The Hurt Locker (spoilers, so beware)

I wanted to like this movie. Kathryn Bigelow got enough things right that I wanted the wrong things to be overwhelmed by them. Unfortunately, while I watched the film I felt that the wrong things were too much. It’s hard to overlook the majority of scenes being ludicrously implausible, and a main character who’s a walking Article 15.

I’ll overlook the wrong desert and the wrong uniforms … they had to shoot it somewhere, and they probably got a deal on the uniforms. But a one-Hummer EOD team wandering around alone, and rather randomly at that? They would travel in, at the very least, a two-vehicle convoy. 

Showing up on-site to find a deserted Humvee, its team cowering around the corner? Where are the f’ing radios – not just in this scene, but throughout the movie?

One lone Brit bounty hunter/merc truck on the desert? What was one little ol’ Humvee with one little ol’ 3-man EOD team doing alone out on a desert track anyway? Shooting each other up like that? No Brit team is waiting that long to be ID’ed. Then they couldn’t change a tire because one of these Brits threw the tire iron? 

Huh?? 

A sniper rifle in either of those vehicles? Pinned down all afternoon? And if I’m required to swallow all that, then at least provide them with enough water because I can pretty well guarantee that no merc or mil team is out without enough water.

The CO slobbering all over James? Aside from this weird and useless fiction, where are the officers in all the random wanderings of this lone EOD team?

Running through the streets of Baghdad in fatigues – or, frankly, even making off base in the first place? (Ok, I wasn’t there in 2004. Any vets out there, help me out with this one if I’m wrong.)

A 3-man EOD team taking off through the night to chase down a bomber? By this time, all I could do was roll my eyes and giggle.

James was junk. I was rooting hard for Sanborne to go for the malfunctioning detonator, hoping his action might help propel us all toward some more credible lead character. Sanborne’s initial reaction to him, and Eldridge’s telling him off as he was being evac’ed were – praise the lord – realistic snapshots. 

***

For all that, I made it through the entire movie without actually throwing anything heavy at the screen, and now I find myself developing a retroactive affection for the film. My strong desire for the movie to be better than it is stems, I think, from a sense of ownership in the content: this is my war.

This is my war, so I need you to get it right. Tell our story authentically.

Finding this thought and emotion surprises me, since I don’t think there’s any one story that would encompass the war authentically. I don’t mean that there are as many stories from Iraq as there are individuals who have been there – of course that’s true, but it doesn’t interest me. I’m thinking more broadly, in the sense that I don’t know the soldier story, really, and soldiers don’t know the DoD civilian story. Neither of us knows the contractor’s story. The journalists probably think that they know everyone’s story, yet many of us would sense they know nothing but their own stories. I know some of the PSD story, but not all of it.

If the soldiers’ story is told authentically, will I feel satisfied that my own has been done right? I wonder. I doubt it.

But it would be satisfying anyway. Because the soldiers are part of my story.

***

According to my affection, then, what Bigelow got right retroactively begins to forgive the things that she got insultingly wrong.

The dusty tan streets decorated with colorful trash were true. That’s close enough to how it looks, and it’s how the reality feels. I felt homesick for our mad dashes through towns, sirens whooping occasionally as we wheeled around a corner, dust billowing. I could smell the sharp twist of diesel and earthy dust, the fetid garbage, feel the smothering hot air.

When the camera lens filled up with the bag left behind by the men with the donkey, I whispered boom. Thank you, Kathryn, for that.  To illustrate how far my trust in this film had been eroded by then, as I whispered I wondered if it really would explode. I’d have given up on the movie entirely had it not.

My stomach clenched all over again under the squirrelly weight of all the eyes watching, watching, the men while they worked and I wanted to scream at the team myself: get the fuck out of there! Every moment is seared into slow motion on a good day, like you already know the next moment, the next action, the next reality. If you’re on, you’re on it. On a bad day, your brain starts spinning like a crazed rat and there’s absolutely nothing you can do yourself to stop the raging panic; you only contain it.

James walking into the shower all geared up made me laugh out loud. I’ve been there. And standing in the cereal aisle staring at all the choices was poetry in its silent summation of a reality so thickly layered with contrasts that it freezes itself and devolves into profound absurdity. Been there and Bigelow nailed it.

And perhaps most importantly, the foundation of the movie was authentic: war is a drug. It shifts perception into a heightened symphony of sensation. Good or bad, comfortable or not, that intensity is profoundly, achingly beautiful. For some, like James, that razor’s edge of living fully in the present is addicting. Anything else pales to a dream.

I guess I’d recommend The Hurt Locker, but with serious reservations. So far it’s probably the best Iraq movie I’ve seen, unfortunately. If nothing else, maybe Bigelow has raised the bar so the next Iraq war movie will not only get the environment and emotions right, but will give us a plausible plot, plausible scenes, and a plausible lead character.

Congratulations on the Oscars, I guess.

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