The Psychology of a Narrative: The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker

From coast to coast, the recent discussions about The Hurt Locker illustrate the audience’s varying and conflicting needs regarding works of fiction. On one hand, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal would argue that the inaccuracies in their drama do not detract from the artistic merits of their film. On the other hand, segments of their audience have decried that a film that strives for verisimilitude undermines its credibility when it plays with the facts. This disagreement is worth studying briefly, for it provides a context for understanding the relationship between filmmakers and their audiences.

When Paul Greengrass was making United 93, he made clear distinctions between the hypothetical audience who might watch his film and his intended audience. In an unusual move, he directly solicited the latter (9/11 survivors, flight controllers, etc.) to create a docudrama that met their specific needs. When Greengrass committed to this empathic approach, he narrowed his artistic choices. Rather than rely solely on his creative imagination, he used storytelling as a problem-solving medium to address some audience-related issues. For United 93, the result is a paradoxical work that is both deeply personal and broad in its arguments.

Greengrass understands that movies are a part of reality and history—that artistic invention and cinematic production are social and rhetorical practices that do not merely reflect reality but help audiences create and re-create reality. Because audiences don’t always understand the broader formations of factual sequences, they study fictive texts to construct a personal understanding of historical events. Consequently, works of fictive realism (with its blending of symbolism and empiricism) often supplant the work of more authentic, reportorial narratives, and Greengrass understands the role fictive influences play in this complicated, perceptual context.

The critical discussions about The Hurt Locker are not so much about the anachronisms or the historicism that the filmmakers employ; rather, the debate centers on the questionable behavior of Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) and his work in the Explosives Ordnance Disposal unit. The film’s oft-cited premise is that James is some sort of war junkie, and his addictions needlessly endanger his unit. Bigelow explains in Newsweek: “'War's dirty little secret is that some men love it,’ she says. ‘I'm trying to unpack why, to look at what it means to be a hero in the context of 21st-century combat.'"

Although Bigelow’s contextualizing is interesting, the premise of the film doesn't necessarily strike new ground (read Homer for why war stirs men's desires while simultaneously extinguishing such desires). To their credit, Bigelow and Boal create a narrative with its own internal logic (with stated premises and conclusions), but the film also creates some problems, for Bigelow-Boal seem to have characterized their film with a fallacy, one that service personnel (and former service members) have spotted, a fallacy that undermines the consistency of the film.

In this brief analysis, it is helpful to paraphrase the protest argument, and it goes something like this: James’s behavior is a trope of artistic invention, and his manners would not be tolerated by a professional class of soldiers; therefore, the film’s portrayal of the EOD distorts their work in favor of sensationalism. Given the power of fictional narratives, Bigelow-Boal’s film is deceptive because their straw man will be hastily (mis)interpreted as representing routinized American soldiering.

This argument is fair, but there are deeper problems with character development. It is clear that Bigelow-Boal sympathize with James, but the problem is that they show little empathy for his development because they rely on a slim psychological profile to characterize his actions. In their portrait, we witness the sergeant violate EOD protocols and transgress Army regulations. We witness him suffering in isolation as well as fighting with his unit. Because of these circumstances, we are left to digest the simple argument that addiction to war alone explains his risky behavior. Clearly, this deduction is the filmmaker's intent.

Realistically, this sequencing is hardly convincing, for addictions often have associative precursors, and the filmmakers are unclear about the origins of his addiction. What is also unclear is whether his addiction is physical, emotional or psychological (neurological?). In a simplistic context, the film frames his addiction as a disorder based on his work, one that creates stress, resulting in, perhaps, depression, and this trauma diminishes James’s ability to maintain relationships. Unfortunately, for a film that focuses on character development, his psychological profile is too shallow by far to understand.

Given the depth of a normative psychological profile, the weight of this stress doesn’t quite affect other important areas of his life. For example, his memory, concentration, and ability to focus on his tasks seem to be unaffected. In fact, the film focuses on the strength of his hyper-vigilance as he works against a network of combatants-cum-terrorists who are, in many ways, setting traps not just to kill him but to study his methods. His vigilance also allows him to examine his enemies by keeping bits of dissembled bombs. On the surface, he functions well enough to earn the accolades of a superior (David Morse) yet avoids the detection of the unit shrink (Christian Camargo). No doubt, the brass misreads him, but his unit does not. Here, we surmise that the sergeant is functionally dysfunctional on the slippery path to a breakdown.

However, as a character, James seems far less addicted to war than he is drawn to contexts in which his diminished psycho-pathology is served by high risk behaviors. This more obvious and specific (and less grandiose) premise makes more sense as James seems to seek the rush of adrenaline to triumph over his fears, fill his apparent loneliness, and compensate for his inadequacy as a husband and parent (intimacy issues surface when he fails to find satisfaction with Evangeline Lilly at home). This closer (and optimistic) reading of The Hurt Locker, again, seems to better explain his behaviors, but the narrative doesn’t quite make the psychological connections clearly enough to fully understand.

This lack of insight is probably part of the reason why certain audiences have dismissed the film, for Bigelow-Boal’s yearning to portray a heroic war junkie is undermined by a character whose portrait is hard to comprehend. Good docudramas offer compelling psychological portraits of their characters, but The Hurt Locker scrimps too much on character insight in favor of emotional and physical display.

Boal spent time in Iraq in 2004, and he stated that his experiences allowed him to develop sympathy for American troops. If he did develop an empathic understanding (to see things frame their frame of reference, understand their fears, their courage, their perspective), this empathy isn't inscribed in James, for Boal seemed to create an aloof character that pleased his own imagination rather than one who reflects the credibility of the troops he said he came to admire. This approach contrasts sharply with Greengrass’s intensely empathic work on United 93, and Bigelow-Boal could have done better to understand how to synthesize personal accounts with their narrative.

Audiences, however, have an obligation to work harder to interpret films, too. The Hurt Locker’s structural principle is based on understanding the binary between James and his unit. Here, Bigelow-Boal effectively develop his supporting unit (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) to illustrate that James, the straw man, though good at defusing bombs, is a ticking one, too (yes, the metaphor isn't very subtle), and that he is too wayward in his addiction to belong to a disciplined army because his behavior is not normative. Meaning, part of the film's argument is that his irregular actions do not represent the actions of regular soldiers, an important point that has been largely overlooked in the critical discussions of the film.

Interestingly, the film raises the idea that James seems to fit better with a force of contractors who appear in the film, a covert group far out in the desert, on the fringes, dislocated in their distress and in need of rescuing. But such connections go without much development, for The Hurt Locker leaves us with a narrative that blends fiction with empiricism, poetic license with documented realism, fallacy with truth, binaries that work to create its own cogent yet confusing arguments about war.

The Hurt Locker
Rated R
Voltage Pictures
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Written by Mark Boal
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty.

Scroll to Top