with the comment, “If I’m going to die, I’d rather die comfortable.”
The film has some fun with James’s incessant smoking, which implicitly asks the film’s audience why they are objecting to a health risk indulged in by a man who makes his living by dicing with annihilation every day.
The expression “film about the Iraq War” immediately raises fears of a politically correct slab of Hollywood clichés and stereotypes – demented Americans oppressing simple, decent freedom-fighters.
There is a brief appearance at one point by the obligatory gung-ho American colonel, who congratulates James on being a “wild man”, but director Kathryn Bigelow avoids the conventional agitprop in two ways.
First, she recognises that for the average soldier in the average war, the big questions of ideals and strategies are secondary to the relationships and dynamics within his unit.
James is shown encouraging, reassuring, and getting drunk with, the members of his EOD unit.
They in turn are shown losing their temper with him for what they consider to be his dangerous recklessness, even hinting at getting rid of him in an “accident”, but also apologising for any offence they might have given him in the past, at a point when they believe that he is headed for certain death.
Secondly, Bigelow’s film shows that the horrors of the Iraq war are as readily attributable to its particular setting, and to Islamofascist savagery, as they are to American stupidity or malevolence.
She demonstrates that the Americans’ harsh vigilance toward the population amongst whom they move, is necessitated by the fact that every man, woman and child, every vehicle, mobile phone and camera, is a possible source of an explosion.
In scene after scene, American soldiers on the streets are shown facing the constant pressure to shoot first and ask questions later.
The civilian casualties which accompany the endemic planting of bombs in built-up areas are not regarded by the Islamofascist mentality as regrettable, but as tactical.
As another James (Clive) commented: “The reason terrorists don’t use those risible cosmetic terms of ours such as ‘collateral damage’ is that they not only have no intention of sparing the innocent, they have no more desirable target in mind.”
At one point, Sergeant James discovers that the dead body of an Iraqi boy whom he has befriended has been stuffed with explosives as a boobytrap.
In another, even more dramatic sequence, a family man, who has been press-ganged into being a suicide-bomber, begs James to de-activate the explosives padlocked to his body, and prays desperately as the timer runs down.
Through one of the film’s many manipulations of suspense, the audience sits wondering whether a) the man is lying about being unwilling to die, and will at any moment blow up himself and James, or b) the man really doesn’t want to die, but James won’t render him safe in time.
Home in American domesticity, James is shown staring at an aisle-long wall in a supermarket, which is covered with every conceivable brand of breakfast cereal.
In the next scene he is back in uniform, and stepping out of a troop transport plane back in Iraq.
At the bottom of the screen, a subtitle announces, “Tour of duty 365 days.”
The message is clear: there is no end in sight to the war; but it is worth fighting, and provides a man such as Sergeant James with the opportunity to do the only thing which gives his life meaning.