Sunday, March 7, 2010

Rambo and Custer rolled into one

While Avatar is likely to win Best Picture this Sunday, my pick is the dark horse candidate, The Hurt Locker. Leaving aside disputes over the film’s veracity about the Iraq War, the film is first and foremost a character study of its hero/anti-hero, William James, played superbly by Jeremy Renner.

The film opens with the following quote: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

In the first half of the film, we proceed to see William James save the day over and over again. Each situation is more difficult than the last and he doesn’t even seem to notice. Up to this point, he is the guy every other guy secretly wants to be which is why others resent him.

But in two crucial scenes the films takes all this back. James, who is usually cool under pressure, loses his composure as he discovers a ‘body bomb’ which he believes to be the corpse of a boy he knows. He subsequently engages in a wild goose chase to avenge the boy which ends with him being run out of a house by a domestic housewife (the only time a woman appears in the film.)

The second scene occurs when he sees the after effects of bomb that detonated in the city. Outraged, he wildly speculates where the perpetrators might be and persuades his team to go after them. It ends badly as one member of his team is shot in the pursuit. That man’s take on the escapade is important since he alludes to the film’s opening quote. He says in effect that he had to get shot so James could get his adrenaline rush. James, who feeds of his emotions, lacks judgment.

In the classical view, the virtuous man is the one whose passions submit to his reason, while the vicious man has things the other way around. James, who is a slave to his passions, is not heroic in this picture.

His addiction is so severe that he is unable to live at home when his tour ends (Aristotle’s harshest criticism of the Spartans was their inability to live in PEACE). He quickly signs up for another tour and film ends with him back to his old bomb-detonating ways.

Yet the ending does finish on an ambiguous note. Having spent the second half of the film depicting James in the most negative light, the final scene leaves us with an image of James as an Achilles like character. What person doesn’t want to walk into such dangerous situations without flinching? Right judgment seeks the golden mean between two extremes, but not all extremes are equal. Better to be recklessly bold than spinelessly afraid.

The War Films of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s (Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Stone’s Platoon, and Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket) favored black and white messages about War’s dehumanizing effects on people.

More recent films (Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker) prefer a more subtle approach, weighing matters more carefully. Avoiding Homeric War-Mongering and Modern Pacificism, their balanced look is nice media via.


  1. Whoa! You got it right! Right on!

  2. Just to add to your statement "Right judgment seeks the golden mean between two extremes, but not all extremes are equal. Better to be recklessly bold than spinelessly afraid." It seems that James does encourage this "right judgement" to Eldridge when he says, "It's your call." Eldridge learns from his past "spinelessness" and acts boldly. Its nice to see his character develop through the film.

  3. Hurt Locker was great - enjoyed the comments.