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The Hurt Locker (Revisited and Overrated): Explosions and Xenophobia

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik December 14, 2009 at 6:25AM

The Hurt Locker (Revisited and Overrated): Explosions and Xenophobia
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I do not share my fellow critics' enthusiasm for "The Hurt Locker," which was just picked as the best film of the year by the New York Film Critics. Back in September 2008, I saw the film at its Toronto fest premiere and I'm re-posting a blog post from the time, which sums up my criticisms.

If Kathyn Bigelow weren’t at the helm of the most testosterone-fueled movie of the year “The Hurt Locker,” my criticisms would probably be more scathing of the much-hyped Toronto picture. Still, I can’t help but take a few moments here to counter some of the positive buzz. Sure, “The Hurt Locker” is not like other Iraq war films; for one, it’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller that has nothing to do with the war. But that’s the problem.

It’s pretty easy to transplant maverick, bomb-defusing renegade Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) for Patrick Swayze’s maverick surfer criminal renegade Bodhi in “Point Break.” He’s the wild, charismatic lead, whose reckless behavior is the fascinating object of the audience and its surrogates, whether Keanu Reeve’s FBI agent or, in “The Hurt Locker,” Anthony Mackie’s by-the-book Sgt. Sanborn. With Bigelow, you get to examine the possibly homoerotic and aggressive dimension of these competitive male relationships. But moreover, you get Excitement! Thrills! Explosions! I don’t disparage Bigelow’s filmmaking skills—she knows how to raise the tension and keep the viewer clenched—but I don’t trust her politics, neither gender nor global.

If, like many war movies, “Hurt Locker” tries to leave the audience with a sense of the horrors of battle and how it can damage its participants, such insights are a mere band-aid over the film’s overwhelming mission: To entertain the audience with scenes of suspense, one after another, with little plot development. I leave a discussion of the script construction to other critics.

But “The Hurt Locker” is most offensive in its depiction of Iraq itself and the Iraqi people. A strange foreign culture, with images of grotesque gutted pigs and screaming, hysterical women, Bigelow’s Iraq is a Fox News Broadcast. Every five-o’-clock shadowed Arab is a potential threat and every cellphone is a ticking time bomb. The single sympathetic Iraqi in the entire film is a hustling kid; everyone else is treated as Al Qaeda. This might best mirror the protagonist’s American tunnel-vision perspective, but it’s also grossly xenophobic. I enjoyed “Point Break” as much as the next guy, but when it comes to a political statement, Bigelow should stick to those set in California.

This article is related to: Iraq, War

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