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

by Anthony Kaufman
December 14, 2009 6:25 AM
27 Comments
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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.

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More: Iraq, War

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27 Comments

  • Aerin | March 4, 2012 5:28 PMReply

    Just rented this critically praised movie last night, and felt the need for a reality check. I have no military background and don't care to nitpick about inaccuracies. I was just hoping for a gripping and/or moving drama. Here's a play-by-play of things that went through my mind while watching: Gee, I hope this whole film is not from the POV of the bot. Thank goodness, it's not. When will the actual movie start? [glance at clock -- 35 minutes in] Who is meant to be the main character? The reckless guy or the sensible, responsible guy? Is there a story here somewhere? Why do the soldiers seem to expect that all the locals understand English? What?!? Is that really all we get to see of Ralph Fiennes!?! Why on earth did they hire Ralph Fiennes for such a tiny, empty part, when any fit actor with a British accent would have done? Is there a story here somewhere? Watch out, Colonel! Don't get in that Humvee! You will inevitably get blown up, because you are an educated-sounding man and therefore clueless. Why is the filmmaker taking so long to blow up the colonel, when we all know it is coming? That's an awful long time for James to stay on the line without saying anything to his wife (but didn't they get divorced), and for her to keep saying "Hello?" Is he breathing heavily? Does she stay on because she suspects it is her psycho husband? Is there a story here, somewhere? Is James actually angry to see that Beckham is alive? How long is this movie, anyway? [glances at clock] [credits are rolling] Wow, was that really Evangeline Lilly? Maybe I should go back and watch that scene again...Nah. Was the movie meant to be a faux documentary? If not, why didn't it have any real plot or character development? Well, at least I had a coupon for a free rental.

  • Nick | January 24, 2012 11:01 PMReply

    "The Hurt Locker" was an undoubtedly wellmade genre movie disguised as arty pompous drama (making it a perfect oscar bait). But it was much like every american/european feature or documentary (that i've seen and i've seen many) depicting the war in Iraq/Afghanistan totally uninterested in showing the lives of the actual victims of the war. The Iraqis are only voiceless spectators of their own demise.

  • Angelos Fernandes | October 7, 2011 8:57 AMReply

    The Hurt Locker won the Best Picture and Best Director because of USA conspiracy. We all know that. Soon, the movie Osama bin Laden is gonna win.

  • Dood | August 27, 2011 5:51 AMReply

    Oh wait... but if this movie had been about the NYPD or any other domestic police force then all inaccuracies would have just made for good drama!

    I'd love to see every film picked apart so badly. We'd only have a handful of good ones to watch then and I doubt even those would be good enough for some of you anal retentive folks.

  • Hurt Locker hater | June 15, 2011 5:05 AMReply

    It's a conspiracy. even you can make a Best Picture nowadays... you just put an Islam Shiite leader... and you kill him -- BAM! You got yourself the Best Picture... I bet Kathryn's next project -- Osama bin Laden -- will be the Best Picture for 2012/2013... AVATAR and TRANSFORMERS are way better than her movies !

  • nick chan | February 16, 2011 7:52 AMReply

    yeah, completely overrated. sub-par acting, pretentious cinematography. just like Precious

  • Gurg the Fellfowler | September 7, 2010 3:02 AMReply

    Yep. I was like 'did they really just have a guy at sundown call his wife just to hear the sound of her voice and then hang up?' 'did that same guy just break down in the shower fully clothed to wash the blood off?' etc, etc...Just unimaginative....

  • Kurono | May 10, 2010 4:06 AMReply

    The saddest thing here will be when a female director DESERVES a Oscar she'll be banned or ignorate. The Hurt Locker didn't deserve being nominated in so much categories, this isn't the best Bigelow films (and I admire her by hthe underrated "Extrange Days"), predicible. And when she pick the Oscar, the only thing she doesn't wear . Where are the Academy "experts" when "The Thin Red Line" shows one of the most depressive sides of the WWII. This Bigelow's videoclip-movie will be the overrated crap of the 2001-2010.

  • tedd | March 17, 2010 4:04 AMReply

    This movie is a piece of crap. i cannot belive it ,beat avatar for best director or film,,, its not a war movie, too much stupid humour and heroism

  • aia | March 14, 2010 6:41 AMReply

    Wow. Hurt Locker is a good movie but NOT worthy of the Oscar. Its film making and story wasn't at all that extraordinary.

    The standard of Oscar awards voting has really gone down in these past few years. Hurt Locker is not even better than other war films like "Saving Private Ryan" and "Black Hawk Down".

    And seriously, "Slum Dog Millionaire" over "Benjamin Button" for Best Picture?!!! Really!?

  • Dina W | March 9, 2010 11:02 AMReply

    Thank god someone wrote down exactly what I was thinking. Every war movie that comes out of America, or Hollywood - especially those relating to the war in Iraq, seems to only deal with one thing - the suffering and loss of american troops. What about the 100´s of thousands of Innocent Iraqi women, men and children who have died as a result of this war? And why is Iraq always depicted this way in the movies? Once the cradle of civilisation - now shown as a pig stye full of terrorists. What am I to expect though. A movie which truely portrays the kindness and suffering of Arabic people will never gain recognition in Hollywood (see the wonderful 'Voices of Iraq', or the lebanese 'Caramel'). You say that unless you are a soldier on the battlefield you will never understand how Iraq looks in their eyes. Well lets see the other side of the coin. What if this was your country, like it is mine - and your people dying..What if your memory of it is your grandparents and extended family eating by the river amongst the date trees? No war. No terrorism. Would you still have the same view point? For this reason, the academey awards have become, with each passing year - a whole lot of bullshit. A pat on the ass from the popular star quarter back to the other players.

  • Abu | March 9, 2010 5:16 AMReply

    I didn't really like Hurt Locker. Decent to watch. But best movie of the year? No way. Not even the writing thrilled me. It won because of the topic, and most of us know that is the truth.

  • Mark Willig | March 9, 2010 12:18 AMReply

    I was overwhelmed to hear the Hurt Locker had been nominated for even one Oscar. Where was Moon in the nomination field. The Oscars are a sham and being his or her "time" should never qualify one for an award. We seem to be living in a world of politics that detach us from the fundamental aspects of an awards ceremony such as the Oscars. We constantly see the wrong people receiving these awards and it is simply not fair.

  • Arjun Rajendran | March 8, 2010 5:21 AMReply

    If the Oscars make a statement about films and actors, it is often a popular one; no surprise that Hurt Locker, probably the worst war film made in recent times, bagged best picture this year. Last year, it was that execrable film, Slum Dog Millionaire.

  • mlm | March 6, 2010 9:13 AMReply

    From the fully clothed shower seen ending with our detached adrenaline junky curled up in the corner, or the “blowing off some steam” in the barracks with some alcohol laced rough-housing, tiresome FX gasoline explosions that look even worse in slow motion and do nothing to portray the decimating and internal organ liquefying effects of what a 22,000fps IED explosion can do, that a sniper with steel sights and standard military rounds is a better shot at distance than a professionally trained American solider on a 50-cal sniper rifle, that the good guys on the 50cal sniper rifle can’t hit a stationary target but can nail that same target when it gets up and runs away, the portrayal of a troubled soldier as nearly continuously fixated by random death so as to be a liability in the field, a “hero” who’s indifference to risk makes him a write-off for any emotional investment by the audience….what a bore. I had few expectations of this movie and was willing to let it rip. It left dumbfounded that the hardest working guys in that production where told to never let the camera sit still—ever! Young, inexperienced people making films with an arsenal of clichés, little research, one dimension characters, bad effects, yada, yada, yada. They should stick to coffee shops and texting.

  • John | February 22, 2010 4:24 AMReply

    I'd take issue with any characterization of The Hurt Locker as a well made film, apolitical or otherwise. It's a cartoon. Is "suspenseful" defined simply by sticking a bomb in a road and having a cornball hotshot diffuse it recklessly? MacGruber does that on Saturday Night Live almost every week.

    There's zero character development. All of the actors are 10-15 years too old for to portray their characters--even the guy who plays the stereotypically anxious kid soldier is 35 years old. And the portrayal of battlefield action is so ridiculously wrong that it's comic. The Hurt Locker would have you believe that bomb teams roll around Iraq randomly, bump into British mercenaries--and let the mercenaries use their SAW??--and then uh, wait around until dark so they can go home? What?

    The movie is no less of a cartoon than Rambo III or any other dumb action movie it supposedly rises above.

  • Pbo | February 3, 2010 1:18 AMReply

    I don't think you scathed it enough. Maybe I got up to smoke and missed the 5 minutes of thrill and edge of your seat whatever, so i'm wrong...except I didn't. The movie was awful, it was the same damn thing over and over again. I'm in the military, and onboard our ship anyone who was been IA (deployed to the middle east, Individual Augmentee) refuses to watch the movie because its nowhere near what happens there to the point of finding it offensively stupid. Today I saw that it was nominated for best picture and started laughing. I seriously thought this was a borderline B movie when I watched it. The idea that someone would say this would be studied in 20 years for anything more than how to bore people to death with multiple versions of the same thing over and over again is absurd. I didn't hate this movie nearly this much until I saw people actually think it deserves to be with almost any of the movies nominated with it for best picture.

  • anon | February 2, 2010 5:55 AMReply

    I was trying to find some site that confirmed my own feelings on "Hurt Locker" so I can be sure i didn't slip into some alternate universe where this testosterone fest is oscar material. Apparently, I am in this alternate universe though.. It's really a very shallow film that is just a bunch of jank.

  • Ami | February 1, 2010 3:28 AMReply

    I really enjoy war films, but yes I do believe Hurt Locker has gained unearned acclaim. It actually feels like a video game to me, the hand held camera, the premise and poor dialogue for rather shallow characters. The film was slick, entertaining and suspenseful but it does leave you feeling empty. Compared to Full Metal Jacket, Bridge on the River Kwai and Deer Hunter, I'm horrified that it's being hailed as one of the best war films ever. I'm a female, and I do think the director being a woman making an action film (not to mention James Cameron's ex) will help her win an Oscar this year. This is an especially weak year. She'll win. Double standard? Ha.

    People need to start watching more old films.

  • jim | January 31, 2010 2:01 AMReply

    I watched The Hurt Locker recently, enjoyed it, felt it solid but didn't understand the universal critical acclaim for it thus I decided to browse the nets to see if I could find someone who could articulate my feeling of something being missing. The reviewer is not that person.

    I agree along with the reviewer that there the film is overated but for drastically different reasons. I think it's good, maybe great, but not "universal" great. The business of there being explosions isn't the point, it's how the feel before the explosions is treated, and that is what makes the film solid. As for the depictions of everyone being Al Qaeda, if you are diffusing bombs in a far away land where literally anyone can trigger the device you would probably have a different kind of vigilence and paranoia about you. The film portrays this feeling well and doesn't justify so much as make the viewer (OK, some viewers) understand it. Bigelow's goal appears to be making an entertaining war movie not a political statement and I'm unsure of what gives you the impression that it has to be the latter. Even if there was some kind of statement it wouldn't have to be about "the" war, but "war". I believe that the film is a good "war" film.

    I thought the set pieces were tense and brilliantly shot, and though I don't know what it feels like to diffuse bombs, the scenes gave me the feeling of being there. The sniper battle from beginning to end was a fantastic scene and the way dryness was portrayed - blood, dust and (lack of) saliva - made me thirsty. Again the set pieces were well done, but the threads that tied these elements together were lacking and cliched in my opinion. The star bomb diffuser was an aggravating and facinating character (the former purposely so) and the juxtoposition of him living his normal life for 10 minutes made me feel the shock of attempting normalcy after leaving an intense situation; however his relationship with his crew and his tangent in searching for Beckham seemed forced and didn't hold my interest. Not that I care that a film has to be plausable - it's a film - but the anger and side adventures seemed too far off from the tone of the rest of the film. I would have preferred if they just cut the two adventures (Beckham and the night search) altogether and made the film exclusively EOD porn. Despite my not liking the binding elements I still feel that this is probably best film (IMO, of course) about the Iraq war, despite not really being about "the" war but instead being about "war".

    Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris) is probably best Iraq War film but it is in a genre miles away from what THL is, so I'll give THL the prize for fiction. The best I've seen in portraying the war seriously and entertainingly is Generation Kill, which granted, is a 7 episode series, but in my opinion the best Iraq War document that has been made.

  • jqmes | January 18, 2010 3:12 AMReply

    Anthony -

    I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of Hurt Locker. It's sad that this film, which is very, very well made, is looked at as a masterpiece ("one of the great war films" - Time; "A classic...that will be studied 20 years from now" - New Yorker). I think it says a lot about the quality of work that we've seen in the last year in general and about the Iraq "war" in specific.

    Even though I haven't been in the military, and I now completely understand that EVERYONE IS SUSPECT, based on the whole slate of films about Iraq from the last 10 years, of which only In the Valley of Elah is interesting and sophisticated, I have come up with only one way to move forward without getting completely frustrated and depressed: I will not watch another American-made film about Iraq that does not have an Iraqi as a main character.

    FYI, there was a nice book review in The Nation called Across the Great Divide about David Finkle's book The Good Soldiers that, although it's about books applies well to movies, explores the reasons why almost all work that sets out to explore the psyche of the American soldier in Iraq ultimately loses any sort of objectivity and ends up glorifying the soldiers' mission and losing the ability to critique the American agenda.

    And ps: there's no such thing as an "apolitical" war movie.

  • James | January 9, 2010 4:22 AMReply

    Bang on assessment. I have some military experience, and I thought the scenes were so implausible I was laughing out loud as I watched it. There was no plot, little character development, no realism - very little story. I absolutely hated the protagonist for his retarded actions. The EOD teams DO NOT DIFFUSE BOMBS OR ACT AS INFANTRY - they 'blow in place' using ROBOTS - ALWAYS. SO THE EVERY SCENE WAS TOTALLY FICTION. This was a made for TV movie.

  • Sgt. Mack | December 28, 2009 11:14 AMReply

    I don't agree with you, because #1, the way that Arabs are portrayed have NOTHING to do with a political statement, it's not supposed to be Fox news version of them, but the way the SOLDIERS look at them. You've never been to Iraq or look like you've even touched a gun, but take it from someone who's been there and done that, when a fucking 15 year old points an AK 47 at your head, then wherever you go, EVERYONE is suspect.

    Imagine not being able to walk down the street without worrying about ANY random person being able to attack you at ANY moment. EVERYONE IS SUSPECT.

    Get over your ignorance, you obviously have no idea what you're talking about, and furthermore, who says that a war film can't be anything BUT a suspenseful thrill ride?

  • john | December 20, 2009 9:49 AMReply

    While I generally thought the movie was terrible, I have to question the complaint about the portrayal of Iraq--or at least the "American view" of it. Remember these are soldiers, they aren't there on vacation. They are put into combat zones with a job to do, and that job is to keep their own asses and the people around them from getting blown to hell. For a soldier in an active war zone every cellphone IS a time bomb, every civilian IS an enemy combatant, until proven otherwise.

    Now of course the whole gutted pigs and cultural depiction issue holds more weight, you have to keep it in context. This is one film that is going for a specific background and atmosphere. Plenty of films show a grittier, often unrealistically so, portrait of western cultures. In movies that seek to portray a similar atmosphere that are situated in the west it is all too common to see dank subways filled with rotting trash, butchers shown hacking apart meat, and an infinite variety of digusting actions by hillbillies. And that isn't even getting into localized depictions of war, much less your typical horror movie.

    As long as it is not a standard only applied to a single place(ie: everywhere in the world is perfectly fine BUT _____) or it is the ONLY depiction of that place, there is not an issue. To disallow a type of portrayal simply because it is a foreign country is in itself the xenophobic attitude.

  • JohnD | December 17, 2009 9:17 AMReply

    A very enthusiastic critical review of the “Hurt Locker”. I appreciate your opinion but in all fairness I don’t think that this is your kind of movie my friend. You might want to stick to movies that are more in your lane, such as “Brokeback Mountain”, “Fahrenheit 911” and the likes. This is a movie that depicts an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Team operating in Iraq. Now although not procedurally accurate in every sense of the way that an EOD team operates, and an over-the-top “Gung-Ho” team leader, it is a very entertaining, apolitical movie, which doesn’t try to explain the war. My heart goes out to the Iraqi people, but when you and your team are out on an IED response mission, yes every five-o’-clock shadowed Arab is a potential threat and every cell phone is a ticking time bomb. Complacency will get you killed and unfortunately that is the way it is. I can speak from first hand experience being a former EOD Team Leader with a tour in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan. My opinion of the movie is, not a completely accurate depiction of how an EOD team operates, could have had some better soundtracks (I mean really, did the Vietnam era movies just have the best soundtracks, or what, even “Jarhead” had some good music). There were a lot of things that I could have knit-picked apart just because of my experience, but I am just so jazzed that someone has made an EOD related movie that doesn’t completely suck (such as “Blown Away”). Last but not least, Check it out and form your own opinion.

  • anon blog reader | December 15, 2009 5:47 AMReply

    What a sad statement that it is considered one of the best indies of the year... and for the record, isn't PRECIOUS really even less impressive?

  • Deej | December 14, 2009 7:41 AMReply

    Well, would you preferred that accolades be conferred on Precious, an equally caricatured portrait of grotesque ... and screaming, hysterical women ... " You said it.

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