The victory at the Oscars of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker over James Cameron’s Avatar was generally perceived as a good sign of the state of things in Hollywood: a low-budget, independent film overcomes a superproduction whose technical brilliance cannot cover up the flat simplicity of its story. So Hollywood is not just a blockbuster machine, but still knows how to appreciate marginal creative efforts. Well, maybe. But it’s also the case that, with all its mystifications, Avatar clearly takes the side of those who oppose the global military-industrial complex, while The Hurt Locker presents the US army in a way which is much more finely attuned to its own public image in our time of humanitarian interventions and militaristic pacifism.
The film largely ignores the debate about the US military intervention in Iraq, and instead focuses on the daily ordeals, on and off duty, of ordinary soldiers forced to deal with danger and destruction. In pseudo-documentary style, it tells the story – or rather, a series of vignettes – of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad. This choice is deeply symptomatic: although soldiers, they do not kill, but risk their lives dismantling terrorist bombs destined to kill civilians – can there be anything more sympathetic to our liberal eyes? Are our armies in the ongoing War on Terror, even when they bomb and destroy, ultimately not just such EOD squads, patiently dismantling terrorist networks in order to make the lives of civilians everywhere safer?
[Extract. Appeared in LRB Blog on March 23rd 2010.]