What did it set off? Well, my first mention of Iraq in this blog in about 6 months. We should think about Iraq more often - the US does have close to 100,000 troops still there.
Democrats Abroad Belgium (DAB) organized a screening and discussion at the Cinéma Styx, an institution like no other here. Tucked away in a residential district, it offers space for about 35 people - just right for a discussion.
I came prepared, having read a couple of interviews with Mark Boal, the journalist whose two-week embedding with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in 2004 was the basis of an article that he then turned into a screenplay. It was the embedding that put me on guard, but Boal was very conscious of the "controlled and antiseptic" coverage of the war on American TV.
Here, I think his stint with the EOD guys yielded the right perspective. As George Packer - the New Yorker writer who also spent time in Iraq - says, “The Hurt Locker isn’t an Iraq movie—it’s a war movie." Specifically, a war movie about three guys in a bomb disposal unit. Period.
That said, our DAB audience found a few inklings of political sensibility. A comment from one of the soldiers about turning possibly innocent civilian suspects into insurgents. A disoriented moment back in a Stateside supermarket on R&R and other hints of the PTSD that afflicts thousands of troops (and civilians) who never get used to the everywhere-all-the-time war zone.
Some of the Democrats' comments about authenticity echoed those of veterans, especially the depiction - for dramatic purposes - of EOD experts breaking out of their assigned duties to chase suspected insurgents down dangerous Baghdad alleys, without even those famous night vision goggles, let alone infantry backup.
And the film's depiction of the Iraqis? George Packer again:
There are no Iraqi characters to speak of, but the walk-ons and extras behave, with one or two exceptions, exactly as their real counterparts would—that is, they treat the Americans with wary hostility, ingratiation, or bafflement.
I think that gets it about right, and I think Robert Scheer's calling The Hurt Locker "chauvinistic" is a bit off the mark, despite its US-centric focus. It's clear that the main character is addicted to war ('war is a drug," the Chris Hedges quote, opens the film). The final scene gets you thinking - is the US addicted too, to military adventures in the Middle East?
Which brings me back to Iraq, which The Hurt Locker, though set in 2004, rightly reminds us of. Can it be sovereign with those tens of thousands of US troops there, even after withdrawal from the major cities? Can it ever again be secular (recent elections provide no conclusive answer), or has the US intervention made a Shia theocracy inevitable? And even though Saddam Hussein and his family pose no threat, history would indicate that strong men are never ruled out.
So, where does that leave us with The Hurt Locker? It's a good film, accurate (up to a point) in its portrayal of a highly specialized unit at a given time in 2004. But the Iraq war didn't end in 2004, and American EOD people continue to ply their trade in Iraq. It's a good war film, but it's not the definitive Iraq war film, despite the Oscars. Not yet.
Just like Vietnam and Apocalypse Now and Platoon, we'll have to wait until the war is really over.