They charge forward as everyone yells “Stop!” They break rules as cowards snivel, “You can’t do that!” For them, rules and norms are just obstacles to getting stuff done. Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry, Luke in Cool Hand Luke, Han Solo in Star Wars. Movies are full of risk-taking rule-breakers, and we love them. They’re the good guys. And certainly, these rebels do deserve to be celebrated. By breaking the rules, they might create something wonderful and enduring that wouldn’t otherwise exist. They might stand up against an injustice or fight for the well being of others. Yet, being a rebel also has a dark-side that’s documented in film less often. As they break the rules to achieve their goals, these people surround themselves in chaos, and chaos has consequences. The Hurt Locker, Katherine Bigelow’s critically lauded Iraq War film, captures this chaos sown by the heroic rebel like few other films. By examining the broader consequences of maverick behavior, the film poses tough questions about the nature of rebellious heroes, and whether they deserve the praise they receive.
The Hurt Locker follows a three-man bomb disposal team in Baghdad during the early years of the Iraq War. They’re tasked with clearing out explosive traps encountered by the U.S. Military. It’s a high stress, high stakes job. The film makes this clear in its opening scenes where Staff Sergeant Matthew Thomson [Guy Pierce], the previous leader of the squad, is killed while trying to diffuse an explosive device. He dies despite doing everything by the book and taking every precaution. Early in the film, when Sergeant First Class William James [Jeremy Renner] replaces Thomson, we realize that James is a different kind of soldier. Where Thomson worked with his team to carefully and methodically diffuse bombs, James strides into the middle of the action without telling his team what’s going on. Where Thomson only goes in to diffuse the bomb on his own after his bomb diffusing robot fails, James’ first thought is to walk right up to the bomb and start fiddling with it. In short, Sergeant First Class James is a risk taker.
In a telling scene midway through film, we’re presented with the way that an outside might perceive James when Colonel Reed [David Morse] appears. After seeing James diffuse a bomb in his typically flamboyant fashion, Colonel Reed strides up to James and says, “That’s just hot shit. You’re a wild man, you know that?” before shaking his hand and asking him how many bombs he’s diffused. James humble brags his record: 873. The colonel is a stand-in for the way the population at large might see James. “Soldier single handedly diffuses 873 bombs.” I can see the headline now. He would be adored as a paragon of courage and a stand-up soldier based on that record.
Of course, Colonel Reed and the public didn’t suffer the true cost of James’ wild behavior. It’s easy for them to consider this rebel as a hero rather than a selfish jerk. It’s easy for them to fixate on the figure of 873 bombs and brush away the risks that he puts his team through as the cost of stellar performance. In The Hurt Locker, though, we get to see this hero through the eyes of his teammates, Sanborn [Anthony Mackie] and Eldridge [Brian Geraghty]. Time after time, they put their lives at risk as their team leader refuses to follow protocol in the pursuit of another bomb. In fact, the film shows James’ reckless behavior as a constant source of tension within the team. From their first mission as a team, James conflicts with Sanborn who struggles to reign in James’ behavior in order to keep his team safe. At one point, Sanborn is so frustrated with James’ behavior that he punches him in the face. This tension comes to a head towards the end of the film when Eldritch gets shot in the leg due to James’ reckless pursuit of a bomber.
Seen from the outside, it’s easy to look at Sergeant First Class James’ record and brand him as the kind of rebellious hero that’s often seen in American cinema. The Hurt Locker instead, looks beyond James’ impressive results, and examines the cost of his behavior to the people around him. Judged from this perspective, James comes out not as a hero, but as an egotistical man who puts the people around him at risk without a second thought. Even though he’s likely done a lot of good, he’s also unnecessarily risked the lives of many of the soldiers he’s worked with in pursuit of his goals. So, in the end, what are we to think of a man like James? Is he a great man for saving countless lives in his relentless quest to diffuse bombs? Or is he a menace and an egotist who puts others’ lives on the line for his selfish goals? Is it possible that he’s both at once? As with everything in the real world, there’s no clear answer. It’s up to each of us to decide, and that’s the beauty of The Hurt Locker. It doesn’t strive for the simple answer that works so effectively in the fantasy of Hollywood movies. Instead it presents a war story in a world where it’s hard to tell heroes from villains, civilians from enemies, and ‘wild men’ from idiots. Rather than comforting us with moral certainty, The Hurt Locker delves into the complexities of the real world like few other movies, and the myth of the rebel as hero is the casualty that results.