"A Different Kind of War Film: The Ethos of the Individual Soldier in The Hurt Locker" by Mikal Lambdin
Mikal has a BA in English with a concentration in Writing and Rhetoric from George Mason University. She most recently worked as an Undergraduate Research Assistant for Writing Across the Curriculum, where she wrote research-driven blog posts about composition from a student perspective. She enjoys pushing the envelope when writing by creating her own rhetorical frames and finding connections between dissimilar topics like children’s literature and politics. Mikal lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her doctor-to-be husband and hyperactive cat.
Of all the controversies that film attempts to depict, war is one of the most difficult and dangerous. How can directors in Hollywood ever truly understand what it’s like to be a soldier, regardless of the cause, and should they even try? How are the evils (death, loss, pain, cruelty) juxtaposed with the good (courage, loyalty, and something worth fighting for) without resulting in offensive oversimplification? And, perhaps most problematic, how do filmmakers avoid a seemingly unavoidable bias that could potentially alienate half of their audience? In light of these complexities, most filmmakers approach war movies with more than a little trepidation, and well they should: war films do poorly at the box office, rarely win awards, and are more likely to ruin careers than make them, which begs the question, are they ever worth it (Rico)?
Faced with these difficulties, many war films make what effort they can to represent the basic realities of dense concepts like war and soldier within their two hour time slot. In other words, many war films aim to be generally representative. Classics like The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan, and We Were Soldiers all attempt to answer, more or less, the same two questions: What is war really like? and What are soldiers really like? Saving Private Ryan includes several especially horrific scenes of battles and death, offering a picture of the violent reality of war. The title of We Were Soldiers says it all, as the film depicts the heroism and loyalty that turned men into soldiers. These war films, like so many others, attempt to epitomize war by focusing on its most fundamental attributes and thus mostly elude controversy; when effectively executed, this method results in the classic, award-winning war films that so many know and love. Yet by focusing on the agreed-upon basics of war and soldiers, these films send messages that are equally basic: War is violent. Soldiers are loyal. Soldiers are heroes. As a result, these concepts, especially the idea of being a soldier, have slowly turned into clichés. The message is now All soldiers are loyal. All soldiers are heroes.
In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow’s war drama The Hurt Locker won six Academy Awards and was nominated for three more. It beat Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time, for Best Picture, and it made history when Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director (Bilington). Yet The Hurt Locker was not just another in a chain of war films that successfully represented the fundamental realities of war. In fact, it was The Hurt Locker’s departure from this approach that made it noteworthy: it did not try to capture the all-encompassing reality of war. Disregarding the approach of classics which endeavor to be representative, Bigelow set out to make a different kind of war film. Instead of creating war’s perfect landscape and crafting everything else to fit that landscape, The Hurt Locker started with its characters – one character in particular. Rather than offering a picture of all soldiers, it offered a picture of one soldier. It carefully molded a unique, multilayered, real person, dressed him in a bomb suit, and sat back to watch what played out. While some may argue that positioning one character at the center of the fray is simply a plot device, the forthcoming analysis will show that the distinctive character traits of protagonist Sergeant Will James are what determine the film’s narrative action, and not the other way around. This focus on the ethos of James’ individuality is what ultimately determined The Hurt Locker’s singularity and success. Instead of asking, what is war really like? it asks, what is war like for one person?
In this paper, I will look more closely at the character of James, analyzing the rhetorical moves made to establish his ethos as a single, honest entity rather than a comprehensive symbol of war. My analysis will focus on three rhetorical hallmarks of James’s character – his anonymity, his detachment, and his vulnerability. Many details about James’s past and current identity are simply left out, which works to create an essence of believability. The audience gets to know James in the same way as it would get to know another person – piece by piece. Perhaps most obvious is James’s detachment from the world around him – both the life-or-death nature of his surroundings, and the family that he has left behind. This detachment is constituted by his addiction to war, his most distinctive quality. Finally, James’s momentary vulnerability adds a layer of nuance and relatability to his character. Although these moments serve to authenticate James’s humanness, they do not result in some grand gesture or sudden, radical character development – instead, these moments simply continue to reveal his shortcomings. I have created this unique, threefold rhetorical frame for the purposes of an equally unique analysis, and I hope to demonstrate that, especially in the context of film, this frame is valuable and effective in establishing rhetorical ethos. I will examine how these three rhetorical aspects work in both the dialogue and, when applicable, the actor portrayal, to confirm the ethos of one character’s identity as a soldier.