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?
But there is more to the film. The Hurt Locker brought back to Hollywood the trend which also accounts for the success of two recent Israeli films about the 1982 Lebanon war, Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz With Bashir and Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon. Lebanon draws on Maoz’s memories of being a young soldier; most of the action claustrophobically takes place inside a tank. The movie follows four inexperienced soldiers dispatched to ‘mop up’ enemies in a Lebanese town that has already been bombarded by the Israeli air force. Interviewed at the 2009 Venice festival, Yoav Donat, one of the actors, said: ‘This is not a movie that makes you think: “I’ve just been to a movie.” This is a movie that makes you feel like you’ve been to war.’ Maoz has said his film is not a condemnation of Israel’s policies, but a personal account of what he went through: ‘The mistake I made is to call the film Lebanon because the Lebanon war is no different in its essence from any other war and for me any attempt to be political would have flattened the film.’ This is ideology at its purest: the focus on the perpetrator’s traumatic experience enables us to obliterate the entire ethico-political background of the conflict.
The Hurt Locker’s depictions of the daily horror and traumatic impact of serving in a war zone seems to put it miles apart from such sentimental celebrations of the US army’s humanitarian role as John Wayne’s infamous Green Berets. However, we should bear in mind that the terse-realistic presentation of the absurdities of war in The Hurt Locker obfuscates and thus makes acceptable the fact that its heroes are doing exactly the same job as the heroes of The Green Berets. In its very invisibility, ideology is here, more than ever: we are there, with our boys, identifying with their fear and anguish instead of questioning what they are doing there.