Editor Roundtable: The Hurt Locker

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It’s the chaos of war this week as the Roundtable team goes into The Hurt Locker, Mark Boal’s Oscar-winning war drama directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

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The Story

When the well-liked leader of Bravo Company, a bomb disposal squad in Baghdad, is killed by an insurgent’s bomb, the team must come to terms with his replacement, a maverick who recklessly endangers them and the mission with his disregard for safety and protocol.

Sanford overcomes some of his distrust of James, but when James discovers Beckham’s dead body and the camp psychiatrist is killed by an IED, James goes looking for answers and revenge, reviving Sanford’s doubts and mistrust.

James’s recklessness reaches a critical point when he puts his men in danger and accidentally shoots Eldridge in the leg. He must face his addiction when he’s unable to disarm a suicide bomb and is forced to let a man die, but he can’t overcome it, and re-enlists for another year.


The Editor’s Six Core Questions

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1.What’s the Global Genre? War – Jarie

War > Anti-War. I don’t see a strong brotherhood component like in A Midnight Clear or even in Platoon, which has more brotherhood but is considered an Anti-War movie.

The Anti-War aspect of this is the sheer chaos. It’s the what-are-we-doing-here aspect of war. The first person, embedded POV (which we’ll talk about later), creates a sense of being there, that you can’t get away, and makes you cringe.

The protagonist, Sgt James, is pretty consistent in his behaviors and attitudes. His worldview does not change nor does he grow in any way other than realizing that he loves the rush of war.

If I had to pick an internal genre for Sgt James, it would be Status > Pathetic since he cannot overcome his love of war and that alienates him from his family and his brothers in arms. He does try to “return to normal life” and just can’t do it. So then, he goes back for another 365 day rotation.

The internal is weak since Sgt James is crazy and as Anne mentioned last week, “Do psychopaths ever have an internal arc?” My guess, is no.

Even when he is bonding with his team, he’s fighting and drinking and not showing any real compassion except for the sniper scene.

Additional Comments

Anne: I’d argue that James is not a psychopath, but an addict. He shows compassion, remorse, sorrow, and affection. He shows genuine leadership in several places. But like other kinds of addicts, his need for his fix makes him blind to the danger he’s creating for others.

Kim: The way the ending is, with him choosing to return, makes it feel more like Morality-Testing-Surrender to me. He surrenders to his addiction. He is a sophisticated protagonist that understands the way the world works and the consequences of his actions. His words to his son at the end “As you get older, some of things you love might not seem so special…maybe you realize it’s just a piece of tin. The older you get, the fewer things you really love. When you get to my age, it might only be one or two things. With me, I think it’s one.”

Jarie: The way this is shot is probably the reason it won best director. You feel like you are in the mix with the guys. It’s eerie.

Valerie: I do see a brotherhood story, but I agree, it’s not presented in the way that it is in A Midnight Clear or Platoon. That’s primarily because James doesn’t play by the rules usually. That said, when push comes to shove, he does support his team. For example, the shootout in the desert. He helps the British contractors, and puts both Sanborn’s and Eldridge’s needs ahead of his own.

2. What are the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes of the War story?

Conventions – Kim

One central character with offshoot characters that embody a multitude of that character’s personality traits – We have three characters on the team: Sanborn, Eldridge, and the replacement Bomb Tech James … James is the central character (fearless and reckless), Sanborn is brave but wise about safety, Elridge is a good soldier but tormented by dying.

Big Canvas. Either a widescope external setting (War and Peace) or the internal landscape (Saving Private Ryan, Platoon) – Here we have wide internal landscape, the psyche of a soldier in war, dealing with the daily threat of death, complicated love/hate relationships with each other, ghosts of home, and the quote presented at the opening:

“The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

—Chris Hedges

Overwhelming odds: the protagonists are substantially outnumbered – The threats they face are invisible, the bombs themselves hidden/disguised just like the insurgents who place them. The EOD unit must perform their job under watchful eyes, unable to determine if onlookers are civilians or insurgents. Also, quite literally: there are few EOD units / bomb techs, so one person must do the job while squads of soldiers look on.

A clear point of no return when the combatants accepts the inevitability of death – In the Ending Payoff, James is unable to cut the locks from the bomb strapped to the man’s chest–this is the only bomb he hasn’t been able to defuse and must accept that the man will die. He says he’s sorry and runs for cover.

Sacrifice for the Brotherhood Moment – Because this is an anti-war story and not a brotherhood story, this moment does show up in the way that it would otherwise. We don’t see a major sacrifice for the brotherhood, but we see small moments like when James gives Sanborn his Capri Sun juice.

Additional Comment

Anne: Some brotherhood is shown—notably in the juice box moment—but I feel like the loss of brotherhood—the betrayal of brotherhood because of the addiction—is the whole story. So it’s kind of a brotherhood-in-negative story.

Obligatory Scenes – Valerie

An Inciting Attack – Staff Sergeant Thompson dies in a roadside bomb explosion. (approximately 10 minutes into the film)

Protagonists sidestep responsibility to respond – I’m not sure I’d call it a conscious sidestepping of responsibility, but in the inciting attack scene, Eldridge fails to take out the trigger man before he detonated the bomb that killed Thompson.

If we want to look at the central character, James, then his sidestepping responsibility comes in the ending payoff. He returns home to his family, but isn’t able to stay with them, or even love them (he loves only one thing, and that is defusing bombs). He chooses to return to war instead of be a father to his son. James therefore sidesteps the responsibility he has to his family (his wedding ring/marriage almost killed him). Note: This doesn’t jibe with the Hero’s Journey and the refusal of the call which comes at the end of the beginning hook.

Forced to respond, the protagonists lash out according to their positions in the hierarchy – Sanborn refuses to follow James on his hunt for the enemy: James (as the ranking member) leads Sanborn and Eldridge past the edge of the blast radius in pursuit of the enemy (“a really good bad guy”). When he initially suggests they go after the trigger man, Sanborn refuses. He reminds James that it’s the infantry’s job, not theirs. In response, James orders them to follow.  (scene starts approximately 1hr 40 minutes into the film)

Each character learns what their antagonist’s object of desire is  – If we consider the Iraqis to be the antagonist, then we don’t actually have an overt statement of the antagonist’s object of desire. We know from the bomb placements and suicide bombers, that they want to destroy the UN and allied troops (US Military, UN building, British military etc).

Within the trio of protagonists, James can be considered a force of antagonism. He doesn’t play by the rules, makes it difficult for Sanborn and Eldridge to do their jobs and even puts them at unnecessary risk (inadvertently shooting Eldridge). When Sanborn and Eldridge discover the box of detonators, they understand what makes James tick; he is all about bombs. He’s fascinated/obsessed with things that have almost killed him. His objects of desire are to defuse bombs (his want) and to have an adrenaline rush (his need). (scene is approx 1 hr 10 minutes into the film)

Protagonists’ initial strategy to outmaneuver the antagonist fails – With the exception of the desert scene (where all US soldiers survive, British die and Iraqis are defeated), the only way these characters can outmaneuver the antagonist (Iraqis) is to defuse the bombs. The only time James fails to do this comes near the end of the film in the scene with the man who has a bomb chained to his chest. The locks are made from case-hardened steel and can’t be easily cut by the bolt cutters. (scene is approximately 1 hour 50 minutes into the film). There’s the inciting attack of course, but James has not yet entered the story.

Realizing they must change their approach to attain a measure of victory, protagonists reach an All Is Lost Moment – The All Is Lost Moment (AILM) is the lowest point in the story and is followed by an epiphany. Therefore, I believe James’s AILM comes when he returns home. He looks his beautiful infant son in the eyes and says that he loves only one thing. So, not being able to love his son enough to stay and care for him is the AILM and it’s followed immediately by the realization/epiphany that the adrenaline rush of defusing bombs is what he loves most. While logically this feels like it is the AILM, the moment has been watered down because James has never said  that he misses his family or wants to be with them. This may have been the case at one point, but it was long before the film started. He’s not even sure if he’s married. He keeps a photo of his son with a box of detonators (not around his neck in a locket, or in his uniform pocket or even in the vehicle). It’s hard to empathize with this character because he’s emotionally dead from the start of the film.

Eldridge’s AILM might be when he’s been shot. But then, it’s the thing he was waiting for all along. He’s not dead. He will heal, in time. He gets out of the war early. It’s sad, absolutely. And tragic! But is it an All Is Lost Moment? It’s not even immediately clear that James is the one who shot him. If it had been, perhaps we could see the AILM as Eldridge realizing the enemy is within (a US soldier, not an Iraqi soldier). Because it isn’t clear, the drama is lost.

Sanborn is the character that comes the closest to having an All Is Lost Moment, but since he’s a secondary character and the AILM is off screen, the impact is lost. The only reason I think he’s had an AILM is because he’s had an epiphany, and the epiphany follows the AILM. After the timed bomb explodes, Sanborn tells James that he’s now ready to start a family.

The Big Battle Scene. This is the core event of the War story, the moment when the protagonists’ gifts are expressed or destroyed  – Stories build to a core event, which in the war genre is the big battle scene. There is no big battle scene in The Hurt Locker. The final battle is the timed bomb strapped to the father of four. James is unable to defuse it and his gifts are destroyed. He returns to the United States and to his family, but is unable to exist in peace and so returns for another tour of duty. That said, the big battle feels like the scene starting at 1 hour, 40 minutes into the film; the fire scene that leads to James ordering his men to track the trigger man, and to Eldridge getting shot (by James).

The protagonists are rewarded with at least one level of satisfaction, external, interpersonal, or internal – I don’t see this either. Neither James, Sanborn nor Eldridge are rewarded and I think that’s part of the point of the movie. War is senseless and thankless and unrewarding. There is a brief moment after the UN building bomb scene (about 45 minutes into the film), where a senior officer (Colonel Reed) is apparently star struck by James defusing 873 bombs, but that’s just strange. Who is this character? We don’t see him before or after. It’s weird. Furthermore, why would James (who lives to defuse bombs) be modest about his success? He’s been asked a direct question by a Commanding Officer, yet evades it. That doesn’t ring true either for the setting or the character.

Contrast this with A Midnight Clear where Mother gets a commendation and a transfer to a safer place. Yes, all three protagonists survive (although one is wounded) and go home. However, James isn’t interested in leaving the warzone so going home is a punishment (of sorts), not a reward. Eldridge faces months of rehabilitation and we don’t see Sanborn living happily ever after – we’re left to assume he returns home and starts a family with the girl he “likes” (not loves).

Additional Comment

Anne: I see his AILM as the shower scene where James realizes the consequences of his addiction–understands that it has nearly cost Eldridge his life. It’s Eldridge’s blood flowing down the drain. It’s the crisis of his own arc: will he succumb to his addiction or overcome it? He succumbs.

3. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device? – Jarie

It’s switches between 1st person and 3rd person with a lot of jerky movements but mostly 3rd person omnipresent. All reality type TV stuff. Mostly from SGT James POV and the situations that he and his team are in. There are some different POV’s (like in the beginning) but it’s all over the shoulder type stuff like you are embedded right with the unit. If this was a book, I’m not sure how it would be written since you don’t know what is going on in SGT James head.

Narrative Device: The story is told in real time. There are no flashbacks. There is suspense in that you don’t know who you can trust. You live the tension with the characters. It’s like you are there.

Additional Comments

Kim: Also the narrative device is the countdown of Days Left in Bravo Company Rotation. We begin 38 with count all the way down, then see James back home in the United States, then the final scene is him back in Iraq – Days Left in Delta Company Rotation: 365.

Jarie: The randomness of the violence and how quickly things turn makes the story have an “edge of your seat” feel.

I love how it starts with the robot video and the chaos of Iraq in 2004. It’s also shot first person or reporter style. All jumpy to make you feel like you are there.

Valerie: This is a great example of how the POV can affect a story. The POV is very narrow in this film. It’s told from the US military point of view only. Anyone who is outside that group is either the enemy (Iraqis) or poorly portrayed (the soldier at the UN building is shown as fearful/cowardly, and James’s character makes fun of him for it. The British contractors, who have been in the desert with a flat tire, are killed within minutes, although they obviously have some combat skill. Interestingly, Eldridge survives).

4. What are the Objects of Desire, wants and needs? – Jarie

Wants: SGT James wants the rush of war and is an adrenaline junky.

Needs:  SGT James needs to be loved for who he is. He can’t handle “the real world.” He can’t attach to others so the connection he needs is absent.

Additional Comments

Jarie: It’s hard to figure out what SGT James really wants and needs. His character is shallow and does not really change all that much. It’s clear that he is lost and can’t connect to others. So, in that sense, he needs connection.

Leslie: If we look at the story from the perspective of the Morality-Testing-Surrender plot, we could say that James needs to develop the capacity to put the needs of others ahead of his own and use his gift for calm in high-pressure situations for the good of his unit.

5.What is the Controlling Idea / Theme? – Jarie

I had a hard time coming up with a controlling idea that makes sense for this but since this is an anti-war movie, I choose to focus on how war influences behavior and ruins lives. The anti-war genre deals with the harsh realities of victory/defeat. Anti-war movies want the audience to think about the true cost of war — even in victory. This movie is no different since it does a great job of putting you in the action.

This “the cost of war is more than you think” is what the Anti-War movie must get across in how the protagonist acts.

The protagonist is defeated even when he has victory on the battlefield because the cost of victory robs him of his sanity and humanity.

6. What’s the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and the Ending Payoff? –  Anne

BEGINNING HOOK – When the well-liked leader of Bravo Company, a bomb disposal squad in Baghdad, is killed by an insurgent’s bomb, the team must come to terms with his replacement, a maverick who recklessly endangers them and the mission with his disregard for safety and protocol.

  1. Inciting incident: A bomb kills Sgt Thompson, the team leader.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: The replacement, Sgt James, a “rowdy boy,” puts the team and a whole district at risk–and creates a new insurgent–by his reckless approach to defusing a huge web of bombs.
  3. Crisis Question: Will Sanborn remain silent and hope to survive the 38 days left in their rotation, or speak to James?
  4. Climax: He confronts James, saying “Yesterday wasn’t cool.”
  5. Resolution: Instead of apologizing or changing, James pretends not to understand his meaning, and Sanborn solidifies his opposition by calling James a redneck piece of trailer trash, an insult that fails to faze him.

MIDDLE BUILD – Sanford overcomes some of his distrust of James, but when James discovers Beckham’s dead body and the camp psychiatrist is killed by an IED, James goes looking for answers and revenge, reviving Sanford’s doubts and mistrust.

  1. Inciting incident: James flouts protocol again by dismantling a large car bomb after being ordered to leave it to the engineers, and is congratulated by a senior officer for his reckless endangerment of himself and others.
  2. Progressive Complication: Sanborn confides to Eldridge that he’s thinking of “accidentally” blowing up Sgt James at bomb disposal site, but after a long standoff against snipers in the desert, James earns his trust.
  3. Midpoint Shift: During a drunken party at the camp, Sanborn and James appear to team up, excluding Eldridge.
  4. Turning point: Complications continue to mount after the MPS. The camp psychiatrist is killed. James finds Beckham’s dead body.
  5. Crisis Question: Will James take revenge for Beckham’s death or will he accept that he’ll never find out who killed the boy?
  6. Climax: James gives up on finding Beckham’s killer when the man whose house he’s broken into thinks he’s CIA and tries to placate him. The woman of the house chases him away. (Which was awesome.)
  7. Resolution: He returns to camp angry and ashamed.

ENDING PAYOFF – James’s recklessness reaches a critical point when he puts his men in danger and accidentally shoots Eldridge in the leg. He must face his addiction when he’s unable to disarm a suicide bomb and is forced to let a man die, but he can’t overcome it, and re-enlists for another year.

  1. Inciting incident: The EOD squad is called in to investigate a massive explosion, thought to be a suicide bomb.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: James recklessly orders the team to break protocol by pursuing a bomber. Eldridge is captured and James accidentally shoots him in the leg, probably crippling him, while firing on the captors. Eldridge blames James and his adrenaline addiction for the incident.
  3. Crisis Question: Will James beat his addiction or succumb to it completely, blaming himself as Eldridge blamed him?
  4. Climax: With 2 days left on their rotation, James dons the bomb suit and walks towards an involuntary suicide bomber loaded with explosives, even though there’s no chance of saving him, and barely escapes the explosion.
  5. Resolution: James, back home trying to lead a normal life, signs on for another year of duty, and the countdown on his tour of duty resets to 365 as he dons the suit and walks toward another bomb in Baghdad.

Additional Comment

Jarie: The scene where he is disarming the bomb at 41:14 and the windshield wipers is just brilliant.

7. Additional Story-Related Observations

Anne: At about 1:29:00, James uses the satellite phone to call his son’s mother. It’s hard to understand why he doesn’t speak, unless you recognize it as the junkie or drunk phoning home but realizing that he had nothing to say because he’s not going to quit drinking or using. You’ve seen the scene before, typically set in some seedy bar or roadhouse. Putting it in the context of war is innovative.

Tremendous use of visual contrast and symbolism to emphasize change. In the closing scenes, after 2 hours of the bright sun, heat and dust of the barren desert, we see James cleaning masses of wet leaves from a gutter in the rain and washing mushrooms in a kitchen sink full of water. Tiny, specific decisions that really help tell the story.

Leslie: This film raises the question of how accurate fiction needs to be when portraying real-life situations. I notice that legal dramas rarely get everything right, but the underlying Truth of the situations portrayed (novel or film) often feels spot on. There’s been some criticism of The Hurt Locker on the basis that it’s not realistic and portrays EOD professionals in a bad light. (Compare with Tom Clancy’s novels, which are generally praised for accuracy and precision.) Stories aren’t real life, and accuracy could be difficult to impossible for many reasons. The best approach for the writer is to consider the Truth they intend to communicate through the story.

Valerie: I think this film is a missed opportunity in terms of story. It’s more like a report of war and the futility of it, rather than a story about war and the impact it has on people. (Fascinating that the screenwriter is also a journalist.) Not that that’s a bad thing, but remember, even journalism is not impartial (although it aims to be). James feels like a machine, not a man, and it’s hard to empathize with a machine (not impossible … WALL-E is a prime example). I think the filmmakers relied on our natural visceral response to war, and the movie was released in 2008; right in the middle of the Iraq war (2003-2011). It appealed to a sense of nationalism and support for troops overseas; issues that are always emotionally charged.

Note: Roger Ebert disagrees with me and thinks this is a spellbinding film, worthy of an Academy Award nomination. But he’s a film critic, not a story analyst and in his review, he doesn’t talk about story structure, he talks about the horrors of war. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-hurt-locker-2009

While I don’t think there’s much of a story here, this film gets a gold star for its use of suspense. We never know when/if a bomb will go off, or if someone will die. Sergeant Thompson’s death in the beginning hook puts the audience on notice that any character can go at any time. Thompson wasn’t a throwaway character, nor was he portrayed by a little-known actor. If Guy Pearce can die in the first ten minutes, it’s anybody’s guess who will be next. This fits perfectly with the setting and nature of the film (and war). This idea is reinforced when Ralph Fiennes is shot after just a few minutes of screentime. (very Game of Thrones …)

Jarie: Great example of an “embedded” point of view a la Blair Witch Project. The opening scene is particularly well done.

They timed this movie perfectly. As an entrepreneur, it’s the perfect Product Market Fit for what society was going through. I so related to this because I have lots of friends in the military and some do EOD, so for me, I could have been that guy or my friends could of been him.

Next time, East meets Western. Join us as we analyze the film that revived a whole genre from an ocean away, and spawned the spaghetti Western: Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai masterpiece, Yojimbo. Why not give it a look during the week and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.