Hollywood at War

What we can learn from “Inglourious Basterds,” “G.I. Joe,” and “The Hurt Locker”

By: John W. Payne

Every summer, the Hollywood machine cranks out numerous action blockbusters meant to lure audiences with thin plotlines and plenty of violence and shiny things. Less common is the serious war movie, which, although it might and usually does include prodigious amounts of violence and carnage, is typically plot and character driven. In any given summer, there is usually only one decent war movie, but this summer audiences had the opportunity to watch two: “Inglourious Basterds” and “The Hurt Locker.” Of course, there are also action movies that pose as war movies. They are often terrible, but very few plumb the depths of awfulness discovered by this summer’s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” Regardless of their differing levels of quality, each of these films offers insight into war and how Americans perceive it.
“G.I. Joes” contains many hokey references to the 1980s cartoons with phrases like “Knowing is half the battle” thrown in to satisfy fanboys my age who wish they were still seven. What is worse, the action scenes are so jumpy and saturated with color as to be almost nauseating. The cinematographer seems to suffer from ADD and have a severe problem with hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Still, somewhere inside this train wreck is a film that longs to be taken seriously, even if it does not deserve to be. The antagonist for most of the film is James McCullen, who runs a defense company named MARS. The company has developed a form of nanotechnology that can destroy entire cities, and NATO buys four warheads. McCullen sends his agents to steal the warheads back from NATO, then uses them to hold the world hostage. This plot is a criticism of a military-industrial complex run amok, where governments empower unscrupulous defense contractors who threaten the safety of all mankind. What is the solution to this extinction-level threat? Why, G.I. Joe, of course! Except in this version, G.I. Joe is no longer just an American hero. The force is now international, composed of commandoes from across the world—but still under American command, naturally.

Several years ago, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow and leading neoconservative thinker Max Boot suggested that America create a “Freedom Legion” based on the French Foreign Legion and composed of foreigners seeking American citizenship. G.I. Joe is the realization of Boot’s dream. The film starts with a fear of the military-industrial complex, but tells Americans to rest easy because as long as the world comes together under American control, an elite team equipped with untold amounts of whiz-bang gadgetry will keep us safe. In this way, it affirms the neoconservative and liberal-internationalist consensus that America must be the policeman of the world.

Whereas “G.I. Joe” is an action movie with a few trappings of a war movie, “Inglourious Basterds” is self-consciously crafted in the war-movie genre. The film is in many ways an alternate universe Jewish revenge fantasy against the Nazis, but it is not terribly violent by the standards of the war genre (although what violence there is in this film is extremely graphic). This is doubly surprising given that “Inglourious Basterds” was directed by Quentin Tarantino, who became famous by directing and producing brutally violent movies about the criminal underground. In “Basterds,” Tarantino suggests that intelligent negotiation is as vital as violence for achieving the ends of war—if not more so.

Although the film beautifully weaves together several different storylines, the heart of the story is the conflict between Aldo “the Apache” Raine and Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter,” played by Brad Pitt and Christopher Waltz, respectively. (In a just world, Pitt and Waltz would both be nominated for Oscars for these performances, but given the Academy’s past treatment of Tarantino that seems unlikely.) Raine leads a covert group of Jewish American soldiers into France before D-Day to kill Nazis for no reason other than to stir up fear in the German ranks. Landa, on the other hand, is tasked with removing all remaining Jews from France and later with protecting the premiere of the Nazi propaganda film “Pride of the Nation.” Both Raine and Landa use extreme violence against their respective targets, but each also employs negotiation to accomplish his goals with a minimum of bloodshed. These negotiations are backed up by the threat of violence, to be sure, but they also almost always lead to fewer deaths in the end. In fact, after Landa captures Raine, the two manage to negotiate an earlier end to World War II than occurred in reality.

Near the beginning of the movie, Pitt’s character declares that he and his men “ain’t in the prisoner-taking business. We in the Nazi-killin’ business.” But he’s wrong; they are in the bargaining business the whole time. “Basterds” suggests that the Allied demand of unconditional surrender may have been mistaken. Even in the most apocalyptic conflict the world has ever seen, negotiation is still one of the most potent weapons at our disposal, and it can save millions of lives on both sides.

Finally, there is “The Hurt Locker,” the most realistic film of the three and the one most relevant today. The film was extremely well received by critics, but audiences didn’t bite, with the picture grossing only an estimated $13 million theatrically. “The Hurt Locker” follows an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team within the Army’s Bravo Company in the early days of the occupation of Iraq. In the first scene, team leader Sgt. Matt Thompson is killed when an improvised explosive device (IED) he is attempting to defuse is detonated by an Iraqi with a cell phone. Thompson is replaced by Sgt. William James, who is the driving force of the movie. James, played superbly by Jeremy Renner, experiences war the way other, arguably saner, people experience heroin. Whereas Thompson preferred to employ a robot to investigate and destroy IEDs, James insists on defusing the bombs himself for the sheer adrenaline rush. James even keeps a part of each bomb he defuses as a memento of something that could have killed him. He is fascinated by the power of it.

Unlike “G.I. Joe,” “The Hurt Locker” brings out some of the more realistic dangers of the military-industrial complex. As the team is driving to their next assignment, one of the soldiers notes all the idle American tanks lining the streets, weapons that would only be useful for fighting the old Soviet Army. The Pentagon is not prepared to fight a guerrilla insurgency because defense-industry lobbyists pressure members of Congress to continue purchasing outdated weaponry.

“The Hurt Locker” never attempts to be an action movie despite director Kathryn Bigelow’s extensive résumé in that genre. While the tension is high throughout the film, “The Hurt Locker” shows that war is, in the paraphrased words of a World War I veteran, tedium punctuated by moments of extreme danger. In one scene, the team meets a group of undercover British soldiers who have a flat tire and are soon attacked by insurgents. Several of the British soldiers are quickly killed by an enemy sniper. James and his direct subordinate, Sgt. JT Sanborn, kill the first few insurgents in rapid succession but then must spend hours with their weapons ready, waiting for the last sniper to move.

The film also illustrates the extremely frustrating and potentially deadly task of distinguishing friend from foe in a guerrilla insurgency. In the opening scene, Spc. Owen Eldridge could have saved Sergeant Thompson’s life if he had shot the Iraqi with the cell phone, but instead he hesitated. Of course, if Eldridge took the shot and the Iraqi was not an insurgent, Eldridge could have inadvertently fanned the flames of rage against the United States. James comments on this tension between saving American lives and winning Iraqi hearts and minds when an Iraqi cab driver barrels through an Army barricade around a bomb. The cab driver backs up and is taken into custody by other soldiers, and James remarks that “if he wasn’t an insurgent, he sure the hell is now.”

But “The Hurt Locker’s” main theme is revealed by a quote shown at the opening of the film from Chris Hedges’ profound book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” This most obviously applies to James. When Bravo Company is rotated out of Iraq, James returns home and seems out of place in civilian life. When shopping for groceries with his girlfriend and son, James is overwhelmed by the different kinds of cereal he must choose from. In many ways, war is more simplistic than civilian life because decisions are made in a split second and you either live or die. Conversely, civilian life offers thousands of choices large and small.

James is torn between the love for his son and his addiction to war, and ultimately James is unable to cope with civilian life and signs up to return to Iraq. Sergeant James is representative of America as whole. As a country, we are torn between a life of relative ease, tending to our own little platoons of families and friends, and the intoxication of running a world empire. In sending James back to Iraq, “The Hurt Locker” seems to argue that America has already made her choice.

John W. Payne is a freelance writer in Southeast Missouri and blogs at www.rougholboy.com.