Hollywood's War Film

Curator's Note

Katherine Bigelow’s 2010 multiple Academy Award winning war film, The Hurt Locker, follows Staff Sergeant William James, a rock star member of an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit, who cannot get enough combat to quench his thirst for war. When William returns home after a year-long deployment in Iraq, he quickly finds himself longing for the daily firefights and bomb diffusing to fuel his adrenaline. Like an addict in need of a fix, he drags through life at home until he ultimately gives up his family and returns to the desert for another year.

It is difficult to find true objectivity in motion pictures. The fact that an individual or group must guide a story through the various phases of production - consequently inserting some aspect of their world view - is testament to this statement. Many documentaries are designed to advocate for specific ideas and viewers often assume the information they obtain through documentaries is more factual than fictionalized stories. In my opinion documentary contains much more bias than its counterpart, narrative fiction. The ability to craft a story with complete creative control affords a filmmaker the freedom to be as objective as their resources allow. You cannot force a subject in a documentary to say or do what you want without some sort of manipulation. You can, however, create a fictionalized character who reflects an assortment of viewpoints.

This is why Bigelow’s representation of war misses a great opportunity to provide audiences with a fair perspective of an interesting character in a very dynamic situation. Despite shedding light on a high risk and often underrepresented military position, the filmmaker sensationalizes war while trivializing the military veteran experience, mostly painting soldiers as careless wild men itching for the next opportunity to blow things up. This is a disservice to twenty percent of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans suffering from post traumatic stress and to the numerous families who are struggling to help these soldiers reintegrate into their homes after deployment.  The real soldier's story does not end with a triumphant warrior marching confidently into the sunset.


Cliff, I'm fascinated by the distinction you set up between documentary and (fictional) narrative film. Do you see more opportunities for constructive depictions of the military in scripted drama? I'm now thinking through the various movies I've seen--the Deer Hunter, for example--in which all the drama comes from soldiers' inability to go home and be home. Can film, a medium that is constrained by a two hour run time and a mandate to achieve some sort of closure, tell the story of a soldier coming home without in some way creating an over-simple solution of some sort?

I am so glad someone wrote about this film. Thanks, Cliff. While the film's marketing and critical reception seemed to hail it as "THE" film about the war in Iraq, for me, it wound up amounting to propaganda. I even met a young man who had enlisted and was waiting to go to basic training, and he basically told me "Oh man, I just saw The Hurtlocker, and I can't wait to get over there." In the end, the film falls in with other famous war movies like The Sands of Iwo Jima. It's a well made film, it just has nothing to do with the war around which it is centered. Karen, I think you might have found the true root of the problem in the 2 hour time limit. It's just not possible to cover the war and the reentry problems in that amount of time. I think, in the end it will take some excellent story tellers, focusing on very specific parts of the whole topic, which can in time work together as a canon of sorts.

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