Rivkah Writes…

August 18, 2009

Hurts So Good: War as a Drug in “The Hurt Locker.”*

Can addictions ever be deemed positive? And if so, by what measure? These questions are brilliantly explored in “The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

On one level, “The Hurt Locker” is an astonishingly suspenseful movie, focusing on a 3-man U.S. bomb disposal squad stationed in Iraq. On another, the movie serves as a canvas against which basic human emotions are played out, along with complex motivations for the action we see.

Staff Sgt. William James, the movie’s protagonist and the actual bomb disposal specialist, does not enjoy war per se, so much as the thrill of mastering what makes Iraqi bombs – well, tick. His approach to war is that of the obsessive, single-minded genius, fascinated by the bombs he defuses, challenged by their structural complexity, and determined to locate and disarm their operating systems, even when his actions endanger both his own and his men’s lives. By contrast, James cannot quite manage the humdrum routines of civilian life. He is a man for whom, as the voiceover at the start of the movie observes, “war is a drug.” You can almost see a pre-military James finding less acceptable outlets for his recklessness – until the army teaches him to sublimate those tendencies and live life on the edge in the name of patriotism. Like any addicts, then, James both loves and needs to diffuse bombs, even though the means to his salvation may one day kill him.

But while James is impervious to fear, he is no psychopath. He shows affection and concern for an Iraqi boy with the unlikely name of Beckham; continually encourages Specialist Eldridge, the most inexperienced and apprehensive of the 3-man operation; is reluctant to brag about his accomplishments; and clearly wants to save lives – those of innocent Iraqis as well as Americans. Yet James’ careless bravery, irrespective of its results, angers and terrifies Sgt. Sanborn and Specialist Eldridge, for whom survival is the name of the game in just another dangerous tour of duty. While they’re counting down the days to the end of their deployment, James revels in the daily peril and once home, pines for his next Iraqi stint. Back in the combat zone, the cockiness returns to his eyes and the swagger to his tread. James is such a cocktail of recklessness, compassion, and naïveté, that you find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat, uncertain whether to shake your head or cheer him on. He pulls off his protective gear to detonate a multiple bomb structure in the trunk of a car, claiming that “we’re dealing with enough ammo to blow us all to Jesus, so I may as well die comfortable”; is a pleased as a child when finally unearthing the deadly operating switch; and doesn’t even get angry when Sanborn, whom he technically outranks, decks him for ripping off his headphones in frustration. James isn’t in this for honor or pride – he just loves what he’s doing; nothing he’s done has come closer to feeding his adrenalin rush. Hooked, armed, and dangerously likeable, it’s no wonder James scares Eldridge and Sanborn; they never came to Iraq expecting to fight the enemy in their own back yard.

*A reference to a poem of the same name by Brian Turner, the Hurt Locker symbolizes, among other possibilities, the repository for the weapons and agents of destruction spawned by the war.

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