An Iraqi butcher holds a cell phone as he stands near the site of a bomb -- or an improvised explosive devise (IED), as it is known in The Hurt Locker, the critically acclaimed new movie about soldiers in Iraq. The Americans shout at the butcher to put the phone down and point their guns; he smiles and waves back, nodding his head reassuringly to show them everything is fine. Then he presses a button on the cell phone and detonates a bomb, killing one of the soldiers.
From that point on, you, as viewer, sympathize with the soldiers as they travel along dangerous roads and walk through Baghdad's narrow allies, seeing all of the Iraqi men, women and children around them as potential terrorists. Just as American horror movies shifted at some point in time and invited the moviegoer to take on the point of view of the killer tracking down the victim, rather than the perspective of the victim fleeing from a psychopath, The Hurt Locker places the viewer squarely in the mindset of a soldier on the verge of shooting someone. That said, you don't necessarily always want the soldiers to shoot. There are times when you, like the soldiers in the film, wonder what the right choice is, such as when a suspicious-looking man stands on top of a building with a video camera and films the dismantling of a bomb. He looks like someone who might be involved in the planting of an IED, but you can't be sure.
In general, though, you feel empathy for the soldiers when they shoot. And in this way, the full impact of the Iraq war -- at least as it was fought in 2004 -- becomes clear: American soldiers shot at Iraqi civilians even when, for example, they just happened to be holding a cell phone and standing near an IED, as Colin H. Kahl, a military analyst and Obama administration official, wrote in International Security. Even more chillingly, as Kahl explained, a U.S. commander once ordered that all middle-aged Iraqi men in a certain area could be shot.
The Hurt Locker shows the paranoia, rage, and brutal recklessness of soldiers trapped in the downward death spiral of the Iraq war: Insurgents used IEDs in a diabolical fashion so that all Iraqis seemed complicit in the violence, particularly since many were aware of the location of the bombs. Yet the bystanders said nothing -- most likely because they feared reprisals from the insurgent leaders -- and, consequently, the American soldiers turned with a vengeance on the very people they had once attempted to liberate.
The Hurt Locker sets itself up as am anti-war film. It opens with a quote, "War is a drug," from Chris Hedges, a Nation Institute senior fellow and author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning. Yet for more than two hours, the film imbues Baghdad's combat zone with excitement and drama. In one scene, a bomb-defuser, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), searches for a detonator in a car loaded with explosives, and later he tries to save an unfortunate Iraqi man who has been forcibly strapped with homemade bombs. The tense moments are set to creepily compelling music selected by composers Marco Beltrami (he did the scores for the Scream series) and Buck Sanders, and the cinematography captures the beauty that is found in the desert landscape and even in the casing of a bullet. It is easy to understand why the soldier, William James, would take so much pleasure in his work as a daredevil bomb-defuser in Iraq, and find so little to be happy about in the difficult, messy world of America when he comes home.
Back in the United States, James finds himself in a supermarket aisle, trying to decide between Lucky Charms and Cheerios. He stares at those brands and then at dozens of others on the shelves, feeling overwhelmed by the dizzying array of breakfast cereals, in a scene of American consumerism gone amuck. He then spends part of the day cleaning soggy leaves out of the gutter of his house. It is a dull, dreary world. A moment later, however, a soldier is shown striding down a wide, dusty Iraqi road in a NASA-like bomb suit, filled with a sense of purpose, courage, and even nobility that does not exist in suburban America.
The film draws a sharp contrast between the tedium of American life, with its grocery-shopping, home repairs, and vapid consumerism, and the heart-pounding drama of the combat zone in Iraq. The fact that the war itself seems to have little point fades into the background. For all the graphic violence, bloody explosions and, literally, human butchery that is shown in the film, The Hurt Locker is one of the most effective recruiting vehicles for the U.S. Army that I have seen.