Sunday, April 18, 2010

Heroic Addition - Hurt Locker

Brief Moral Premise Analysis
Script by: Mark Boal
Directed by: Katherine Bigelow

Bravo Company's Explosive Ordinance Demolition (EOD) Team
Sgt. FC William James (JAMES) – Jeremy Renner
Sgt. JT Sanborn (SANBORN) – Anthony Mackie
Specialists Owen Eldridge (ELDRIDGE) – Brian Geraghty

This is a great movie that won six 2009 Academy Awards including Best Original Screenplay, Best Direction, and Best Picture. But it did not resonate with general audiences, doing only $12.6 MM at the box office ($11 MM budget). Why would such a powerful movie in many respects fail to garner a large audience, although marketing an independent movie that is picked up late by the domestic distributor (SUMMIT) no doubt had an effect on its availability to a wider audience.


HURT LOCKER suffered at the box office needlessly. All successful movies, in terms of story: (1) Needs to have ONE clear protagonist; (2) The protagonist needs a PHYSICAL GOAL that the audience can see and root for; and (3) The underlying subtext of the story (what the story is really about, that is, the moral premise) needs to be TRUE and CONSISTENTLY APPLIED and be about ONE THING.

In most of my consulting I focus on the truth and consistency of the moral premise's portrayal. But the more scripts and stories I look at for students and clients, I'm beginning to focus more on the PHYSICAL PREMISE... the goal. Without a clear goal you shouldn't even waste your time thinking about a moral premise.

Michael Hauge calls the PHYSICAL GOAL the OUTER MOTIVATION, and indeed that is a good name for it, just as the PSYCHOLOGICAL GOAL (or the moral premise) is the INNER MOTIVATION.  In his on-line article titled "Arenas and Finish Lines: Avatar" Michael discusses why Avatar did so well at the box office and why Hurt Locker did so poorly. Simply put, Avatar's protagonist has a goal (stop the destruction of Na'vi) while the protagonist of HURT LOCKER just wants to survive the next assignment to defuse and dispose of a IED as member of an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team.

But James, the intended protagonist, survives multiple defusing and disposal events, so we're never sure when he's reached his goal. It certainly isn't to return home. In fact, the opening supers tell us that perhaps this man has no goal, other than to continue to feed his addiction to war.

As a result, the audience is left underwhelmed with no one to root for.

As I discuss below, however, the supposed "antagonist", Sanborn, may have been the better protagonist. Sanborn has a goal, to get home alive, and later develops a second goal, to get married and have a boy, which is a further and natural development of the first. We identify and root for Sanborn, we don't for James. 


Normally, a well crafted true moral premise would help a film connect with audiences. And in the HURT LOCKER we have a decently crafted and implemented true moral premise. Let me describe that first, before going on to the contrary depiction in the film.

The still image above is a frame from the slow motion shot of an expelled casing from a sniper's round tumbling harmlessly to the desert floor. It indicates HURT LOCKER's Moment of Grace (MOG), and as you should expect the "shot" occurs in the exact middle of HURT LOCKER at 63 minutes (the film's length is 126 minutes, not counting the credits).  This particular casing is from the round fired by Sgt. Sanborn at an Iraqi insurgent sniper during a sniper duel. Sanborn's spotter is Sgt. James. 

The slow motion image is symbolic on a number of levels.
A. The casing is similar in shape to the IED casings which are the EOD's primary task to defuse and destroy.

B. Whereas the IED's disrupt the ground from below bringing indiscriminate death to civilians and combatants, this sniper's casing disrupts the gravel from above bringing discriminate death to a single combatant.

C. Before an IED explosion the IED's casing lies dangerously beneath the surface. After the sniper's shot the round's casing lies harmlessly above the surface. 

D. For the first half of the story the drama between Sgt. Sanborn and Sgt. James lies dangerously beneath the surface. After this particular round is fired (and the MOG), the drama between these two men lies benevolently above the surface. 

E. Before the MOG the conflict between Sanborn and James escalates to the point where Sanborn seriously considers killing James in a faked accident. After the MOG the two men learn to work together for the benefit of all.


When James comes on the scene as the EOD's bomb tech we discover that he is not only very good at what he does, but he likes to do things on his own. On his first mission he discharges a smoke bomb presumably as a diversion to possible snipers or an insurgent capable of detonating the IEDs. But the smoke also inhibits Sanborn and Eldridge from doing their jobs to cover James.
James' cowboy personality, angers Sanborn. When we learn that James was a Ranger, we're reminded that in Sanborn's mind James is a "lone ranger" and the connotation is not a good one. To the audience however, upon seeing how good James is, we're reminded of the heroic cowboy that rides into town, single-handedly saves the town from the bad guys, and then rides out of town -- again alone. Indeed, James' character seems to have no vices except that he doesn't communicate with his team, as army procedure seems to dictate.  James' independence is illustrated in other ways:

  • He takes the shrapnel protecting plywood off his room's windows and basks in sunlight.
  • He doesn’t listen to Sanborn, especially when Sanborn wants James to get out of the kill zone.
  • He refuses to use the robot, he puts on his suit and wades in.
  • He single-handedly confronts and backs down an aggressive taxi driver, alone, while a whole platoon stands by seemingly helpless. "If he wasn't an insurgent before, he is now."
  • He refuses to talk to Sanborn during mission. (But then Sanborn is distractingly annoying.)
After the first mission (during which James deploys the smoke bomb,  disarms 7 IED's in a daisy chain, and comes face-to-face with the insurgent who runs away) Sanborn helps James out of his bomb protective suit and they have this exchange that begins at 26 min 46 seconds:
JAMES: That wasn’t so bad. First time working together. What’d think? 
SANBORN: Hmm, I think us working together means I talk to you, and you talk to me? 
JAMES: We going on a date, Sanborn? 
SANBORN: No. We’re going on a mission, and my job is to keep you safe so we can keep going on missions. 
JAMES: It’s combat, buddy.
The MOG in HURT LOCKER should be occurring half way through the story at 63 minutes. The EOD is pinned down by sniper fire beginning at 54:40 to about 1:08:50. It's a long scene, during which there are long periods of Sanborn (above, left) and James (above, right) waiting out the insurgent sniper perhaps a mile away. As you can, tell the 63 minute shot from Sanborn's rifle is in the midst of this scene. It is a scene that demands these two men talk carefully to each other according to a procedure they have been trained to follow. Their teamwork saves their lives, a teamwork that involves Eldridge as well. Here, pinned down by the enemy they learn to trust each other. 

After the MOG shot described above, they continue to wait out the insurgents into dusk in case there are more lurking in the distant building. During that time Sanborn, his eyes glued to the telescopic finder, begins to cough. Some minutes later, James asks Eldridge for a juice pack. 

When James gets the pack he looks at it as if he is praying over it. Although his fingers hurt he gets the straw punched in through the side, and then he slides over to Sanborn and holds the straw to Sanborn's lips... for Sanborn cannot put down the weapon that is protecting them.

JAMES: Drink. Drink it.
And Sanborn does, all of it.

After this whole MOG scene the EOD team finally gets back to the barracks and celebrates their new found camaraderie with stomach punches that one reviewer describes this way:
They trade “stomach punches in a ritualistic display of affectionate aggression that looks as if it will end in either sex or murder, and Ms. Bigelow’s insight is that the tense comradeship of soldiers rests, often tenuously, on barely suppressed erotic and homicidal impulses.
Indeed after this, Sanborn increases respect for James, and James reciprocates by including Sanborn in the diagnosis and solutions that confront the team. James isn't perfect, and his lone ranger attitude draws Sanborn and Eldridge into a night hunt that gets Eldridge shot in the leg and sent home. It' is James' fault for ignoring protocol and letting platoons search out the bad guys. At least he doesn't go out alone.... although earlier he did and almost got killed by a housewife and then the guards of his own base.

But to show how much the team has grown from beginning to the end, at the end they are confronted by a family man who has been forced to become a suicide bomber. this time Sanborn and James work together. Before initiating thier plan they talk it over, and bump fists:

SANBORN: Go get them.
JAMES: Let's do it.

It is a dramatic change from the beginning.

The most dramatic change of call is when Sanborn, previously afraid to enter the kill zone, now stands side-by-side with James in his suit, as they struggle to cut through the locks that fatally imprison the father.

There is much more to share about these two men, especially the final conversation in their Humvee after they fail to save the man strapped with bombs and locks. But let's move on for now.


With the short explanation above it seems that the moral premise might be stated this way:
Demanding arrogance leads to animosity and hatred; but
Competent teamwork leads to respect and honor.

It's a lesson that James concedes in his embrace of Sanborn's defensive and effective support, and Sanborn learns about James. 


As true and well-developed as the moral premise is, the movie is not perfectly structured around that one truth. Indeed, there is a second moral premise, but I am having trouble articulating it. Perhaps someone else will see what I can't (although there are hints that follow) and explain it to all of us in the com box below.

But there are two things that dilute and confuse the one thing described in the moral premise, which I think inhibits the audience's understanding of what the movie is trying to say.

HURT LOCKER begins with this quote from Chris Hedges book "War is a Force That Gives us Meaning." Superimposed over black, the first thing we see is this:
The Rush of a Battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.
and then part of the quote fades away leaving us simply with:
war is a drug

At the end of the movie, a movie that is clearly intended to be about William James, he goes home to be with his wife and son, and he struggles with making decisions about cereal in the grocery story (a decision that has no moral significance). And we find him cleaning out the leaves from the eaves, an action that is just like clearing the gravel off an armed IED, but with the leaves in the eaves there is no moral significance, and James knows he was called to do something significant with his life.

As he sits on a bed with his toddler son and they play with a Jack-in-the-Box (a metaphor for the IED), the jack pops up, and the baby laughs.
JAMES: You love playing with his stuffed animals. You love your mommy, your daddy, your nature pajamas.  You love everything, don’t you? Yeah! But you know what buddy? As you get older, some of the things that you love might not seem so special anymore, you know. Like your jack-in-the-box. Maybe you realize it’s just a piece of tin and a stuffed animal.  As you get older, there are fewer things you really love. And by the time you get to my age, maybe it’s only one or two things. With me, I think it’s one.
In the next images, we see James landing back in Iraqi, for a new rotation as the bomb tech for Delta Company, and 365 days to go. 

The first and last images of HURT LOCKER tell us that for this warrior, war is an addiction. It's the only thing he can like, or the only thing that gives him a rush of satisfaction and significance. 

Unfortunately for the box office that is not what the clear moral arc seems to be for the the main characters. That war is a drug is a valid theme, but it dilutes the resonant meaning of the above moral premise so aptly demonstrated in the story per se. Perhaps someone else can suggest a moral premise that involves the "rush of battle and addiction" as some combination of virtue and vice through which the characters arc. And indeed, there are the scenes wherein we see James feeling very satisfied at the completion of a mission. To James defusing a bomb is as satisfying as sex, and after he completes his duty, he's quick to lay back and have a smoke. For him the rush of defusing a bomb is like an addiction that he can't wait to experience and later memorialize. He even keeps a collection of triggering devices that almost killed him, and in with the devices is his wedding ring. Thus, the connection between the adrenaline rush of sex and James' encounters with bombs is astonishingly clear.

But that is not the clear arc that we encounter with him and Sanborn's relationship, except to say that Sanborn doesn't share James' addiction and can't figure the guy out. So, we need a second moral premise for this addiction thingy, that interconnects with the teamwork idea, if we're going to help this movie succeed at the box office. Well, it's too late now, but that seems to be a valid effort at least to help us all in future projects.


The second element that seems to have diluted HURT LOCKER from resonating with the audience is that the most significant character arc is not James' arc, but rather Sanborn' s arc. This easily confuses audiences. The movie is clearly intended to be about James and his journey... a journey that audiences' expect to be about discovery,  learning, and change. But, James has almost no arc. Indeed, when he returns for another rotation it could easily be his third or fourth rotation to Iraq. We don't know. There is no significant change evident in James' character from the opening scene to the final. 

But, Sanborn's arc is huge. Early on, when he and James are shaving in the base bathroom, and he expresses his anger at James for not following protocol on their first outing, they have this interchange beginning on page 29:
SANBORN: What you did yesterday, wasn’t cool.

JAMES: Yeah, I know. You’ll get it, though. You’ll get it.
James' arrogance grates on Sanborn.
SANBORN: I was in intelligence for seven years before I joined EOD. We ran missions in every shit hole you can imagine. So, I’m pretty sure I can figure out a redneck piece of trailer trash like you. 
It’s a harsh racial remark coming from a black man to a white man.
JAMES (almost affectionately): Looks like you’re on the right track. (smiling) See you out there.
Later when Sanborn discovers that James has a son, Sanborn says he's not ready for a child, even though his girlfriend wants one.

By the end of the movie, after their final scene in trying to save the father (note they just saw the father of some children die) and both of them coming close to death from the explosion, Sanborn (with cuts on his face) engages James in this discussion:
SANBORN (near tears, face scared with bloody cuts): Shrapnel zings by, slices my throat. (recall that James has shrapnel wounds all over his body.) I bleed out like a pig in the sand. Nobody will give a shit. I mean, my parents will care, but they don’t count, man. Who else? (pause) I don’t even have a son.

JAMES: Well, you’re going to have plenty of time for that, amigo.
(notice the affectionate "amigo", which follows James earlier calling Sanborn "bro.")

SANBORN: No, man.

JAMES: You know.

SANBORN: I’m done. (beat) I want a son. (beat) I want a little boy, Will. I mean how do you do it. Take the risk? 

JAMES: I don’t know. I just … I guess I don’t think about it.

SANBORN: Every time we go out, it’s life or death. You roll the dice. You recognize that, don’t you?

JAMES: Yeah. Yeah. (beat) I mean, Yeah, I do. But I don’t know why. (stutters)I don’t know, J.T.  Do you know why I am the way I am?

SANBORN: No, I don’t.
This from a man who earlier had said: 
"I can figure out a redneck piece of trailer trash like you."
The main characer that goes through the greatest arc and change is Sanborn, but the movie focuses on James.  The audience has to be asking, "WHO is this movie really about?" Is it Sanborn, or James? With whom are we to identify? And is the movie about:
-- teamwork
-- war as a drug
-- we fight for our family's freedom?

I think this lack of unity about the protagonist, and the movie's thematic elements, aids in its lack of overwhelming resonance with general audiences.
[Side note: I can't help but notice that James Cameron's movie, AVATAR (which was also up for BEST PICTURE), is decidedly liberal in its portrayal of the U.S. military, as if the U.S. Army only battles for greed and power. But his divorced wife, Katherine Bigelow's movie, HURT LOCKER is clearly about the moral significance, valor, and virtue of our warriors and why we go to war. Indeed the title of the book she quotes at the beginning of the movie is, "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" ... not a book I can imagine James Cameron reading. ... but then I have not read the book and I do not know it's central theme.

And what was that... what was the noble warrior's name in HURT LOCKER? The name of Bigelow's former husband? Is there a message here ... not so explicitly hidden? ]

1 comment:

Tracuer99 said...

this was an amazing review.. when watching this movie i felt my brain tickle.. as a person considering joining the military,this answers my question as to what separates the ones who survives and embraces his duty knowing the risk. i guess there those who simply enjoy it.