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July 16, 2009

Chris Hondros on “The Hurt Locker”

Given the rave reviews this film is receiving, the fact that a film can be largely responsible for the picture of a conflict people walk away with in their mind’s eye, and because Chris Hondros, having made twelve trips to Iraq in covering the war, is one of America’s most respected and highly praised photojournalists, BNN is pleased to offer this review.


I’ve been waiting for a truly great movie about the Iraq War. I know it’s still going on, but I don’t think it’s impossible to ask: Casablanca came out right in the middle of World War II in 1942, and M*A*S*H, with its Korea-as-Vietnam theme, was released in 1970. I’ve thought a lot about this, since like many journalists who have frequented Iraq I’ve often been frustrated by the public’s misunderstandings about the place, and have thought for some time that a thoughtful, tone-perfect movie could help explain to a general audience what the experience of being in Iraq was (and is) like.

The Hurt Locker, recently released to positive reviews and much acclaim, seemed like it could have been that movie. But having seen it I don’t think The Hurt Locker will do for the Iraq War what, say, Apocalypse Now or Platoon did for our understanding of Vietnam.   It might be the best Iraq movie out so far, but that’s not saying much. To me The Hurt Locker fell flat–partly because the soldiers behave in implausible ways throughout, but mostly because I don’t think it offers us a coherent plot or deep character development, the stuff all great movies are made of.

The Hurt Locker tells the story of an Army bomb-defusing trio based out of Camp Victory in Baghdad on the last month of their deployment. The team is (reluctantly) led by a reckless a staff sergeant explosives expert named William James (played with indisputable talent by Jeremy Renner). His support duo is a risk-averse sergeant named J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and a young specialist, Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty).

The movie gets off to a good start–the opening scene is appropriately tense, and the superficial details about the Iraq environment look just right, more so than any Iraq movie previously. The Army uniforms and Iraqi style of dress, for instance, are perfect, and the Humvees look just like they did in 2004, when the movie is set. Camp Victory, Baghdad’s largest base, looks in the movie just like it really does: a bleak gravel plain covered in soulless white barracks trailers. The physical look is fantastic.

But it isn’t long before the movie gets mired down in absurd and seemingly pointless misadventures.

Staff Sgt. James and his two comrades seem to constantly be on their own, often blithely driving their Humvee around Baghdad without additional support.  One scene has them driving their Humvee completely unescorted in the desert, which is so silly I laughed aloud.  That little sojourn results in the team getting ambushed (which is why you don’t go driving around in the desert by yourself in Iraq) and battling off insurgents in a grueling sniper firefight. Young specialist Eldridge, covering the teams’ flank in a terrifying battle of survival, nonetheless takes the time to leisurely ask Staff Sgt. James for permission to fire when he spots an insurgent taking aim at him from a nearby ridge (good thing Iraqis are so habitually late at everything they do).

I admit that some of that previous criticism stems from my familiarity of military procedure in Iraq, but other plot developments defy logic even if you’re not familiar with the place.   

Staff Sgt. James’s chummy relationship with an Iraqi boy on base is only tenuously explored, but when he finds that the boy has been killed he implausibly removes his uniform and goes AWOL, running off alone into central Baghdad on a vigilante mission.  It gets worse:  James, wildly waving his pistol, bursts into an Iraqi home he suspects has some relation to the murder, only to find himself staring at an urbane, multi-lingual Iraqi man, with whom he has a confusing and remarkably calm conversation.  Then the Iraqi man’s wife appears and physically beats James out of the house (which will no doubt be the favorite part of the movie to Iraqis themselves, should this get this screened in Baghdad sometime).

James then heads back to base, licking his wounds; and while the movie has James easily and unrealistically leaving Camp Victory and wandering around Baghdad alone, when he goes back he is (quite realistically) caught by screaming Army perimeter guards. The next scene has the brooding James back in his trailer; nobody mentions a court-martial, which is what certainly would have resulted from an escapade like that.

Another, much-quoted scene has the fully-suited  James investigating a possible bomb in the courtyard of a school, and eventually finding a massive amount of explosives in a car’s trunk.  He then removes his bomb suit to the chagrin of his comrades and announces “if I’m going to die, I’m going to die comfortable.”   This is meant to indicate James’s reckless machismo, I guess; but of course if a car bomb explodes anyone standing nearby will be blown to pieces with or without protective gear on, as James himself indicates.

The reckless act here is defusing the bomb by hand in the first place, not doing it without a protective suit that will not protect.  For that matter, what is the dramatic point in hand-defusing a massive car bomb when all the civilians nearby had already been evacuated, as the movie took pains to show?   Why are we asked to fear the destruction of an empty school courtyard?  

It’s not so much that James does all these unlikely things, but that he does them for weakly-explained reasons.  Near the end of the movie the trio is summoned to investigate the scene of a deadly bomb attack in a Baghdad neighborhood.  James suspects that the triggerman escaped down a nearby alley; and with an unconvincing bit of verbal patter he persuades Sanborn and Eldridge to take off with him (once again, alone) into the Baghdad night.   The group separates and Eldridge is kidnapped by militants; just barely are James and Sanborn able to track them down and shoot the insurgents holding their friend, shattering Eldridge’s leg with a bullet in the process.  We next see the understandably-irritated Eldridge on medical chopper, bidding a rueful goodbye to James, who seems not particularly sorry for the misadventure (maybe he’s preoccupied about his likely second court martial in as many weeks).   

Oddly, the best part of the movie is its closing minutes, after James leaves Iraq for his family at home.  James is in a supermarket with his wife and son and is tasked with getting breakfast cereal; finding the cereal aisle he stares mute as the seemingly infinite choices.  It’s a funny, poignant moment, and it seems to me that this could have been the heart of the movie: how does one return to a life of normalcy after a year of insanity in Iraq?  That’s the real question that thousands of soldiers and Marines (as well as journalists and governmental staff) have had to confront since the Iraq war began.  But it will take another movie to explore this critical idea, The Hurt Locker, for all its explosions and tension, doesn’t really even try.

* * *

(originally posted 7/10/09)

Chris Hondros is an American war photographer, based in New York. He has made over a dozen trips to Iraq in six years, chronicling the war and occupation since the beginning of the conflict. His images from Iraq are published around the world and have won many international awards, including the 2006 Robert Capa Gold Medal, the highest honor in war photography. He is a senior staff photographer for Getty Images, the international photo agency.

  • jtfromBC

    Thanks Chris Hondros for your review – here is how A.O.Scott, film critic for the NYT’s is flogging this flick.
    “So let me put it another way, at the risk of a certain cognitive dissonance. If “The Hurt Locker” is not the best action movie of the summer, I’ll blow up my car. The movie is a viscerally exciting, adrenaline-soaked tour de force of suspense and surprise, full of explosions and hectic scenes of combat, but it blows a hole in the condescending assumption that such effects are just empty spectacle or mindless noise.”
    http://movies.nytimes.com/2009/06/26/movies/26hurt.html

  • Doug McConville

    Though I can’t disagree with those who find some scenes a bit absurd (such as leaving the base and the late-night, three person pursuit of a bombing suspect) and the resulting gap in verisimilitude when it comes to field procedures, this is less important than the grander impact Bigelow’s film has on audiences.
    What the film accomplishes particularly well, especially for audiences not affiliated with war, was putting audiences in the position of a kind of non-stop anxiety and intensity that soldiers, and others involved in the experience of the Iraq war, would have to live through 24/7. Watching the film, for just that short two hours, I felt more clearly the reality of contemporary insurgent warfare than any other film has presented since The Battle of Algiers.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p00e5523476cc8834 DennisQ

    War movies vary from being unrealistic to being absurdly unrealistic. This one sounds like it’s in the latter category.
    When I was in Vietnam, war movies were popular with real troops. They’d come in from the field to rest up, and they’d watch a movie at night. They weren’t interested in dramas or comedies, but give them Bridges of Toko-Ri or Objective Burma, they’d eat it up! Guys who’ve actually been in battle were amused at Hollywood battle scenes. A GI would get shot in the arm but throw a hand grenade with the same arm.
    Incidentally, the relationship of combat soldiers to each other is no more homoerotic than that of office workers with neighboring cubicles. There may be some erotic tension beneath the surface between any two individuals, but it’s not unique to war.

  • -cj

    If you haven’t seen “Generation Kill” I’d highly recommend it. Though technically a mini-series, I’d say its the best ‘movie’ about the Iraq war so far. Honestly, it probably takes at least seven hours to begin to show the issues in any meaningful way.

  • john farmer

    I saw “The Hurt Locker” this past weekend and thought it was very good. I don’t doubt that for someone with firsthand experience there are parts of the movie that don’t completely ring true. I don’t think that’s because it’s a bad movie, but just that it’s a movie. If you had experience in WWII, or Korea, or Vietnam, you’d find that “Casablanca” and “M*A*S*H” and “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon” also have elements that are implausible, to one degree or another. Drama is different than documentary, and frankly, I think historical accuracy needs to serve the story, not the other way around. I can’t speak with the same level of knowledge about Iraq and the workings of the military, but as a movie, I think “The Hurt Locker” works, and works very well.

  • yg

    nice to know women directors too can make good action flicks.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p00e5523476cc8834 DennisQ

    >>…historical accuracy needs to serve the story, not the other way around …
    In other words, you’d rather be amused than be informed. I’m trying to think of a drama set in the United States in which a callous attitude toward the native population would be justified on similar grounds. How ’bout the story of heroic Louisiana sheriff’s deputies who work out their issues with Hurricane Katrina as a backdrop? For the sake of authenticity there’d be floating corpses.
    Sorry that documentaries bore you. In that respect you are a typical American. But you’re wrong to claim that your need for fiction serves some higher purpose. So . . . some Americans take some risks! Great country, ours.

  • john farmer

    Dennis Q,
    If “The Hurt Locker” were a documentary, I’d expect a different level of authenticity. It’s not a documentary, though. It’s a fictional drama. I have different expectations than if it were a fact-based story.
    You don’t go to “Richard III” or “A Tale of Two Cities” or “JFK” for a history of a British monarch or the French Revolution or an American tragedy of the 1960s. Yet each one gives a sense of what it was like to be alive during a certain time and live through a certain experience. In my opinion, they succeed, and not because they get every detail right. They don’t have to. Likewise, “The Hurt Locker” takes a few short cuts also. Chris Hondros faults the film because he knows the details so well. The films he cites as better examples of war movies, however, are probably no more accurate. He just isn’t as familiar with the details because he didn’t experience those earlier wars firsthand.
    Finally, I never said I’d rather be amused than informed. I never said documentaries bore me. Please don’t put words in my mouth. In fact, I’m a big fan of documentaries. Many of them are among the best films around. My point, as I said, is that documentaries and drama are different. “The Hurt Locker” is not a documentary. For what it’s worth, I did find it entertaining (there’s nothing pejorative about that, but I wouldn’t call it amusing) — and I also found it informative.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p00e5523476cc8834 DennisQ

    You acknowledge that the film accomplished its purpose in that you were entertained. The larger point here is that this is likely to be the only message of interest to an American audience. [I]t’s nice to know women directors too can make good action flicks
    As an American, you share your responsibility for the war, as we all do. Aren’t you even slightly disturbed by how the characters are defined? There’s the good-hearted, often reckless bomb tech who scoffs at danger, saying, “If I’m gonna die, at least I’m gonna be comfortable.” Then there’s the underclass represented by the black sergeant who just wants to do his job and get home. Mainstream Americans, both of them. And both espouse the American values that got us into Iraq and keep us there, over the objections of the Iraqis. Needless to say, the Iraqis are simply bit players in the drama. The real action is the psychological dynamics between the Americans.
    What a vulgar film this is. And how vulgar you are to avoid the not-very-difficult questions about the war in Iraq. All that matters is that you were entertained by an action film.

  • john farmer

    In a movie about Americans at war in Iraq, I’m not surprised to find characters who are mainstream Americans or that the Americans are the focus of the action. I don’t know why that seems to disturb you. Likewise, I don’t know why you continue to twist my words. You have no idea what I think about the war in Iraq. You also have a rather narrow view of the American film audience.

  • yg

    get a grip, how dare you suggest i’m a war pig. you don’t even know me.
    i haven’t even seen the movie, i don’t think it’s out yet. i saw the director interviewed on charlie rose. how can you be so categorical in denouncing the film without having even seen it yet?
    the main character is a bomb defuser. he’s trying to prevent the loss of life. there are other elements in the movie that suggest an anti-war message.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p00e5523476cc8834 DennisQ

    This film has been described as the definitive Iraq war film. And yet, I can tell from the trailer that it’s a cartoon and that it’s pro-American propaganda. This says a lot about the state of American film-making and a lot about American political values.
    The point is not that the Americans are the focus of the action, but that Iraqis are simply bit players. They also have a sneaky underside to them – going around planting bombs that will kill school children. This is yet another white man’s burden argument for the war, presented as a cartoon.
    We on the left should not be supporting films like this. From the looks of it, it’s as dishonest as Blackhawk Down, the difference being the greater number of Iraqi and American fatalities.

  • yg

    oh, you saw the trailer. well, that settles it then.

  • yg

    but platoon and apocalypse now also had implausible scenarios. the latter especially could be described as having an “absurd and seemingly pointless misadventures” that you faulted hurt locker for being. perhaps that was the point being made. getting put in iraq was an absurd and pointless misadventure.

  • jtfromBC

    FWIW
    The Hurt Locker – CBC radio interview 20:00 min. July 15 2009
    Six years after the war in Iraq began, barely a day goes by without a deadly bomb blast. Just today a suicide bomber killed six people including an Iraqi policeman. Earlier this week, seven U.S. soldiers and their Iraqi translator were wounded in another blast.
    The explosions and carnage have become so commonplace –they typically don’t make headlines anymore. And that presents a challenge for anyone trying to understand how Iraqi civilians and Western soldiers go through their days knowing that their next step – could be their last.
    Mark Boal is an American journalist who spent two weeks embedded with the members of a U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal Squad … the soldiers whose job it is to disable roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices. Now, he has taken that experience and turned it into an action movie called, The Hurt Locker.
    The film is now playing in Toronto. It opens this Friday in Vancouver and Montreal. And it will have a wider release across Canada on July 24th
    http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/2009/200907/20090715.html

  • Ms Jackson

    I felt differently about it–the utter pointlessness of these scenes, and the inscrutability of the central character and his motivations was important. It turns out that this guy defuses bombs because he’s an adrenalin junkie. He’s a broken guy. He IS the American presence.
    The whole time you’re watching the movie, you feel like “what the hell are they thinking? What’s the point of all this?” while feeling very, very afraid and un-moored. The script doesn’t give you resolution. None of the arcs go anywhere–the kid he thought was dead he tries to avenge and fails…and then finds out the kid’s not even dead. Half the time people we can’t see are aiming guns at him…or maybe they’re not even there? And he’s screwing up everybody’s life as he does it–his fellow soldiers, the Iraqis, everyone. Horrible stuff is happening and he’s not just caught up in it, he’s making it happen, even though he’s not an evil guy. I mean, he’s quite likeable!
    I thought the movie really felt like a metaphor of the war. We went in there for reasons that to this day I can’t figure out, and it’s my damn government who decided to do it! And we bumbled and everything important was done half-assedly and by the seat of our pants, and the human cost was horrifying. And, you know, it’s still going on even though any semblance of plot left the whole endeavor years ago.
    Anyway, I liked it.

    • Mind the Gap

      I think MsJackson has it right. You can be “entertained” by it, somewhat intrigued and brought in, but still feel annoyed by the typically shallow/shabby character development of both the main Americans and the Iraqi characters.

      At the risk of offending those who think most movie-goers are deeply philosophical, critical-thinkers,… most people need the complexities such as those MsJackson spelled out for them (e.g. a lot of our military leadership is typical imperfect humans to extreme narcissists; a lot of our frontline soldiering is done by immature or even emotionally-damaged — people who are the least best choice for handling interpersonal and global conflict).

      Many viewers just seen bang-bang! boom! oooh-machismo! uggh! uggh. sad-face. boom. boom. cry.

  • yg

    within the article was linked an interesting interview with the screenwriter/journalist. he said consistent with his real life experiences in iraq he wanted to avoid the typical 3 act plot resolution and intentionally left plot threads hanging.

  • jtfromBC

    thanks yg, I was aware of this, as I always check links.

  • http://www.moviesplanet.com/movies/18981/the-hurt-locker/soundtrack The Hurt Locker SoundTrack

    Hey It is the one of fantastic movie I ever seen. here you will find out lot of action plus thriller. I have watched this movie last week and we people have lot of fun. There is lot of good scenes to watch..Overall..it is great movie.

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