Back in the Locker

As I write, it’s already been three weeks since the Academy Awards broadcast on March 7, and I’m still surprised that the judges for Hollywood’s annual ceremony of self-love named The Hurt Locker Best Picture of 2009, awarding it six Oscars in all. The pooh-bahs of mediocrity voted for art rather than commerce, and so the enormously profitable spectacle Avatar had to bow to a low-budget independent production. Adding spice to the outcome, Locker’s Oscar-anointed director, Kathryn Bigelow, is the former wife of Avatar’s director, James Cameron.

Chronicles’ editors decided to run my September 2009 review of the film on the day after the ceremony. This pleased me. It’s nice having your name attached to a winner. But putting vanity aside, if such is possible, I really do believe, as I said in my original review, that this film about an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team hunting IEDs on the streets of Baghdad should be required viewing for all Americans, especially those who continue to think our adventure in the desert is honorable. Anything that advances the film’s notoriety, whether an Oscar or my humble reflections, is all to the good.

Bigelow’s film, made in 2008, had a limited release after a successful run at various independent festivals. Now, with six Oscars, it will reach a much wider audience in re-release at selected theaters and on DVD. Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, a journalist who had accompanied a bomb squad in Baghdad for several weeks, have done a much better job of making us feel the awful futility of the Iraq war than any other film on the subject to date.

Of course, not everyone agrees with me. Several of the folks who read my review online and took the trouble to send in responses said as much. I want to address three of these comments. They are at once pertinent and provocative and have helped me think more closely about why I find the film so effective. I will argue that Bigelow and Boal deployed an aesthetic logic that answers each of my respondents’ reservations.

One respondent liked the film until she learned that several Iraq veterans had questioned its authenticity. The vets were annoyed by the cowboy antics of the protagonist, William James, an explosives technician whose idea of a jolly afternoon is to throw off his padded shrapnel-proof suit, hunker over an IED that has been hog-tied beneath the sand, and pick through its 20-some odd wires hoping to find the single live one before the contraption blows off his head. The vets said no trained explosives technician would behave with such reckless abandon. I suppose they are right in general, but it seems to me they’re leaving out the possibility that James just enjoys danger for its own sake and, of course, for the adrenaline rush that comes with it. It didn’t seem all that improbable that this hot rod would ignore the rule book. Do those who perform wheelies on their Harleys consult safety manuals while pitching their bikes upright at 80 mph?

James’ risk-taking opens for Bigelow the door to her film’s unspoken but nevertheless trenchant politics. Consider her protagonist’s resonant name, William James. It playfully invokes America’s father of pragmatism, the psychologist who claimed we should believe whatever is useful to believe. Can we doubt, then, that Staff Sergeant James is meant to signify our nation’s blind faith in her can-do spirit, her confidence that her sons can sort out any problem that comes their way, however insoluble it may have proved to others over the millennia? And, further, can we doubt that such arrogance led us into our current misadventures? Remember the cakewalk boys of 2003.

Another respondent, Chronicles’ own Clyde Wilson, questioned what he took to be the film’s politically correct stance regarding race. He thought the black actor Anthony Mackie, in the role of Sergeant Sanborn, had been directed to play his character as an improbably brave and competent squad leader. Dr. Wilson is annoyed by what he takes to be liberal Hollywood’s rapturous depiction of minorities. They can’t all be that sterling, can they? But his criticism doesn’t apply here, nor does it more generally. For quite a while now African-Americans have been dramatically freed to be just as vicious, just as buffoonish, and just as dull as any witless honky. Denzel Washington’s best performances have been on the unattractive side of the thespian equation.

To return to Sergeant Sanborn, the first thing to be said is that he is not in charge of the bomb squad. As his rank indicates, he is subordinate to Staff Sergeant James. Second, although Sanborn is portrayed as brave, he’s not exceptionally resourceful nor particularly patriotic. And his loyalty is doubtful at best. Scared shitless by James’ suicidal derring-do, he even considers killing his superior before his stunts get him and the squad’s third member killed. Far from being the noble black of the liberal’s condescending imagination, Sanborn is a man who has made a calculated bet. He has agreed to serve on the bomb squad to shorten his time in Iraq. He wants nothing more than to return home and get on with raising a family, as he explains tearfully and movingly to James late in the film.

What I liked about Bigelow’s film is that it does not hew to the Hollywood clichés. It doesn’t even include a scene in which James breaks down and explains why he behaves with such disregard for life and limb. There is no appeal to a troubled upbringing, no heavy guilt for having accidentally caused a sibling’s death or having once left the garden hose running all night. When Sanborn asks him how he can bring himself to sit down with primed bombs and coolly take them apart, James can only respond that he doesn’t think about it. He just does it. And here’s another of the script’s sly political points. James is the kind of young man the cakewalking neoconservatives find so very useful to their global ambitions. There’s no reasoning why in this boyo. He’s efficiency incarnate, no more and no less.

Another respondent raises an interesting reservation, not about Locker, but about its medium. Robert Reavis agreed with Bigelow’s take on the war but went on to say that she was unlikely to enlighten anyone since film appeals principally to the senses and emotions. Implicit in Mr. Reavis’s comment was that only discursive reasoning can make the fine discriminations necessary to build cogent, compelling arguments. I agree with him up to a point. A fictional film narrative does not have the luxury of indulging in protracted argumentation if it hopes to hold the audience’s attention. It must always move on to the next scene.

This said, we mustn’t scant the considerable resources of narrative art as it moves from one scene to the next. Joseph Conrad made this case in 1910. In his oft-quoted preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” he put forth his aesthetic manifesto:

[A]rt itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colours, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life, what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential—their one illuminating and convincing quality—the very truth of their existence. The artist, then, like the thinker or the scientist, seeks the truth and makes his appeal. . . . My task . . . is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand; and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.

While Conrad’s narratives have discursive passages aplenty—some would say they are too plentiful—they are not why his works are remembered today. When we recall Heart of Darkness, it’s not principally Marlow’s morbid perorations on the cold indifference of the universe that come back to us, all that business about an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. No, what comes back is what the text puts before our eyes: the sudden close-up when Marlow discovers by aid of a telescope the skulls atop the poles outside of Kurtz’s compound in the Congo, and the sinister whiteness of the sidewalks in Brussels, relieved only by some random blades of grass sprouting from between their blocks; the white forehead of Kurtz’s self-aggrandizing fiancée, dimly luminous in her otherwise darkened parlor.

Bigelow knows how to deploy Conrad’s method on the screen. No one who sees Locker will ever read the letters IED in quite the same way again. In Locker, these devices don’t explode into fireballs, as do Hollywood’s generic pyrotechnics. When an insurgent sets off an IED in a Baghdad street, the ground shivers silently at first, and then its caked mud sprays into the air with an unendurable concussion. Farther down the street, the rust on a car hood flakes and rises into the air an inch or two. It is as though the whole solid world sleeping under a relentless sun has galvanized with menace, and it becomes momentously clear that for Americans the whole of Iraq is an IED.

When James returns to his Texas home on leave, he takes his wife and infant son to a Brobdingnagian supermarket. Wandering through the aisles of plenty, he finds himself beholding a wall of cereals in day-glo boxes. The dazed look on his face tells us that the war zone has given him new eyes with which to see this familiar American spectacle. This weird consumer display is the objective correlative of the freedom George W. Bush claimed Al Qaeda couldn’t abide. Imagine those robed tribesmen sitting in their caves, gnashing their teeth over our non-nutritious freedom of choice.

This is how artists work. They strive to create what James Joyce called epiphanies, moments of intense revelation. If they do their job well enough, such moments linger in the mind until their full argumentative force detonates upon later reflection.

This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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