The Motion Picture Academy's choice of The Hurt Locker as best film of 2009 is a sad commentary on the movie business as well as America's unwillingness to face the ugly truth about itself nearly a decade after 9/11.
The Hurt Locker is about a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit operating in U.S.-occupied Iraq in 2004, one year after the invasion. They get called in to disarm improvised explosive devices (IEDs) of all shapes and sizes: homemade chemical explosives, old bombs looted from Iraqi military arsenals, even roadside bombs planted inside bodies. The EOD unit in The Hurt Locker also comes under fire from Iraqi resistance fighters.
The setting is inherently political, yet director Kathryn Bigelow studiously insists that her movie isn't. "Did you want to make sure that the film didn't divulge into choosing a political stance?" an interviewer asked her. "I think that was important," she replied. "There is that saying, 'There is no politics in the trenches,' and I think it was important to look at the heroism of these men."
Soldiers exhibit extraordinary courage in every war, on every side. Sam Peckinpah's searing 1977 film Cross of Iron successfully makes the case for heroic behavior -- bravery, anyway -- on the part of Nazi forces participating in the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1943. So there's nothing wrong with Bigelow's basic assumption. It should be possible for a moviemaker to "look at the heroism of these men" despite the fact that the cause for which they're fighting is evil.
The trouble with The Hurt Locker is that it, like too many other American war films, whitewashes history.
In this film, neither the EOD unit at the center of the film or soldiers belonging to other units ever make a mistake that kills or seriously injures an Iraqi civilian. You keep waiting for it to happen, and you'd almost be OK with that one stray shot. Like the camera that put the audience behind the killer's mask in Halloween, Bigelow has created a claustrophobic, soldier's-eye view ominous with paranoia, all too justifiable. It's hot and dusty. Everyone's dog-tired. You can almost taste the stress. Her camera jumps from one potential threat to another: is that garbage on the side of the road just litter? Why is that guy on the roof of the building across the street staring so intently?
Even the perfect set-up for the accidental killing of an Iraqi civilian -- while defusing a roadside bomb, an observer goes for his cellphone -- turns out to be justified. The Iraqi was an insurgent, using the phone to detonate the charge.
And this is where a supposedly apolitical film turns into a nasty bit of pro-U.S. propaganda. As the film critic Andrew Breitbart writes, The Hurt Locker stripped its Iraqi characters of their humanity "and turned (them) into story-props: villains, victims, foul-mouthed hustlers or strange alien beings who keep an awkward distance and mourn the dead by yelling savagely at the sky."
For the purpose of this small film about a group of guys, one of whom is (laughably, as though such a character would be tolerated in an elite bomb squad unit) a go-it-alone cowboy who makes his comrades understandably nervous, it doesn't matter that they/the U.S. shouldn't be in Iraq in the first place. That can be for another film. (Indeed, it already was. David O. Russell's brilliant Three Kings, a 1999 effort set in the 1991 Gulf War, presages the 2003 invasion and serves as its ultimate cinematic rebuke.)
Yet creative liberties have limits. One is historical truth. Unless you're making a live-action cartoon like Inglorious Basterds, you can't make things up wholesale. But The Hurt Locker does. It creates an alternate universe to the one real Iraqis lived under in 2004, in which U.S. troops took as much care not to hurt civilians as AIG took with our tax dollars.
In the real world of U.S.-occupied Iraq in 2004, American soldiers were blowing away anyone who failed to slow down at (often unmarked) highway checkpoints. They were raping, robbing and murdering civilians for the fun of it. Countless soldiers recounted driving through towns and villages, randomly shooting at houses and people standing on the street. According to Iraq Body Count's extremely conservative estimate, between 8,000 and 10,000 Iraqis had been killed by April 2004. The truth was probably fifty-fold.
Marine Sergeant Jimmy Massey, 26, testified in December 2004 that men under his command killed "30-plus" civilians within 48 hours while manning a checkpoint in Baghdad. "I do know that we killed innocent civilians," Sgt. Massey said, stating that his unit fired between 200 and 500 rounds into four separate cars. Each had failed to respond to warning shots and hand signals.
The reason for the bloodshed was simple: U.S. troops had been trained to shoot first, ask questions later. They didn't care about the civilians they were supposedly there to liberate. "My platoon had to learn (checkpoint techniques) on the fly," wrote Marine Captain Nathaniel Fick in The New York Times in March 2005. "For example, once while driving through a town, we cut down a traffic sign -- a bright, red octagon with the word 'stop' written in Arabic -- and used it at checkpoints. Who knows how many lives this simple act of theft may have saved?"
We don't see any of this in The Hurt Locker, only good, confused American boys in uniform trying to muddle through a scary situation as best they can.
It is sad that a film so devoid of texture can earn critical plaudits. It is sadder that so few Americans can watch such a picture without losing their lunch. Not only is the history it seeks to revise ridiculously recent, one can only shudder in horror at the thought of what Iraqis and other Middle Easterners will think when pirated copies start showing up at local bazaars.
"The truth is The Hurt Locker is very political," wrote Michael Moore. "It says the war is stupid and senseless and insane. It makes us consider why we have an army where people actually volunteer to do this." That's true. But the politics are terrible. And that's the wrong question.
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