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peering inside the Hurt Locker

I recently had a conversation (read: cordial disagreement) about whether the end of The Hurt Locker was hopeful, or a downer.

For anyone who was paying no or negative attention (ie, going out of their way to avoid it, and I wouldn't blame you) to the '09 Oscars, The Hurt Locker won best picture, over the order-of-magnitude more financially successful Avatar. People made a big deal out of that, and the fact that it was directed by (one of) James Cameron's ex-wives, but most of what the buzz should have been (and sometimes was) was that it was a frikkin' awesome little flick. Which was not in dispute in the aforementioned conversation.

The video-major college student I was discussing this with believes it's a downer ending. I believe it is hopeful. Here's why (SPOILERS AHOY, obviously):


Quick summary: The Hurt Locker follows a three-man EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team in their last weeks in Iraq in 2004. It focuses particularly on their new leader, the guy who actually walks up to the bombs and tries to disarm them before they go boom, Sgt William James, who is apparently a reckless cowboy, but also the most successful bomb disposal technician currently serving (800+ devices in Afghanistan and Iraq and still not dead). This causes tension.

The movie ends with James going back into the field for another rotation. (I did say spoilers ahoy.) Considering the 38-day countdown to the end of their current rotation, marked by title cards and tracked obsessively by the other two characters in his team, considering the stress and fear and tension and insanity shown of their experience, any sane point of view would have to count that as a downer ending, yes? Essentially, the movie is telling us he's so messed up he can't function anywhere else. He's too broken to stay home and love his wife and son. He's too addicted to war, to the thrill of disarming bombs, to want a normal life. That's messed up. That's self-destructive. That's a downer ending. And, if you insisted on those premises, that kind of normality, I would be forced to agree. I don't.

The interpretation of the ending of this movie revolves entirely around the interpretation of James, which is a remarkably difficult thing. I read a lot of reviews, a couple of interviews, and listened to the commentary by the writer and the director. The strongest impression I got is that neither the writer nor the director had gotten inside this character's head; in fact, from reading an
interview with the actor who played him, I got the impression that he was possibly the only one who did. (Of course, to come to that conclusion I had to have already formed an opinion of what that meant. I had. The interview mostly confirmed them. Yes, I can be opinionated, why do you ask? It's a mixed blessing, but I'm not going to pretend it's not a lot of fun at times.) Tonally, I think this works for the movie, not against it.

The writer of the film was a journalist embedded with an EOD team for a few weeks early in the Iraq war. It is very clear that in his script he is drawing and exploring a world and a character from his experience, but which he couldn't quite get inside of. Again, don't get me wrong: I think it works, for the simple reason that he doesn't speculate, nor sell us speculation as insight. He stays respectfully on the outside, and presents a compelling enigma. The authenticity of his experience of setting shines through beautifully in the entire movie, the way it was shot, the way it was handled.

(There was a lot of backlash that the procedures depicted were inaccurate, that James would be an undesireable personality to have in such a role, a lot of "no way would we do things that way!" from servicemen and EOD technicians and such. On the commentary, the writer observed that his experience was near the beginning of the war, when they were only just beginning to discover how big a role IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) would play in the conflict, far larger than previous conflicts led them to expect. This early on, he said, they were still figuring a lot of things out, and no real formal EOD procedures had been codified for this conflict; there was a lot of latitude in individual approaches and a need for many more technicians than they had. Given those conditions, I could easily believe the events and character to have decent grounding in fact, far more than if it had been set five years' of warfare later in 2009, when it actually came out. Moreover, it was shown in-story that James's methods and approach were not orthodox, and questioned by his team, and he got away with it partly because he did get away with it; that is, it kept working.)

The enigma of this human black box, Sgt James, is at the heart of the movie, and is not overtly resolved, avoiding any artificial or cheap answers, any more than an explanation is given for the meaning of the title itself – allowing a wide range of responses to it by the audience. And, often, the response tends to say far more about the person than it does about the movie. As the reviews showed. The majority went with the straightforward (but misleading) title card given at the opening of the movie, a quote from War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug." The rest of the words fade, leaving only "war is a drug."

Well, yes. It is. Adrenaline and thrill junkies and whatnot. To come away with only that from this extraordinarily layered character seems a sad waste of time, and probably accounts for the disappointment expressed by some critics. (Disappointment also came from expecting/requiring it to be something it wasn't trying to be, like a political statement about the war itself, or a general pro/anti-war statement, or whatever. To which I wonder, if they weren't prepared to pay attention and evaluate it for what it is, rather than what they think it should have been, do they expect to be paid attention to for what they're saying? It doesn't seem fair, somehow.)

I'll say it again: it is not the explanation for James's exploits. It does, however, provide the majority view, the grid through which his actions are interpreted by those around him, including many of us, it seems. There are several interpretations given by different characters throughout the movie: he's white trash on a thrill kick, he's a hero, he's a wild man, he's losing it, he's a maniac, and so on. Toward the end, he asks another team member (Sanborn, who has the most "normal" set of priorities of the three, and who continually clashes with James), if he knows why he, James, is the way he is. "No, I don't," Sanborn answers honestly. It seems James doesn't, really, either; he just knows that he is. The closest he can get to explaining himself is with his one year-old son, before deciding to return to battlefield: he has come to the conclusion that as you get older, you love fewer and fewer things. Maybe only one or two things. Maybe ... only one thing.

Yes, this guy is somewhat messed up. There's brokenness there. The experiences of the war grinds him down and pushes him to some bad places – as it does with everyone else. This is the basis for my college student friend's interpretation. But he's not the only broken soldier. The trio of main characters, the EOD team, are all broken in some way by their experiences of the war. (I'd say that, in some significant ways, the other two are more messed up than James.) It's part of it. But to make it the main point is to look at it from the wrong direction.

Look at the language: he's using the word "love". He's not a junkie jonsing for a fix. He recognizes the tragedy of not being able to love his son enough to stay. He's not someone so broken that he has no alternative. He's not dealing well with being back stateside, but he's been back six months and he's functioning; he's lost, but not in withdrawal. While he was in Iraq, the events showed a distinct difference between his bad, unhinged decisions, based on psychological trauma, and his normal (successful) MO, however crazy it appeared on the outside.

He loves what he does. It's dangerous and deadly intense, but that doesn't make him crazy for loving it. In fact, embracing it arguably makes him sane.

Put it this way: we all know people who just get something, instinctively. It comes naturally; it makes sense, they're wired in a way that corresponds perfectly to what they're doing. Top athletes would be a good example, or physicists, or musicians, or mechanics, or whatever. It speaks to them, and they speak back; it's an open communication going on, a fluent conversation, resulting in a virtuoso performance unrepeatable by anyone else. For this guy, it's bombs. Virtuosity doesn't just occur with benign occupations; the "insanity" of war/bomb disposal just makes people less likely to give it that kind of credit.

There's a scene in the movie, fairly early on, where James is dealing with a car bomb, when this was demonstrated clearly. As you watch him dealing with the bomb, he knows there's something more that he needs to find and deal with, in spite of it not being apparent to anyone else. He gets frustrated with Sanborn telling him that he's done, because he knows he's not, and takes off his headset – he stops listening to Sanborn in order to better listen to what the situation is telling him. And he's right, he's spot on.

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that this environment, with its threats and stressors and devices, just makes sense to him. It's an ongoing conversation between him and the bombmakers, and he's always listening. That's part of what his box of "things that nearly killed me", which he keeps under his bed, is about. It's also clear that he values this conversation, this work, above his own life. He's not self-destructive, he just doesn't put self-preservation first. At the same time, he's got a very, very good handle on the relative dangers of his situation, so his threat assessment leads him to do things that seem stupidly risky to others. (Later, when he's knocked badly off-kilter, he does make some very bad calls. It's implied he learns from it, though. To those around him, who can't tell the difference, it's just more evidence that he's crazy and dangerous.) He can't explain what he knows or why he does what he does to others, any more than most virtuosi can; it's all just so obvious to him, and everyone else can't even hear the conversation, and he has no idea how to bridge that gap. If he ever did try to explain, he doesn't any more. Others can only observe the results from the outside, which is what the characters around him and this movie itself does.

Which is the setting for his decision to go back. He gets back to the States, and it's like being in a foreign country, when you can't understand what anyone's saying or why certain things are important and others aren't. You can't communicate, and you realise that such a state is a half-life at best. (Imagine a concert violinist being made to live without instrument or music.) And he knows that's not going to change. When he first went over, it must have been like waking up for the first time in his life, coming fully alive, fully functional. It's home. At the end of the movie, going back to the war is going home – and that's why it's hopeful.

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