‘Hurt Locker’ Backlash, Part 2: A Response to Rodger Payne


The Duck of Minerva is one of the better international relations theory (IR) blog out there. You should read it if you don’t already. Its name is a riff on Hegel’s famous comment that the “owl of Minerva” only flies at night; i.e., wisdom only comes in hindsight, or more specifically that philosophy can only understand an age or civilization as it passes away. I don’t quite get the joke behind the title ‘duck of minerva,’ but whatever – it’s quality IR blogging.

Rodger Payne had a post two days ago on the continuing IR back-and-forth over The Hurt Locker (HL). Payne links to the relevant other IR posts on the film, including my own. Payne notes that I and others have found many problems with the film’s much-celebrated ‘realism.’ My own sense is that the lead character, Staff Sergeant William James, probably would have gotten himself or his associates killed a lot earlier through his overt recklesness. That, and the bizarrely out-of-place and unbelievable desert-sniper sequence, do a lot to reduce the film’s credibility as a portrait of the Iraq War. Michael Kamber summarizes.

Payne counters that, while Kamber and I are correct, that’s beside the point.  HL’s strength as an IR film is as a metaphor for US foreign policy more generally since the end of the Cold War, and especially in the Middle East. Money quotes:

The U.S. too has a long and mostly successful military record — and it too has been incredibly lucky. Like James, the U.S. returned to Iraq after a successful first effort in 1990-91… To its critics, the U.S. too is a reckless showboat, willing to take incredible risks with other peoples’ lives, even as it claims to be “saving” them.

In political debates, Americans focus on U.S. forces, casualties, and experiences. Few consider the implications for Iraqis and the wider Middle East… The FUBAR narrative works pretty well to explain the actual U.S. experience in Iraq. The lead character’s addiction to war, recklessness, luck, inexplicable behavior, and need to “save the day” reflect an unsavory, but nonetheless viable, portrayal of American identity.

1. Ok. I don’t really disagree with any of that, but I think it is a reach, a generous overreading that sorta lets the film off the hook. Is Bigelow really giving us the arc of the erratic, poorly-planned Operation Iraqi Freedom in the story of one soldier? Do we really think Bigelow had something this profound in mind? Francis Ford Coppola did when he made Apocalypse Now. He went to Cannes and famously said “We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.” That’s going for the big view. But Bigelow’s schtick has been that this is the first realistic film portrait of the Iraq, and that is how it has been received. The problem, as I argue, and Payne admits, is that it’s not that. I certainly agree that the US use of force has drifted toward recklessness since the end of the Cold War, and Payne is dead-on that US audiences love cowboy-style swaggering heroes, but the film is so pointedly apolitical, that it is hard to see James’ swagger as America’s. Maybe, but I just don’t see that in the film itself…

2. Given the film’s ‘reality problem,’ in round 1 I suggested that one alternative is to read the film as a memoir of battlefield stress for the US warfighter in the GWoT. The film goes out of its way to suggest that James is motivated by the narcotic effect of combat, so I think this better fits the small-scale of the film than Payne’s ‘big think’ approach. The problem with my interpretation is that Bigelow unfortunately does not develop this much beyond the initial thought. So we see James at home, bored with his alienated ex-wife. This is supposed to suggest that James misses the thrill-ride (!) of Iraq. But lots of us have had relationships and family lives that go bad, so this was rather weak. Much more convincing would have been imagery of James as an addictive personality. Scenes showing him struggling with drugs or alcohol would have really shoved the ‘psychology’ interpretation of HL forward, because you could see James substituting one thrill (Iraq) for another (booze, perhaps). Instead, Bigelow lets herself wander into a series of unconnected vignettes, like the sniper story, while the audience waits and waits for a theme to hold it all together.

3. HL’s rise is function of ‘intelligence guilt’ over the success of Avatar, plus the American desire to finally have a good GWoT film, not its inherent quality. It is fascinating how this film has grown from an indie joint into a Best Pic taker, and now faces a growing pushback from foreign policy types.

Initially almost nobody saw HL. It grossed a measly $12.7M. Avatar made more than that just here in Korea; its global total is now a staggering $2.2+B. HL was neither in theaters nor DVD here; I had to import it. So if it can’t make it to the world’s 13th biggest economy, did anyone see it beyond the US, Canada and Western Europe? Do we have any idea what Arabs/Iraqis particularly thought of it? Audience attendance is no great mark of quality, but still, without the critical buzz of the last two months generating an anti-Avatar Best Pic vibe, we wouldn’t even be talking about this film. Remember that it was originally released in Italy in October 2008, and for the next 14 months, almost no one saw it. Christopher Orr summarizes.

We all knew that Avatar was shallow, but we swooned for its astonishing GCI, arguably the biggest visual leap since Star Wars. But when the hangover hit in the month before the Oscars, the Academy needed something to suggest we weren’t so fluffy. Nobody wanted Cameron to take two Best Pics for childish stories wrapped in pretty colors. So, given 2009’s poor Best Picture choices, HL became the default anti-Avatar. Call it penance for giving the 1997 Best Pic to Cameron’s Titanic instead of the far more deserving LA Confidential; snubbing the King of the World this time buffs the Academy’s credibility. So HL rolled through the awards season, culminating in the Oscar that will insure it shows up on lots of IR syllabi in the future.

But now that the film is on our radar, the serious critical work is coming in, and the verdict, as this thread, indicates, is a lot more mixed. The irony is that a good Iraq pic does already exist – Generation Kill. Where is that much better, more accurate portrait in this whole debate?

6 thoughts on “‘Hurt Locker’ Backlash, Part 2: A Response to Rodger Payne

  1. I think that you are spot on!

    I do have one issue with the quote referenced below however. This USMC trains its Marines far better vis a vis how to deal with the stress of war than the US Army trains its soldiers. Yes, Marines fall through the cracks but in the aggregate the USMC is far superior in this ,category.

    “Given the film’s ‘reality problem,’ in round 1 I suggested that one alternative is to read the film as a memoir of battlefield stress for the US war fighter in the GWoT”

    Generation Kill is the real story of a US Marine Recon unit. Great flick!


    • To Bigelow’s credit, she shows one of the subsidiary characters interacting with psychological support. As the US military has grown more professionalized, it has taken psychiatric problems like PTSD, soldier’s heart, depression, etc. more seriously. Patton couldn’t slap a guy today for shell-shock. In fact, I thought that was one of the better parts of the film, because it showed soldiers struggling to deal with the violent world around them, instead of the stock John Wayne character stoically unaffected by the carnage around him (Mel Gibson in ‘We Were Soldiers,’ e.g.).

      But that makes the protagonist’s failure to get counseling an all the more obvious flaw in the film. It’s James who needs counseling, very obviously; he’s reckless; his personal life is a mess. It’s pretty likely the bureacratized, professionalized US military of today would caught that before he could defuse hundreds of IEDs.


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