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The Hurt Locker: Film Review and Analysis

In an era of the Internet, in the age of sound bites, and in the world of texts that collapse the meaning of words into a single letter or two; where the bombardment of information ceaselessly flows, the ability to analyze, synthesize, and correctly processing information becomes ever more crucially important.  How does one begin, for example, to assess what does it all mean when two billion people worldwide were expected to watch the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. Before one could even absorb, assess, and analyze such a phenomenon, there comes the death of Osama bin Laden, by his own admission, the mastermind of 9/11 attacks that forever changed the way Americans live their lives. Those images of the two passenger planes flying into the twin towers in New York City are emblazoned in our collective memory just as are the three thousand innocent people who perished in the attack. Optics and their mosaic offshoots such as documentaries and films will play a central role – now more than ever – in an attempt to give viewers a comprehensive picture of events.

The Hurt Locker was released in 2009 but I happened to watch it in 2011 when the two above events were taking place. At any rate, The Hurt Locker is such an important film whose director, Kathryn Bigelow, explosively plays with the optical illusion so effectively that a viewer can’t help but stay on the edge of one’s seat. The weaving of this mosaic story is about three soldiers whose job it is to detonate and defuse bombs that were planted by the insurgents during the war in Iraq – at the height of the insurgency, in 2004. This article will examine the emblazoning of the words of “WAR IS DRUG” that one sees at the start of the movie. The metaphor of war as a drug just does not hold because it works against the going theme in the movie of emotional connections, of professionalism, and of the caring nature that the three soldiers exhibit toward one another and to the civilian population of Iraq.

A good flick can immerse a viewer in the entanglements of the main characters in the one-hundred-thirty-minutes journey of the viewing experience. Through the three professional soldiers in the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit, “The Hurt Locker” locks the three main characters by giving the viewer the raw emotions, trepidations, and the taunts of war as they go about doing the dangerous job of defusing or detonating the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). The first such attempt at detonation ends up blowing the team leader named Thompson because of the indecisiveness of one of the three members of the team. Had Eldridge acted decisively and shot the insurgent he would have saved Thompson. Through the first IED that went awry a viewer begins to see Eldridge’s subsequent indecisive actions and the psychological problems he seems to be exhibiting for which he receives help from a trained soldier named Cambridge. This is most certainly not a case of a psychedelic hit of LSD. The Eldridge’s case is one of disorientation due to the horrors of war. Therefore, it can hardly fit the “war is drug” metaphor.

The second team member is Sanborn, a professional soldier who wants to do his job and return home alive. The death of Thompson rattles some of Sanborn’s nerves but maintains his levelheaded persona until the new team leader’s arrival; James is dispatched to replace the deceased Thompson. On the first job to defuse/detonate James clearly wants to establish that he is the leader and Sanborn will have to learn to respect that. In such an effort, James chooses to do his job with his own hands and heeds no ears to Sanborn’s suggestion of using the remote-controlled device that could possibly accomplish the task. The frustrating alliance between the two soldiers begins in earnest. After two successive and successful defusing of bombs, Sanborn and James begin to develop emotional connections to one another. After one particular, intense bomb defusing experience the three soldiers are shown to have alcohol drinks with James and Sanborn playing kickboxing each other while Eldridge serves as the referee. Finally, the game begins to reach a climax when James pummels Sanborn and acts like he is riding a wild horse in a “horse-playing” manner with James’s crotch right on the face of Sanborn. Sanborn manages to whip out a knife pointing it right at James’s neck while James is still on top of Sanborn. A viewer is caught in a state of intense curiosity whether the scene is going to climax in “Broke Mountain” moment or “Make My Day?” The game, however, subsided and James eased away from Sanborn’s face, immediately thereafter, James and Eldridge are seen assisting Sanborn by safely delivering him to his room due to his drunken stupor, he could hardly walk without wobbling. This was an act of camaraderie among soldiers that cared about each other. The complexity of war is encapsulated in this one scene. No matter how out of hand things might seem, soldiers took care of one another. This act of caring amongst the three soldiers goes against all sensibilities of calling “war is drug.”

Leadership sometimes requires that a team leader sets boundaries by upping the ante so that credibility is established. James’s character is shown as someone who can go beyond the call of duty when necessary to accomplish the task. Prima facie, it may appear to James’s partners, Eldridge and Sanborn, whom they refer James as “rowdy” and “reckless” respectively. However, James’s decisiveness is one of the hallmark characteristics that keeps him emotionally sound and physically unscathed. For example, James leads Sanborn and Eldridge into an intense firefight after a bomb was detonated by insurgents; the team could not find any traces of suicide bomber. Sanborn clearly wants to leave the scene implying that their job was to detonate/defuse and not go after phantom insurgents who may be lurking in the dark alleys of Baghdad. James, however, reasons by stating that he was not going to let anybody laugh at them in the dark alley while they capitulate to the lame excuses of attributing the bombing to suicide bomber when there is no solid evidence. Thus, James authorizes that they go after the insurgents and fight, for he wants to eliminate the insurgency at every possible opportunity. Now, this brave and bold initiative may not be what other soldiers in James’s position would do. One can hardly attribute this beyond the call of duty action, however, to anything resembling of a junky in the need for a fix. Leadership, team spirit, and good-naturedness need not be defined in a commonly inferred normal circumstance. Extraordinary circumstances call for unique perspectives that defy the normal circumstance definitions and metaphors. As a team leader, James’s character shows several initiatives in which not only he risks his life but those who are in his team. One example will suffice for illustration. James as a leader readily responded to the request of helping hand to the strangers who were stranded with a flat tire in the desert. The simple gesture of kindness ends in a long drawn out sniper shootout – that’s what happens in a war zone. An unexpected turn of events could turn a simple gesture of kindness into a dangerously close call of death.

The fast-moving information age, where news vis-à-vis images, sound bites, and texts can prevent someone from making accurate assessments because of their rapid nature of dislodging information. Movies and documentaries must be given ample room to bring forth stories that allow for comprehensive assessments. In the movie, “The Hurt Locker,” Director Kathryn Bigelow brings a fresh perspective on war and its consequences through the three characters that embodied the gamut in psychological terms. In Eldridge, a viewer sees a young man who is perturbed by the deaths of fellow soldiers to some of whom he feels responsible for their demise. In Sanborn, one sees an epitome of a professional soldier who does not want to commit himself anything beyond the call of duty but shows respect to authority and delivers when asked by his team leader such as James. In James, a viewer sees a young man who understands his job well; that his job of detonation and/or defusing bombs means that he can perish in a split of a second. This kind of highly dangerous post requires a psychological makeup that is diametrically opposite from the normal circumstances, thus giving James clarity and decisiveness that one does not see in the other two soldiers that he closely works with. Therefore, to insinuate that James, Sanborn, and Eldridge are on adrenaline rush much like drug addicts in search of a fix by emblazoning of the words, “war is drugs” at the beginning of the movie is to miss the whole point. Such phrasing goes against the going theme of the movie. The movie shows three soldiers who go on their daily challenges of detonating and/or defusing bombs placing their lives in harm’s way every minute of the day and night to save the lives of civilian Iraqis as well as those of their own.

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  • Beyan

    Selam Kbur Haw Ismail AA.,

    Dear Ismail AA.,

    Many thanks for lavishing me with generosity that I still feel undeserving, but I truly appreciate your kind words. You bring in an interesting dimension to war, which is the monumental destruction that war brings to innocent lives in the millions. You give it life, blood in all of its goriness, which is truly what war does.

    The US’s foreign policy has been such that it matters very little to it so long the war and destruction is done in some other neighborhoods, but not in our backyard. Hey, sitting in situation room at the White House or in some ivory tower at the Pentagon, remotely deciding on the fate of nations fighting over one another, without any due consideration to the unintended consequence, where civilian lives become collateral damage. Nobody seems to care about the people’s cries, pain, and despair that seem to fall on deaf ears. There just is nothing good that can come out of war other than mayhem, displacement, dispossession, wretched existence, and misery of untold proportions.


  • Selam All,

    Let me congratulate KS, my choice for our MAN OF THE YEAR – 2018, of awate.com, although I am not sure if he is finally the winner of the title.

    Now, to a non ethiopian-eritrean issue, at least directly, but a regional on, which most probably would affect both countries. i am sure we are not going to quarrel over it, for this is a day of peace and love. That is the new sudan-russia-qatar rapprochement, and most probably a front in formation.

    Al bashir is inviting the russians to the red sea (sudan), to help him confront what he calls american destabilization of sudan, even though it partially removed the sanction against his country few months ago.

    He is ready to buy modern jet fighters, missile air defence (S-300) and nuclear power plant from the russians, and he is inviting them to build a naval base on the red sea coast.

    In addition, it looks like that he might be trying to create a sudan-russia-qatar-iran-turkey front against the gcc-america front. A russian and qatari defence officials visited sudan recently. It is said that al bashir went as far as given an island, an ancient islamic site, i think, to erdogan of turkey, the details of which i do not know.

    What i do not understand is why is al bashir doing all these? What does he have in mind? Why would he put sudan and the whole region within the broader regional conflict that up to now did not affect the horn of africa directly?

  • Paulos

    Selam Dr. Beyan,

    Thank you for the great review. Perhaps the difference between life and an art as in cinema is that the latter owns a rehearsal at its own disposal where as the former can not go back in time and redo events. The measure of a great film maker then depends on one’s ability to bring cinema into the close approximation of real life where script is translated into visual arts.

    War certainly loses its significance when it is translated into visual arts for war is as the French Philosopher Denis Diderot put it, “A convulsive and violent disease of the body politic.”

    The question one would be hard pressed to ask is, does war own a moral dimension? Or to put is differently, can war be morally justified? The contradiction lies in the fact that, war brings out the animal instinct with in us where morality seems to lose any space. But thinkers find rationality in war when they say, it is the continuation of politics by other means. When it is a means to an end however, the price is the lose of human life where the Law of Entropy is in its highest.

    If war brings out the animal instinct in us, can it be used to tame the animal instinct in others? To be more precise, does war have an altruistic element in it? Can states declare war on others when the others are disadvantaged as in when people are under the brute force of tyranny? Perhaps. Great powers may have the moral obligation as custodians of liberty to guarantee human rights and “cross oceans in search of monsters to destroy.” The objectives of war however becomes limited when the temptation to extend it’s objectives become irresistible.

    The role of film makers is then to challenge the audience if war can be judged not in its historical content or totality but through a character in the play.

    For instance, Oliver Stone typical product of his generation, tells the story of war through a character played by Charlie Sheen in “Platoon.” Charlie Sheen from wealthy family, volunteers to go to Vietnam but before he knew it, he gets disillusioned when the war loses its political objectives. Terrence Malick a Harvard Philosophy graduate turned film maker tells a story of war in “The Thin Red Line” where in the background a voice narrates if there is any meaning in war at all. Steven Spielberg as well adds a unique character in “Saving Private Ryan” where a soldier who joined the company to translate English to Germany finds himself in this particular scene where he debates with himself if he should use his gun to defend his follow soldier. Certainly, the audience would subconsciously urge the soldier to use the gun where his role in the film was symbolic as the film maker’s objective was just that. When the audience leaves the movie house with an aftertaste after watching the above three movies, war still continues to be part of us where it’s absence is not necessarily peace either.

    • Beyan

      merHaba Dr. Paulos,

      I tell you, I was caught ill prepared temporally speaking in that I was so sure the piece was going to not generate any discussion using past dispatches that tended to border on the literary side, which had gotten little to no attention. So, I thought I was on safe grounds being busy with other matters. But, when delightful commentaries grace my article, I cannot not respond in kind. It is what it is, thus, let me try to oblige to the extent that I can.

      Indeed, representations of real events, such as wars – big or small – tend to be rather difficult to capture as they are not the stuff that can be reenacted or depicted, as you insightfully observed, “…can not go back in time and redo events” such as battles. But, take any of Shakespeare’s plays, for example, one can approximate them, reimagine them, and contextualize them closer to their realistic essences to a point of not knowing whether art was imitating life or vice versa.

      Your quest along the lines of humanity’s moral compass vis-à-vis war getting blurred to the extent that “find[ing] rationality in war when they say, it is the continuation of politics by other means” is a testament to losing that humanity’s rational moral compass when we resort to that “animal instinct”, which evolution seems to have not been able to rid of much as it appears to have done with our tailbones (coccyx). Doesn’t science tell us we still possess small part of reptilian brain in us, which tends to be governed by compulsion? One couldn’t help but wonder if those who resort to war have that part of the brain in excess of the norm?

      Certain compulsions notwithstanding (we are already seeing it in the White House and in North Korea as far back as today, where the latter’s posture seems to border to an unhinged compulsion and the former seems to possess equal if not more of the same. The philosophical stance you’ve taken to engage vis-à-vis the concepts of war and its attendant artistic expressions, in this case, cinema is quite fascinating. The two are not too far apart. After all, “plot, Aristotle tells us, is the sole of tragedy and it is what makes the poet like the philosopher.” Without plot coherent narrative will suffer from incoherence. Tragedy and war go hand in hand; so, from that standpoint, the connection between a poet and a filmmaker can’t be that far apart. Bigelow, the director of the film, seems to not only understand this connection but embodies it as she delivers the goods with great finesse.

      Likewise, Happy New Year!

  • Selamat Professor Beyan,

    ‘gushtetey is the entry sentence of your article. I need not “1321” or rotten tomato thumbs up to see a movie. Besides, I believe we have promised to collaborate on a project several years ago. “In the future” was the unspoken agreement. And the future is Today in the East and in four hours time in da West.
    On the Pulaski Sky Way Rout 1, carpooling with my colleague J.Hackworth from Meadville Pa, en route to our office in Secaucus, NJ. On the elevator we we’re told of the first tower collapsing and from the top floor … from accross the Hudson … horrified, shocked, number … helpless… the 2nd….(lost awate forum archives… ‘dugushtetey.)

    Thank you for the movie review.

    AmEritrean GitSAtSA Azzilo40 Agniyeya 40 Acres and a Mule

    • Beyan

      merHaba GitSAtSE

      አነ’ዉን ድጉሽተተይ ኢለ ክሓልፋ እዛ ናይ ሎሚ መልእኽትኻ ጻጸ ሐወይ::

  • said

    Eritrean in diaspora. Soft Power in the Service of Reinforcement of Identity & Legitimate Rights
    Eritrean, despite their abysmal plight as dispossessed and mostly diaspora dispersed people, seem on top of the world with their incredibly honed acumen, resilience, increasing worldliness and disproportionate successes and achievements at the individual level at a Universal Scale.
    In a world that is increasingly valuing and is increasingly reliant on the soft power of knowledge and high professionalism, Eritrean appear, despite their small numbers, at the epicenter of a fast-shifting world, excelling and leaving a strong mark that can no more be overlooked and ignored.
    In a world that is fast converging into a Global Village, where open horizons afford ambitious and creative minds recognition and wide acceptance, Eritrean are disproportionately well-placed to grab the fruits of this fast-changing world.
    Suddenly, Eritrean identity is being most poignantly asserted regionally and worldwide having proven themselves as astute state builders contributing to the development of the new states in the Arab Gulf Region. This is, besides, significantly contributing and positively impacting the socio-economic developments of in many host countries, Eritrean are indirectly gaining, by default, a sense of a De Facto self-determination that would only be a matter of time, the inevitable, for it to translate into a De Jure matter of factuality.
    Undoubtedly, lumping the positive with the negative in an inadvertent cumulative process, diplomacy enhanced world awareness to Eritrean ’ plight and legitimate aspirations. Combined with Eritrean’ generally exceptional individual achievements, these facts are increasingly gaining them world recognition; increasing world sympathy and, inevitably, unconditional world support.
    Eritrean are stubbornly, well into the second generation since it all started, are assertively, generation after generation, proving to the entire world that they exist and that they are entitled to their rights to choose their government and legitimate rights.
    Ironically, in a fast converging world that we in into a Global Village experiencing unprecedented revolutions in instant communication technologies; where ideas, pictures and texts are instantaneously transmitted across the Globe, IA regime, with its increasingly isolationist and dogmatic failed doctrines and governance, is fast-diverging from subscription to the Universal Values and the long-minted ethos of democratic and open liberal societies.
    However, all been said, Eritrean need to collectively adopt an inclusive liberal stance that would accelerate their connection with the Liberal Democratic World by developing their discourse to resonate with the inclusive universal liberal values. That’s a top priority that need to be addressed boldly and squarely.

  • MS

    MarHab Beyan
    Wow!! What an article. This is indeed a desert for those who have already completed list of movies they want to watch during the New Year break. I’m not a movie buff but I will definitely watch this movie. As always, it is an exquisite treat, brilliantly written. Thank you.
    On the “war is drug” expression: I think it all depends on how one looks into the actions of the characters. You have looked at it from its humane perspective, an altruistic angle, that of heroes who bond and sacrifice for the common good.
    Someone else may look at it from the familiar Holly Wood angle: Rambo type attitude. For a a person from a culture that appreciates individual actions or from the perspective of creating “heroes”, yes, war could be seen as drug. Because in their opinion, and in relation to the commercial world of video games, the limelight is on the “heroes” and their individual attributes. Clips of drone operators and helicopter gunners getting the kick out of mowing down defenseless enemy combatants (compared to the sophisticated war machinery posed against them) and civilians are abundant. Their chatters and the occasional roar of bravado they show when obliterating their targets demonstrate the capability of human mind, for good or bad. They tend to get high by employing their war toys in the same manner they used to do it with their video games, downstairs, in their parents house. An example is the massacre American helicopter gunners committed in Baghdad, at a street intersection for which they were prosecuted. Youtube is full of similar actions taken from combat areas across the middle east and Afghanistan.
    So, may be the expression “War is drug” was made with the above cultural background as a driving force. Of course, the caveat here is that I will have to watch the movie.
    In addition: normally war fighting is addictive, in that, soldiers show clear signs of withdrawals when they return from war. As you alluded to, the pumping of hormones takes a toll on soldiers. That could be the simplistic reason why they put the expression: war is addictive.
    Finally, Happy New Year to all, and to our newly elected awatista of the year, KS. I really enjoyed reading it.

    • Beyan

      Selam MS,
      Thanks for the wonderful input. You bring in a perspective that’s vastly different than mine. As former tegadalay, you will have the advantage of the trenches as well as outside it, while mine is confined to the latter. So, I would love to see your take once you get a chance to watch the film. It will be interesting to see whether this article added any valuable dimension as you watched the film, say, when compared to other times when you picked a film. Your dispassionate observation about the war as drug metaphor is well taken. Again, that can only come from who had been in the trenches. So, I am appreciative of that observation.

      I think it was Kbrom who said that he wasn’t a movie buff and now you are point this out … I fit in this category as well. I love to watch regularly, but I have never been able to accomplish that. I had a movie buddy with whom I used to watch a lot of movies back in the days, but he moved on as I have … There also was another good friend with whom I did the same, but with this one it was foreign films, and I began to appreciate the qualities that the foreign movies bring to watching experience. But, my sensibility toward movies seems to jive with American ones. And many who enjoy foreign movies tend to despise the Hollywodization of films.


      • MS

        MarHaba Beyan
        U said “So, I would love to see your take once you get a chance to watch the film. It will be interesting to see whether this article added any valuable dimension as you watched the film, say, when compared to other times when you picked a film.”
        Oh, your article is an excellent review of the movie. Your command of the language and its artistry is just amazing. I will watch it. But here is the thing: I don’t repeat watching a movie or reading a fictional book, no matter how good they are (except SGJ’s “Of kings and bandits” for it is full of historical references and narrates an era that had deeply affected me, that’s in addition to the beautiful storytelling skills of the author where he brings Keren to the reader live). But…but…(hello ST), I usually re-read your articles.
        I enjoy watching documentary movies. Ken Burns is my hero. He produces great documentary movies. He has something in common with the way you treat human tragedies, in all of your articles. Both of you give the victims and the REAL heroes (those who sacrifice for good cause honor, life, and dignity).
        Sure, there are things one learns from Holywood style ACTION movies including cinematographic techniques and technologies, and artistic synthesis of ideas, etc,. I have still to develop the taste and patience for that.
        Hollywood producers tend to go for commercial: they have to have a hero who defies death and fear (superhuman), and who never runs out of ammo. The scenes they choose and the actions they serialize usually fail to reflect the reality of war. Soldiers are not superhuman, they are just trained to handle stressful missions.
        Thanks again.
        PS: from my previous comment: “soldiers show clear signs of withdrawals when they return from war” should be read as “…show signs similar to withdrawal”…that’s they need time to decompress and acclimate to civilian life.

        • Beyan

          Hala MS,

          Points taken to heart without any compunction – the compliments and all, biJimla – kibret yehabellay ezi kbur hawway. My list of things to do for 2018 is rapidly expanding. There was a film that I hope to watch from our Paul and a book on physics to boot, including that of my friend who recommended for me to read on the same subject. And now comes a documentary that I intend to watch, because the lens a filmmaker, an artist of all sorts wears when sharing their stories is critically important for me personally.

          There were vivid poetries that were written by the WWI soldiers who returned to Britain in the aftermath of the war, which I have read a while back. For those of us who’ve never lifted a gun let alone staying in the trenches for months on end to fight, it is the narratives that come from those who experienced the war we begin learn through their lens. Here is a short one that I come back to whenever issues of war are raised. Allow me to end my note for today with it as it really captures the profound ways in which war changes a person from the time going in to the time of return.

          Wilfred Gibson (1878-1962)

          They ask me where I’ve been,
          And what I’ve done and seen.
          But what can I reply
          Who know it wasn’t I,
          But someone just like me,
          Who went across the sea
          And with my head and hands
          Killed men in foreign lands…
          Though I must bear the blame,
          Because he bore my name.

  • Kokhob Selam

    Dear brother Beyan ,,,

    what an educational article man.. ኩናት ወልፊእ እዩ:: ስላም ህድኣት እዩ ::but, really now it easy and no material is really important ..no more war but peace..


    • Beyan

      Dear Kokhob Selam,

      Your name says it – you are the star of peace, literally…where is the Champaign for the Awatista of the year. Now, I don’t if this has become a tradition or it is something that Nitricc came up with. When I saw his nomination announcement I thought he was goofing off as usual … but, MS has now mentioned it – I guess it is for real. I am embarrassed to claim one of the loyal contributors when I didn’t even know this . At any rate, it’s a deserving one. Indeed, “no more war but peace” – from your mouth to the gates of heaven!


      • Kokhob Selam

        Dear Beyan,

        Just now I read the Nitricc and MS,nomination ,,oh my bad,,Was I nominated? What a challenging year!!!