Unlocking The Hurt Locker

Why did The Hurt Locker, a well-acted, tension-filled but otherwise undistinguished Hollywood war movie focusing on a military bomb-disposal team in Iraq, win the 2010 Academy Award for Best Picture?

After viewing the film recently, it appears to us that the main reason the U.S. movie industry bestowed the honor is that Kathryn Bigelow, who also received the Best Director prize, concealed the real nature of the American war in two distinct ways.

1. The film did not even hint that the three-man Army elite Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad operating in Baghdad a year after in the U.S. invasion was engaged in an unjust, illegal war, and thus were participants in what international law defines as a war crime.

According to the film website, the task of the GIs in question was “to try and make the city a safer place for Iraqis and Americans alike.”

Unmentioned is the fact that the war destroyed perhaps a million Iraqi lives, created over four million refugees. Or that it took Washington’s divide-and-conquer policy of exacerbating sectarian religious and ethnic rivalries to produce a stalemate instead of a humiliating defeat for the Pentagon at the hands of up to 25,000 poorly armed, irregular and part-time guerrillas.

The film’s odd title, according to the producers, “is soldier vernacular for explosions that send you to the ‘hurt locker.'” But in the “collateral damage” of this unnecessary war — the civilian dead and wounded and millions wrecked lives — has no place in The Hurt Locker. Only American pain is stored there, not Iraqi.

2. Director Bigelow and the film’s big money backers mischaracterized their efforts as “nonpolitical,” as did virtually all the American reviewers.

As one reviewer wrote, it was “remarkably nonpartisan and nonpolitical.” Another wrote: “It’s a nonpolitical film about Iraq. Many films about the Iraq war have fallen into a trap of appearing preachy or at least having a strong point of view.” The New Yorker‘s David Denby said the film “wasn’t political except by implication — a mutual distrust between American occupiers and Iraqi citizens is there in every scene,” but the real meaning is that it “narrows the war to the existential confrontation of man and deadly threat.”

If “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means,” as von Clausewitz famously and correctly surmised, a “nonpolitical” film about what is virtually universally recognized as an unjust war is a conscious misrepresentation of reality. The Hurt Locker is an extremely political film, largely because of what it choose to omit, masquerading as apolitical in order to disarm the viewer.

Bomb disposal teams exist in all modern wars, but they do not exist in a moral or political vacuum. One side often represents the oppressor, and the other the oppressed, and it is morally dishonest to conceal the distinction.

For example, one assumes Japanese bomb teams were at work during the Nanking Massacre in China, and the time of the notorious Bataan Death March in the Philippines; and that German teams worked in Poland during the Warsaw Uprising in the Jewish ghetto, and during the horrific Nazi siege of Stalingrad.

These Japanese and German handlers of unexploded bombs were extremely brave, as are their American counterparts today, and some lost their lives, particularly since they didn’t have all the protective gear and bomb destroying robots available to Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams in Iraq or Afghanistan.

But what should we think about a German war film dealing with the Warsaw rising and the slaughter of Stalingrad, or a Japanese film about Nanking or the death march, that focused only on the heroism of their bomb-disposal troopers, without any reference to the aggressive wars that situated them in Poland, Russia, China and the Philippines? Most people would characterize such films as “enemy propaganda,” particularly while the wars were still going on, as are the U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen (as well as Iraq, despite Washington’s claim that “combat operations” are now over).

Suppose you were an Iraqi, who lived through 12 years of U.S.-UK-UN killer sanctions that took another million Iraqi lives, followed by seven years of invasion and occupation. What would you think of a U.S. war film where nearly all the Iraqi characters were villains or crooks, and the occupying GIs were depicted as heroes or at least well-meaning?

What would you think when you read from the producers that The Hurt Locker is “a riveting, suspenseful portrait of the courage under fire of the military’s unrecognized heroes: the technicians of a bomb squad who volunteer to challenge the odds and save lives doing one of the world’s most dangerous jobs…. Their mission is clear — protect and save.”

You’d probably think this film, which won six Academy Awards while the war was still going on, was enemy propaganda.

Well, propaganda is propaganda no matter who’s the perpetrator. Most Americans, it seems to us, are unable to distinguish self-serving war propaganda from reality when it is delivered by the U.S. government, the corporate mass media, or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

We can’t read director Bigelow’s mind, but objectively The Hurt Locker seeks to justify the Bush-Obama wars. It does so by suppressing the political context of the wars, and by individualizing and conflating the scope of the conflict to resemble, as reviewer Denby suggests, an “existential confrontation [between] man and deadly threat.”

The Hurt Locker war is no longer a matter of U.S. foreign policy, military power, and the quest for geopolitical advantage and hegemony over the world’s largest petroleum reserves. It’s simply a matter of how three American guys in a very dangerous military occupation respond emotionally to the extraordinary pressure they are under.

The Hurt Locker is a movie of pro-war propaganda. Had this powerful war film instead told the truth about America’s ongoing imperial adventure in Iraq, even as it continued to focus mainly on the dilemmas confronting the bomb disposal team, it never would have been nominated for, much less become the recipient of, the most prestigious award in world filmmaking.

Jack A. Smith is the editor of the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter. He can be reached at jacdon@earthlink.net. Read other articles by Jack.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. mary said on September 5th, 2010 at 9:01am #


    John Pilger wrote of Hollywood’s new censors here. Thus anything resembling the truth is unlikely to emerge.

    About Hurt Locker in a piece entitled Why the Oscars Are a Con, Pilger said –

    American airbrush

    Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is in this tradition. A favourite for multiple Oscars, her film is “better than any documentary I’ve seen on the Iraq war. It’s so real it’s scary” (Paul Chambers, CNN). Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian reckons it has “unpretentious clarity” and is “about the long and painful endgame in Iraq”, and that it “says more about the agony and wrong and tragedy of war than all those earnest well-meaning movies”.

    What nonsense. This film offers a vicarious thrill through yet another standard-issue psychopath, high on violence in somebody else’s country where the deaths of a million people are consigned to cinematic oblivion. The hype around Bigelow is that she may be the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director. How insulting that a woman is celebrated for a typically violent all-male war movie.

    I never saw it so cannot comment.

  2. Don Hawkins said on September 5th, 2010 at 9:20am #

    Well since you bring this up how about Jon Voight and a few more who go on Fox New’s and talk from the old play book. It does appear some have decided who the winning side will be on a ruined Earth I guess better than doing commercials. These actors are rebels are they not or maybe just an act. I believe the second.

  3. Don Hawkins said on September 5th, 2010 at 9:51am #

    I went to your web site Jack Smith come on is that your real name. Anyway I will e-mail you and heck maybe we could get a few from Hudson Valley to march on say Wall Strett or Goldman Sachs or Fox New’s short walk see the sites along the way heck maybe camp in a farmers field. You think am kidding no. Say meet in Hudson for the march. A procession of people walking together; “the march went up Fifth Avenue”, march in protest; take part in a demonstration; “Thousands demonstrated against…………..the march of time, the march of time how did that get in there? Hay DC is not to much further away just down the road apace.

  4. hayate said on September 5th, 2010 at 12:00pm #

    The academy awards are rubbish. It’s beauty contest for hollywood parasites. Any winner is almost guaranteed to be a mediocre or substandard film.

  5. 3bancan said on September 5th, 2010 at 2:59pm #

    Films, terror, wars and weapons are the main US export industries:


  6. MylesH said on September 5th, 2010 at 3:10pm #

    Not having good politics does not necessarily make a movie mediocre. Same with politics. One of the best speeches I have ever heard came from Ted Kennedy at the Democ. convention some time ago. Great speech from such a piece of ***.
    Movies are like that, too. On the Waterfront was a pro-McCarthy film, telling people that it’s ok to fink out a brother (literally). No one can say that film was mediocre.
    I have not seen the Hurt Locker and not likely will but the quality of a film, as film-making goes, can be divorced from the message. It’s obvious that this movie was a pro-war film in that it didn’t argue against the very reason why the IED’s were even planted.
    Jack had a great analogy of what we would call a film by the Nazis in Stalingrad or the Japanese in Burma doing the very same, and that is war propaganda.
    Reminds me of all the Kumbaya liberals who say “I support the troops. Bring them home.” Sorry, but it’s an imperial army and our sympathies should go to those invaded and hero worshipping should be for those who take on the Nazis, the Japanese, the Americans, etc.

  7. MylesH said on September 5th, 2010 at 3:12pm #

    Heroes like Muntadar al-Zaidi are an inspiration.

  8. catguy00 said on September 11th, 2010 at 7:25pm #

    I have to disagree with calling the Hurt Locker a pro-war movie just because it did not deal with the politics behind the war.

    The Thin Red Line is a beautiful war epic. It did not deal with the politics behind the war. Does that make it a pro-war movie?

    If the Hurt Locker glorified the conflict then I could understand. But it doesn’t.

    Plus Hollywood has produced numerous anti-war films dealing with Iraq and the Middle East. Unfortunately many of them weren’t up to par.