Monday, January 25, 2010

The Hurt Locker

By Molly

Last Wednesday evening I went to a movie. I saw The Hurt Locker on a tiny screen at Quad Cinema, an unassuming theater on 14th Street. I walked there from a pub a few blocks east, where I'd just eaten a dish of shrimp and grits and drank a dark mug of rye beer, which was sharp and bitter, like the sudden burst of cold air outside.

The Hurt Locker, the film by Kathryn Bigelow that is gaining momentum this awards season, is an intense and fabulous film about an American bomb squad in the middle years of the Iraq War.

War movies have never been my thing, so I'm not sure why I decided to see this particular film. But I went to the movies because I was in desperate need of a break. I've been working nonstop since Christmas, scrunched over my computer trying to write, grasping at sentences that burrow far into my brain like worms.

My anxiety, always my companion in one way or another, has been overwhelming of late. It's spiked as a result of my approaching book deadline, coupled with news of the escalating violence in Afghanistan. It makes it hard to sleep, hard to eat, hard to function like normal. Just yesterday I had a minor panic attack on the fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, where I went with friends to relax on a rainy afternoon. Standing there amid hipsters wearing funky clothing and the found-object art of Gabriel Orozco, I felt wild and mentally unkempt. I soon went home to work.

Matt's time in Gardez is quickly coming to an end -- an event I've been dreaming about for the last year, one that I plan for, can't wait for -- but even that brings with it the stress of change, of displaced normalcy. And of a singular question: What comes next?

Anyway. The Hurt Locker, while breathtaking in its raw delivery, didn't exactly qualify as a break. It did nothing to help repeal my anxiety. If anything, the movie made it worse. I woke up the next morning sore from two and a half hours spent holding my body in a permanent state of physical tension.

The film follows the story of three soldiers who make up an explosive ordnance disposal team in Iraq. Their job is to diffuse "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs, the signature threat against American troops, on Baghdad's streets, in its schools and in rural desert towns. Throughout the film unruly bravado is on display in the face of confusion and impending death.

The characters are strikingly real: Flawed, tortured and emotionally complicated but ultimately driven by the shared desire to save lives. Every day the men wrestle with the murky ethical boundaries between protecting and killing, honor and recklessness, courage and fear. Adrenaline soaks the screen.

When the closing credits rolled, I felt like I'd learned a little more about Matt, who spent two year-long tours in Iraq as a combat engineer officer. For the first time, I could visualize the places he's been and the things he's seen. "I fucking hate this place," says Sanborn, one of the bomb techs. It's a line I hear from Matt almost every day.

I e-mailed Matt about the movie as I walked to a subway station in the West Village, passing bundled groups of college students and a lone gray-haired man walking his dog near Washington Square Park. I typed on my iPhone with numb fingers, trying to get out my thoughts, trying not to trip. "Terrifying," I wrote. "Good. Superbly directed." I knew that he'd watched it on his laptop in Gardez just the day before. "How realistic is it?" I asked.

The next morning, I woke up to his response:

yes it is like that in iraq. the production sets were so real (it was all filmed in jordan near the iraq border) that i felt like i was back there again. the scenes where there would be gawking iraqi civilians who would disappear all at once brought back memories. it's just like the animals who flock away from the site of an impending natural disaster. either they have a sixth sense or they've been tipped off. even today at some points, when we stand around the vehicles for hours on guard, every car that passes, every puffy jacket you see, every guy riding by slowly on a bicycle could be a bomber and the last thing you ever see. it's disturbing to think about, but you put it out of your mind. still, you don't forget that any moment could be your last

i have rarely seen an iraq movie (or any war movie) that gets every single little detail of the military right. this movie did it perfectly. from the uniforms to the language to the sets to the ambiguous morals of the story's protagonists (the way most soldiers -- and people -- really are).

I continue to think about one of the final scenes in the film. In it, the main character, just home from Iraq, is grocery shopping in a massive supermarket somewhere in the United States. At one point, he stands next to his shopping cart, contemplating the rows of bright cereal boxes, which appear to extend for miles. It's a stark contrast to the sand and the sun and the life-and-death minutes he packed and passed in Iraq. And as I watched it, I pitied him, and still I wondered: What comes next?


  1. I have yet to watch the hurt locker and I admire your ability to watch it while Matt is deployed. I rabidly watched the news and such while my soldier was deployed, but any books or movies, I just couldn't take. 5 months after redeployment I still do not think I could watch it. What comes next? Reintegration is interesting, I have found my own post-deployment ptsd. It took about 2 months to shake all my deployment behaviors. I was just thinking the other day that this year I get to spend Valentine's Day with my soldier and last year I didn't. The past five months have totally flown by. These same five months last year, they went by so slowly. What came next for me the most was perspective. Things don't matter like they used to, and other things matter that never did before. I have a lot less fear about life and taking risks. It is kinda freeing. I wish you an amazing next and that this last part of the deployment goes quickly. xo

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