Too bad neither art, nor life answers to misdirected pigeonholing from admirable leftwing voices like Robert Scheer. Must outstanding movies to be reduced to partisan “messages” or platforms that reinforce our prejudices, whether about politics or art? “Disappointed” with “Hurt Locker’s” seeming apolitical stance, the ideological Scheer balks because a less than overtly anti-Iraq war film won Best Picture.
If “Hurt Locker” so clearly promotes this war or the hubris of imperial occupation, then why isn’t there one scene or one main character that establishes this theme, let alone defends this position? In fact, the movie experience itself, not Scheer’s distortion, suggests otherwise. Director Bigelow fashions a story, not a sermon, knowing full well how fixed positions, either way, impede her mission: to bypass defenses and create significant emotional experiences.
If good art were propaganda, reducible to pre-digested “stands,” then we’d barely need movie critics or interpretation. Anti-war movies would broadcast, “disregard storytelling, context or character; this is about indicting war and Bush imperialism.” If Scheer thinks polemical art will fly, let him fund it, approve the script, and produce-direct. Beware fine actors, with their own opinions or any topflight film editor, composer or cinematographer: they have expert sensitivities tuned not to dogma but style, story, tension, and continuity.
Aesthetics of Propaganda
Scheer is simply wrongheaded to reject “The Hurt Locker” as an “Oscar for America’s Hubris,” Hollywood’s full “endorsement of the politically chauvinistic view that the world is a stage upon which Americans get to deal with their demons no matter the consequence for others.” This is aesthetic philistinism, remarkably uninformed about who makes films, how they’re made, or how they function as emotional transactions in an uncensored, secular state.
Must all film makers be no subtler than charming gadfly-activist Michael Moore, whose screeds are packed with neat messages because they’re designed to spur political reform? Bully for him, but don’t expect enduring art. Must superior directors, knowing polemics shut down art experiences, be slapped as stand-ins for the morally corrupt, rampaging Bush-Cheney imperialists? Where’s the middle ground in Scheer’s aesthetics of propaganda?
Fiction 101: good artists tell stories that captivate them to create complex audience experiences, inviting engagement so we take stories into our hearts and minds. Emails and answering machines deliver “messages;” stories deliver opportunities for insight and entertainment. With uncomfortable pressure, “The Hurt Locker” invites us not to resolve war or Iraq, even violence, but imagine devastated warriors from the inside specifically by cutting through, not feeding our defensive biases.
Most Civilized Figure, an Iraqi
Scheer’s not even right in his own terms, dismissing climactic scenes that show when Iraqis are far more than “numbed bystanders” or “deranged extras,” at “no point treated as though they are important.” Early on, multiple scenes show the main character, Sgt. James, befriending a young, cheerful Iraqi. They play soccer and joke around, making contact so meaningful the soldier risks his life in a blundering revenge plot after mistakenly thinking the boy murdered.
Sneaking alone into hostile territory (at night, unequipped), this great image of American hubris rashly breaks into the wrong house seeking imagined killers. Enraged, with gun in hand, James barges into a kitchen where he finds a perplexed, elderly man. Bewildered by the man’s calm (clearly, no insurgent), the soldier asks, “Speak English?” Non-plussed, the man responds, “Yes, English, French, Arabic,” assumes him CIA, and politely asks him to sit. “You are a guest in my house,” he says in English, with transcendent grace that stymies the crazed invader.
No other scene in this movie, certainly no American presents a more civilized, more refined character. Rampage turns to farce when his irate wife sends the intruder on his way by knocking his head with a platter. Not only are three Iraqis “important,” they dramatize our protagonist in his hot-tempered, belligerent mode while discrediting his entitled, arrogant, militarized notion of heroism. How could Scheer miss this definitive put-down of hubristic American over-reach, utterly routed by Old World courtesy and feisty mother hen?
Not “war movie,” pro or con
Scheer’s mistaken view of the movie parallels the soldier’s tunnel vision, blindly relegating Iraqis as no “more than props for a uniquely American-centered show.” In fact, “Hurt Locker” isn’t a typical war movie, pro or con – hardly about combat, even the Iraqi war. Laser-like, it focuses solely on the experience of a support bomb disposal team, making it absurd to ask why the movie doesn’t flesh in street Iraqis.
Tellingly, Scheer’s sweeping labels also tar “Hollywood politics” as monolithic, as if 4500 film professionals picked this surprise “best picture” only because it’s gung ho. What sets the “Hurt Locker” apart, beside Bigelow being the first woman director to win Best Picture, is it’s the lowest grossing movie ever to take the top prize. Money counts in Hollywood, since film pros like to get paid, but they dramatically didn’t favor “Avatar,” the highest grossing film ever. My film editor friend (and Academy member) confirms “Hurt Locker” the best made, most deserving film, bar none.
Pox on Both Your Houses
What’s brilliant about “Hurt Locker” is not just its compelling take on damaged soldiers but the enticing ambiguities, making it a telling Rorschach test. The director endorses bravery but not the mission, thus deflecting nonsense she’s just a white-flag-waving traitor. U.S. Army advisers withdrew because Bigelow didn’t appear pro-war enough. The director knew better, that audiences would be less engaged in experiencing the front lines when political lines in the sand are drawn (either gung ho or Scheer’s).
Notably, on screen, this disposal team saves no lives or assures no American safety. Sustained, high tension makes the opposite point: no one here is safe, victory is an illusion, and justification for the occupation, AWOL. Sometimes what’s not said or dramatized matters more than what so immediate, however well crafted.
My personal take: the movie presents menacing patterns of randomized violence. Dramatizing the life-long trauma of soldiers we fund, without redemptive trade-offs, questions militarized violence as solution. War here is mania, whether personal and/or political addiction, and that makes the movie qualify as both anti-war and anti-Iraq. Its opening moment quotes strident anti-war critic, Chris Hedges, on war as addiction (vs. honor), and the movie follows through with this dark view.
First hand, we experience unspeakable pain endured by sympathetic characters with little to show for it. The protagonist is brave but also an obsessed daredevil, dangerous to himself and his crew – no hero for our children or his, no exemplar for the glory of Yankee war-making. The one visible Army officer conspicuously rags on James’ recklessness – without narrative offset. While Bigelow doesn’t flesh in background Iraqis, nor does she detail Americans, except our team and one psychologist, foolishly getting himself blown up. Another non-hero. Yes, the movie presents Iraq as American-instigated dogfight, but neither side is honored, neither murderous insurgents, nor the more powerful, hubristic, occupying Americans.
Any Hollywood war movie not glorifying noble Americans in justified armed combat against a dastardly enemy is exceptional. If “Hurt Locker” was intended to promote positives about Iraq, count it an utter failure, from first to last scene. The movie’s finale provides the simplest “statement” — reinforcing Iraq as an endless, addictive drug for a crisis junkie doomed to tempt death, incapable of living with his own family in his home country. Imperial triumph, indeed.