The attitude of war movies toward warriors often depends on when they were made. Hollywood battle films released during World War II usually treated soldiers as heroic grunts sacrificing themselves for the folks back home. A decade after V-E day, the view was darker, more cynical. The films of the Iraq occupation were different: the earlier ones (Redacted, In the Valley of Elah) painted GIs as sociopaths born or made, and every trek into alien territory threatened to produce a My Lai massacre, Baghdad-style. So the acutely nonpartisan Hurt Locker had a fresh, revisionist vision. To be sure, Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) loves war. He connects more to his death-defying assignment than to his family; that’s why he keeps reupping. But rather than gunning down civilians, he’s trying to keep them alive by defusing bombs found in streets and cars.
As seen by Kathryn Bigelow, a smart director of gritty action films, James is a Hollywood hero out of the Howard Hawks playbook. Like the adventurers in Hawks’ 1930s films The Dawn Patrol and Only Angels Have Wings, James risks his life because once a man volunteers for a job, he’s got to do it. That may be the mantra of the professional soldiers in the latest U.S. military excursions. And as the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were blithely ignored by most Americans, so The Hurt Locker lured few pleasure seekers into theaters. It was left to the Motion Picture Academy to take the film off the DVD shelf and pin a slew of Oscars on its chest. Somebody has to remember heroes, and heroic movie endeavors.