Bomb Squad Brave

Charlotte Allen | Posted on 04/05/10

"Everyone is a coward about something," he tells Eldridge. James's own cowardice, as he understands full well, lies on the home front of his own emotions, and, as he also knows full well, it is far more self-destructive, than fear of being shot or blown to pieces.

Kathryn Bigelow's Academy Award-winning Iraq War movie The Hurt Locker is an examination of virtue: one virtue, actually, the admirable virtue of physical courage. It's about the effect on your soul of possessing that virtue to such a superlative degree that you risk your own life over and over to save the lives of comrades and strangers-and you also suffocate to death a range of other virtues that are equally important.

That is essentially the theme of The Hurt Locker, and it helps explain why the movie has puzzled and alienated some pro-military critics. The story involves members of a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, or bomb squad, as they carry out their thankless and dangerous mission of defusing the hundreds of murderous homemade pipe bombs planted by insurgents along the streets of Baghdad during the dark, pre-surge days of 2004, when it seemed that every morning when you opened your newspaper, you read the depressing news of a few more pointless-seeming U.S. military deaths.

The Hurt Locker's protagonist, Staff Sgt. William James (superbly played by Jeremy Renner), has the riskiest job of all: donning the "bomb suit" (an imposing space-suit-like contraption that in fact provides little protection to its wearer) and walking up to the bomb itself to cut wires or disable its detonator. The rest of the squad mostly provides cover, for as seemed to be usually the case in real-life Baghdad, the crew of insurgents responsible for planting the bomb is usually right there on the street, or on a roof or balcony overlooking it, primed to detonate it-via, say, a cell phone, at the exact moment that it can do the most damage to both American military personnel and Iraqi civilians. The pipe bombs, buried under roadways and inside abandoned cars, are true weapons of terrorism, designed not only to kill but also  to function as deadly propaganda aimed at alienating ordinary Iraqis and the U.S. relatives of slain servicemen.

Unlike the dozen or so pointedly anti-American movies about the Iraq War that have emerged from a hostile Hollywood over the past few years, The Hurt Locker doesn't try to stir up viewers' sympathies for Iraqi citizens as supposed victims of U.S. aggression and arrogance. The Iraqis in The Hurt Locker are actual or potential murderers at worst, and at best they are irritatingly indifferent to the efforts of the U.S. military to protect them from being blown to bits as pawns in the never-ending guerrilla warfare. Our sympathies are always with the American bomb squad-James and his covers Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). They carry out their duties stoically and professionally, taking care to protect, when they can, the hapless residents of Baghdad from the insurgents who place little value on the lives of their own countrymen. In one horrifying bombing caper, the terrorists kill a Baghdad teenager and rig up his body as a human explosive device.

True, the Americans in The Hurt Locker sometimes acquit themselves poorly in ways that undoubtedly reflect knee-jerk Hollywood anti-U.S. animus. Most egregious is Col. Reed (David Morse), commander of the unit and all-around blowhard, who allows a wounded pipe bomb suspect to bleed to death even though simple medical intervention could save him. Bigelow inexplicably allows the colonel to disappear from the movie and its plot soon afterward, so the scene seems gratuitous (and also a waste of Morse's considerable talent). It is scenes like this one that have allowed one pro-military critic, John Nolte of the Big Hollywood website, to give the movie a generally negative review: "What I see is politics of the worst kind."

The exasperation of Nolte and others with The Hurt Locker stems from its portrayal of James, the central characer and a flawed character indeed. James, who proudly announces that he has already defused 873 bombs for other units by the time he joins up with Sanborn and Eldridge, is brave beyond imagining. James steps into the death zone over and over, at one point even trying to save-although it is too late-a hapless Iraqi father who has been rigged up with suicide-level explosives against his will. James also regularly exposes himself and his teammates to risks that they, as seasoned professionals, find unacceptable: throwing off his radio-communication earphones, chasing a suspect without backup through a maze of possibly booby-trapped side streets, nearly getting one of his teammates kidnapped. James's behavior is often so egregious, so careless of the safety of his unit, that an exasperated Sanborn at one point considers having him "accidentally" killed. James is also incapable of functioning in ordinary relationships outside the war zone. He has a wife (Evangeline Lilly) and an infant son at home, but he can't bring himself to utter a single word on the phone to either when he calls them from Baghdad after months of silence.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Nolte deems James merely "an increasingly reckless adrenaline junkie" who lives out the film's epigraph, "War is a drug." That may be true, but it is not the whole truth. In fact, James is genuinely and admirably brave, and he is also genuinely compassionate, forging a nascent, if ultimately self-sabotaged friendship with an Iraqi boy (Christopher Sayegh) who briefly becomes a surrogate son. Via small acts of kindness James also manages to make a begrudging friend out of Sanborn and to help Eldridge, overwhelmed by the bomb squad's life on the threshold of death, overcome a bad case of battlefield panic. (James makes a nice contrast to the film's platitude- and political-correctness-spouting unit psychiatrist, played by Christian Camargo, who winds up exactly where we'd like to see him.) James is fully aware that the extreme physical fearlessness that impels him to hunt patiently for the detonator inside a explosives-rigged car, even as he knows that the bomb-maker is somewhere on the street watching him, has rendered him unfit for everyday life.

"Everyone is a coward about something," he tells Eldridge. James's own cowardice, as he understands full well, lies on the home front of his own emotions. As he also knows, this cowardice is far more self-destructive than fear of being shot or blown to pieces. The end of the movie is really James's own death spiral, as he willfully separates himself from emotional responsibility for his wife, his baby son, and even the Iraqi boy he has befriended. The Hurt Locker is, in short, a tragedy. In classic analysis a tragic hero is an admirable man with a fatal flaw. The Hurt Locker's William James is an admirable man with a fatal virtue, done in by his willingness to let his most admirable trait become his master.



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