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Issue #1446      10 March 2010

Culture & Life

War as thrilling entertainment

Last week in Culture & Life, I wrote about the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar, and especially about the way it depicted the US Marines as little more than hired guns for US corporations, a view that people in many diverse parts of the world would agree with from their own bitter experience.

At the time, Avatar was widely touted as the likely winner of the Oscar for Best Film in the up-coming Academy Awards. That did not seem like something that US capitalism would relish, but there appeared little they could do about it.

I noted in that column that already attacks had appeared on the film’s “unpatriotic” message. And while we can be sure that the corporate heads of the film industry would be happy to rake in the money that Avatar would take at the box-office, their class interests would cry out for some other film to be crowned with the Oscar.

And such a film was quickly found: The Hurt Locker. A US film made independently, and released in Italy in 2008 (but not in the US until 2009 and hence still eligible for the Oscars this year), it is exactly what was needed.

Promotional poster from The Hurt Locker.

It’s an unglamorous, gritty, nail-biting war film about courageous US soldiers “doing their duty” defusing roadside bombs in Iraq. It’s the perfect antidote to the “US military as corporate goons” line of Avatar.

A media blitz of astonishing proportions was unleashed to support its Oscar nominations (it has as many as Avatar). It has certainly paid off: in most popular media, at least, The Hurt Locker is now treated as a virtual “sure thing” to win Best Picture and Best Director and probably a slew of others.

To the pleasure not just of the corporate moguls but of the US right-wing generally, the movie is already performing well at the box office, unlike almost all earlier films on the Iraq war (and related conflicts like Afghanistan) which hitherto have “performed poorly” in Variety’s coy phrase.

The film was written by a journalist, Mark Boal, who was “embedded” with a bomb disposal team in Iraq in 2005. Boal was writing an article for Playboy.

Boal is now being sued by sergeant Jeffrey Sarver, a US Army bomb disposal expert, who claims Boal has stolen his lines, his nickname (“Blaster One”) and effectively his life.

War is such a horrifying process that any even semi-realistic film about it can be construed as “anti-war”. Hardly anyone makes that claim about The Hurt Locker, however. The film declares itself on opening, with a quotation from War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, a best-selling 2002 book by another journalist, New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

The film stars Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty as members of a US Army EOD unit in Iraq and follows their tour together as they contend with defusing bombs, the threat of insurgency, and the tension that develops among them. Wikipedia explains the film’s title as “slang for being injured in an explosion, as in “they sent him to the hurt locker”.”

The film was shot in Jordan for verisimilitude.

The right-wing paper The Wall Street Journal loved everything about it: “A first-rate action thriller, a vivid evocation of urban warfare in Iraq, a penetrating study of heroism and a showcase for austere technique, terse writing and a trio of brilliant performances.”

But if the commercial mass media love it, others don’t. Tara McKelvey for instance, from the more progressive journal The American Prospect, assessed the film as pro-US Army propaganda.

She continued, “you feel empathy for the soldiers when they shoot.” And this despite the fact that, in reality, “American soldiers shot at Iraqi civilians even when, for example, they just happened to be holding a cell phone and standing near an IED”.

McKelvey summed up, “For all the graphic violence, bloody explosions and, literally, human butchery that is shown in the film, The Hurt Locker is one of the most effective recruiting vehicles for the US Army that I have seen.”

Author Brandon Friedman, himself a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote on VetVoice: “The Hurt Locker is a high-tension, well-made, action movie that will certainly keep most viewers on the edges of their seats. But if you know anything about the Army, or about operations or life in Iraq, you’ll be so distracted by the nonsensical sequences and plot twists that it will ruin the movie for you. It certainly did for me.”

Troy Steward, another combat veteran, wrote on the blog Bouhammer that while the film accurately depicted the scale of bomb violence and the relations between Iraqis and troops, “just about everything else wasn’t realistic”. Steward went on to say: “I was amazed that a movie so bad could get any kind of accolades from anyone.”

Even former embedded journalists joined in the criticism. Former correspondent for The Politico and Military Times Christian Lowe (who was embedded with US military units each year from 2002 to 2005) explained at DefenseTech: “Some of the scenes are so disconnected with reality to be almost parody.”

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, was not taken in by the movie’s pseudo-realism. Declaring the war is one “...in which I have seen my friends killed [and] witnessed my ranger buddy get both his legs blown off” Rieckhoff went on to say: “For Hollywood to glorify this crap is a huge slap in the face to every soldier who’s been on the front line.”   

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