Soldiers are not allowed to smoke during combat. Before and after is fine, but during is reckless. It’s like talking on the phone while driving, except you’re talking a man down from a ledge, while driving in the Le Mans Grand Prix. Most soldiers have enough on their minds not dying during combat. So the no-no governing combat-smoking only applies to a select few. I’d say you feel one of two ways about men who smoke in the midst of a gun-fight. Either: a) they offer proof of man’s ultimate de-sensitisation to violence. Or b) they’re f—ing rock stars! Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is for those who think b.
Into the jittery, adrenaline-spewing maelstrom of Iraq, a new guy arrives to join the bomb squad. He hasn’t come to weep for Baghdad, but to have a little fun. His name is Sergeant James. He looks like he grew up in a gun shop. His colleagues – still mourning James’s predecessor – don’t like him. James is a guy who would juggle hand-grenades to pass the time. But he’s the Bobby Fischer of bomb disposal. He is perfectly maladjusted for his job. Day after day, he puts on what looks like a 19th century diving suit, waddles over to bombs, and stops them killing. If he were doing this for anyone, he’d be a hero. But his heroics are strictly for him.
What The Hurt Locker gets right is the soldier’s perspective: the politics don’t matter. Some men are there because they want to kill; most are there because they want a pay cheque, a few because war is home. Although the movie is told from an American point of view, it doesn’t demonise those who want to kill Americans. They are just as the soldiers see them: an unknown. There’s a great scene where Sergeant James tries to avenge a boy he believes insurgents have murdered. From the moment he steps outside the Green Zone, he’s lost. This is not his country. The movie doesn’t denigrate his good intentions, but neither do James’s rushed plans succeed.
Jeremy Renner plays James like a NASCAR racer. He looks at people like they haven’t drunk enough beer. He’s everyday-tough, like a toolkit. Even his hair looks like it’s been on an assault course. Where there’s a risk James could be nothing more than a Top Gun caricature, Renner balances the egomaniac grandstanding with a practical man’s lack of self-awareness. His James is a guy who loves what he does, but doesn’t think of how he’s viewed. When a Colonel asks James the best way to disarm a bomb, Renner says “the way you don’t die” like that’s the answer, not as a quip. If there’s such a thing as suicidal sangfroid, he embodies both traits.
Director Kathryn Bigelow has always made movies about men. Her 1991 bullet-fest, Point Break, was so goddamn macho you needed a shave after watching it. You could count the number of women in Bigelow’s movies with your arms, not your fingers. It’s action that draws her. In a Bigelow movie, men explain themselves – and who they want to be – through gun-play. She gets how a gun can be like a woman’s clothes. For the kind of guys she’s interested in, even the most heartfelt confession doesn’t have the intimacy of battle. She never mocks these guys, or homo-eroticizes their behaviour (Point Break would be a gay love story no matter who directed), she just wants to be one of the boys. In Bigelow’s hands The Hurt Locker isn’t about war, it’s about fraternity.
While no-one would disagree with an anti-war sentiment (even the military don’t want to be on the losing side), as a dramatic premise, saying “war is bad” is like saying “adultery is wrong”. Yes, it’s true, but it also happens. The reason The Hurt Locker does well as a war drama is because it doesn’t hide from soldiers and the fact that – without war – they’d have no purpose. Sergeant James isn’t presented with jingoistic acclaim; he’s just a skilled mechanic. Kathryn Bigelow might want us to feel his excitement, but that’s her crush on guys like him, not American foreign policy. There’s a difference between being pro-war and being pro-warrior.