Robert Burgoyne is professor and chair of film studies at the University of St. Andrews. He is author of Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. History, which was released in a revised edition in February 2010. He has been kind enough to allow the University of Minnesota Press to publish a portion of his paper Abstraction and Embodiment in the War Film on this blog.
In the entirety of his academic paper, Robert Burgoyne compares two films, each of which depict a different experience of war: Paradise Now (2005) and The Hurt Locker (2008). He argues the following:
Suicide as a weapon or tactic of war has become the emblematic and most terrifying weapon of contemporary geopolitical conflict, confirming the horrifying potency of the body in the theater of combat. … Suicide as a weapon, however, has largely been ignored in contemporary war films, which are increasingly centered on technology and the abstraction of the media interface.
Posted below is a portion of this paper that focuses on a powerful scene from The Hurt Locker. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
The Hurt Locker: Abstraction and Embodiment in the War Film
I would like to offer a reading of the potential of the body in the war film to express something like the collective trauma of war. The film’s climactic scenes revolve around two grisly sequences involving a “body bomb.” In the first, the body of the teenage Iraqi whom James (Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner) has befriended, who called himself Beckham (played by Christopher Sayegh), is discovered by the EOD team, laid out on a table, covered in blood, his abdomen sliced open and a bomb planted inside. “Ever seen a body bomb before?” Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) asks Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), the youngest and most skittish member of the team. Here, the destructiveness of war is condensed into a figure of atrocity with a difference: the victim is now also a weapon; the victim of terror has become the medium of terror, the body turned into a bomb. The body as a weapon here reaches a heightened quality of visceral intensity, as James decides to dismantle the bomb inside Beckham’s body — an act that puts into a single frame the imagery of bomb defusing, with its wires, leads, and secret triggers, and the imagery of surgery, the manipulation of organs, vessels, and flesh. James’ delicate and intricate work, his skill with his hands, takes on a new meaning. The almost tender act of working on Beckham’s body recodes earlier bomb scenes as a form of triage, recasting James not as the adrenaline fueled warrior of popular account but as a figure who, as Walter Benjamin writes about the surgeon, “diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient’s body.” Here, I suggest that the body can be understood in broad metaphoric terms as the social space, the theater of combat (in Fredric Jameson’s formulation, the “scene”).
The camera, Benjamin writes, is like the surgeon: it penetrates into the heart of things. In the climactic sequence of the film, James confronts a suicide bomber, and here the two films I discuss in this essay seem to come face to face with each other. Dressed in a dark suit like the suicide bomber in Paradise Now, the Iraqi man pleads to have the vest removed. “He is a family man, he is a good man,” the Iraqi interpreter keeps repeating. James decides to defuse the vest, to confront the human bomb. As Sanborn says to James, “This is suicide, man.” James replies, “That’s why they call it a suicide bomb, right?”
James is unable to release the vest or defuse the bomb, and for a brief moment the two characters embrace each other, holding each others’ arms. Knowing he is about to die, the man begins praying, hands behind his head, on his knees, as James retreats. Here the figure of the human bomb brings the dialectic of the body in The Hurt Locker into striking visibility: self and other, the terrorist and the victim of terror, the solitary figure and its connection to a wider social world. In foregrounding the body at risk, The Hurt Locker embeds us in the sense data of war, in sensory proximity to the events themselves, a first step in bringing war back into the zone of collective perception.
Robert Burgoyne can be reached at Robert.Burgoyne0@gmail.com.
Find out more about Film Nation: Hollywood looks at U.S. History here.