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The Hurt Locker: Great Action Film or Anti-War Propaganda?

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Posted on January 17 2010 10:30 am

If you saw the Film Critic’s Choice Awards on Saturday you know that Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller set in wartime Iraq, The Hurt Locker, won for best picture. This is an important award because it isn’t like the Oscars that only amount to Hollywood patting itself on the back. The Critic’s Choice Award is decided by, well, the critics who screened numerous films over the course of the year.

The Hurt Locker is the latest in a series of films made by Hollywood about the war in Iraq. All previous attempts to draw people to the box office with anti-war rhetoric have failed miserably. What is different this time? For one thing, the critics on both the Right and Left are actually telling people that this film is great. The amount of praise for The Hurt Locker may be a little overkill, but it is certainly a must-see film.

Or is it?

While many are in agreement on the film, there is a debate between Big Hollywood’s editor-in-chief/industry watchdog John Nolte and author and columnist Andrew Klavan. Klavan wrote recently in City Journal:

Nolte and I spent part of Christmas break in a friendly email argument over the matter. Nolte objected to the fact that the film’s protagonist, Staff Sergeant James, played by the excellent Jeremy Renner, is less a hero than an adrenaline junkie. He saw anti-military intent in the film’s two most ridiculous characters, a sadistic colonel played by David Morse and a ludicrous Army therapist who tells his patients that war “could be fun!” Hurt Locker, Nolte wrote to me, “says there are no heroes, no good men in the Military—only PTSD cases, lunatic Colonels, and those poor saps dragged along for the ride. A terrible depiction of who these men are.”

The film opens with the following message: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” After a few seconds all that is left are the words “war is a drug.” Now seeing this will get every anti-war lefty spinning into a typical “no blood for oil” daydream. This is probably what threw Nolte’s sharp “Lefty Propaganda” radar into overdrive from the very beginning. However, the film doesn’t follow the usual course of past Iraq war narratives. Instead it focuses on a marine who is an adrenaline junky and his crew who are in a military bomb squad.

The main character, Sgt. James, is not portrayed as an evil baby killer (as he would be if this were an Oliver Stone film). He may be addicted to his job but what he does is disarm bombs in a war zone where innocent people are living, which in itself is heroic. What is important is that while the film certainly doesn’t condone the war, it doesn’t show our soldiers as evil either. The nature of what they are doing is heroic.

Mark Boal, who wrote The Hurt Locker, spent time with a similar unit of soldiers in Iraq and this film proves that he has some respect for their job, even if he doesn’t agree with the reasons for their being there.

As Klavan states:

The Hurt Locker, unlike every other War on Terror film I’ve seen, exists in a moral universe that a sane man might recognize as our own. Insurgents murder without restraint, even enticing children into the blast area to kill as many as possible. U.S. soldiers are largely humane, trying their best to avoid violence and show mercy.

We certainly know that director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are against the war. During their best picture acceptance speech on Saturday Boal couldn’t help but throw in his two cents by saying “this is the most unpopular war in American history.” Nolte knows the politics of these filmmakers so he has every reason to not buy into the hype of their film and suspect The Hurt Locker is still like many of the garbage anti-war films that came before it.

Nolte blasts the film:

When the men in the ranks display cold, casual racism, an American Colonel savagely orders that an Iraqi be left to bleed to death and a profoundly unprofessional protagonist, so demented by war he can no longer love his own son, repeatedly endangers himself and the men in his charge, I don’t see “nuance” or “depth” or “complicated” characters. What I see is politics of the worst kind.

There are certainly aspects of the film from which Nolte correctly gets this read but he may be giving it too much weight. I feel that the film is much more than any political cheap shot. The enemies in The Hurt Locker are not Americans and the terrorists are not portrayed as sympathetic (which is what I expected).

The film may have subtle opinions on the war, but it never goes as far as to be anti-American.  The difference between something like Rendition or In the Valley of Elah (also written by Boal) and The Hurt Locker is that any possible anti-war message is secondary to a much bigger film where the focus is on a squad of soldiers who keep the locals safe as best they can.

Most people who see the The Hurt Locker are not going to leave thinking “yeah, war is stupid, America is evil.” They are going to walk out of the theatre excited from the amazing, tension-driven sequences throughout the film.

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