Kadiri Kaan Renda*
A War drama set in Iraq, ‘The Hurt Locker’, by Kathryn Bigelow and a comedy set in the United States, ‘Up in the Air’ by Jason Reitman are reviewed in this article. The two movies, although at first glance appear to have virtually nothing in common, they depict magnificently the current aspects of modern business and modern warfare in their own cinematic way.
There seem very few commonalities between two movies. A superficial viewing would consider that the only similarity is that the main characters are in their early middle ages and their lives are their jobs. William James, played by Jeremy Lenner, a reckless bomb disposal expert and a sergeant, is assigned as the new leader of bomb squad in the US army in Iraq. George Clooney, starred as Ryan Bingham, is a ‘firing-man’ who travels widely around the country to fire workers, or rather in his own words “to discuss their future options” when they are laid off. A reckless bomb disposal expert and a sergeant, James likes walking on the edge of life, which is extremely in contradiction with his fellow sergeant Sanborn’s style and mindset, who is a man of duty and does his job by the book.
Those two men’s working style clashed many times in the movie. For James, his job or rather his fierce passion about taking risks and walking the tightrope between death and life drives him back to Iraq, leaving behind his beloved but ignored family. On the other hand, Sanborn looks forward to going back to his hometown and dreams about having a family, a peaceful and an ordinary life as normal people do. For James, his job has become his addiction. Although he is not a war-loving, violence-thirsty soldier, he is addicted to the idea of walking towards death like a daredevil each time he has to disarm a bomb. This seems his way of enjoying life. As a civilian with his family he looks unfitted for the civilian life, which is why he chooses to be re-deployed in Iraq for one more year.
To some extent Sergeant James embodies another kind of heroic depiction of an American soldier, which we are used to see in most of the Hollywood movies. Nevertheless, this guy is different from Rambo who can mercilessly kill his enemies with his big machine gun or his shinning commando knife with his bare hands while showing off his big muscles in an era of intense conflict between superpowers. Rambo is definitely the creation of the Cold War rivalry between two superpowers. In contrast, in the character of Sergeant James we see the contradiction between American hegemony and its role in promoting democracy and liberty in third world countries. The question is, thus, whether the Americans are lurching from one war to another in third world countries for noble reasons such as spreading democracy and human rights or they are fighting there solely because of their addiction to war and power.
In ‘Up in the Air’, the main character, Ryan Bingham is one of the best employees of a company which is specialized in firing workers whose boss does not bother to do it. Bingham comes out of the blue, fires workers and usually does serious damage to their lives and then neatly packs his luggage and fly to another destination without even bothering to look back. Bingham is solely dedicated to his job and to the airline he flies with all the time. Bingham’s job is tough but highly promising in a time of economic crisis. He earns his life on the misfortunes and misery of others. Bingham’s job reflects the dark side of capitalism and shows how to thrive on even the unpleasant side of capitalism. Bingham’s life style and way of doing business is also criticized bitterly by his newbie co-worker who wishes to have a husband and a life that fit into her naïve criteria shaped by the shallowness of extravagance of consumer society and superficiality of new generation.
Both characters have jobs that some people could not handle nor would want to do it at all, because those jobs are emotionally exhausting, stressful, dangerous, and briefly dirty. Nevertheless, someone has to do the job and the main characters in both movies do their jobs or duties to the point of perfection which brings personal satisfaction and identification with their jobs. I do not mean Ryan likes firing people sadistically. Nor does William like playing with bombs and exploding them. Nor do both men adhere to their jobs for noble reasons whatsoever. They simply like their jobs because it seems that their job is the only thing in their life they have to hang on tightly, because it is this thing what they are best at. Moreover, both men find a secluded place either in the air or in the middle of disarming a bomb. However, both men are detached from their families and the only close friend is credit cards for Ryan and for Williams his wire cutter. Their loneliness is displayed in a dramatic way in ‘The Hurt Locker’ and in a satiric way in ‘Up in the Air’. As shown in the opening scene of ‘The Hurt Locker’, both men seem addicted to their life-styles or life-choices which may be the result of their personalities or unknown circumstances or past experiences.
Putting aside the psychological analysis of the main characters, both stories are full of socio-political subtexts. I would like to emphasize more subtle similarity between two movies and the implications of the movies as to how we have been overwhelmed by at best, at worst become addicted to the superficiality and cruelty of contemporary society, economic system and modern warfare.
Of these few similarities between main characters, what seems to me more important is that the main characters and both movies poke us in the eye with the janus-faced aspects of today’s world: on the one hand, the spread of capitalism and the rule of free market, the advancements in technology and telecommunication, on the other hand the cruelty of capitalism to workers and the mesmerizing effect of onsumer society on modern life and the widening shallowness of personal relationships in the developed countries, and the destructiveness and traumatic effect of war on the people of underdeveloped countries. These two most crucial consequences of modern economy and modern warfare in the world we have been living for the last two decades are probed in by two movies.
Both movies are praised because of their depiction of real life in a dramatic or satiric way. The daily life in a capital city of a Middle eastern country which has been destroyed by the US army initially and by domestic turmoil and insurgency afterwards resembles how it looks like to continue living under the shadow of warplanes, in the smoke of gunfire and inbetween one explosion and other in which case nobody knows who is next to die. On the other hand, in the other edge of the world in America, workers who, in some incidents, have been working in the same company for their whole lives do not know who is next to get fired by a guy coming out of the blue whom they never met before.
Of course, it may sound ridiculous to compare surviving in a war or surviving in a recession. However, two movies explain brilliantly the current state of societies in the West and the East. In the West there is an economic crisis and wo rkers who are squeezed between capitalism and the consumer society hear the unpleasant sound of losing their jobs, which might be devastating for some of them as most of the citizens in Western countries are tied down by their mortgage loans and credit card payments. In the underdeveloped parts of the world people feel the cold breath of death and oppression due to either civil war, heavy-handed policies of their authoritarian governments or the occupation of their country by foreign soldiers. In developed countries the freedom of people is limited by the economy, whereas in underdeveloped countries the freedom of people is constrained by war and the liberty is at the mercy of whoeve is the victor.
“Thanks to the improvements in communication technologies, the modern business and modern warfare have been transformed profoundly in modern times.“
Thanks to the improvements in communication technologies, the modern business and modern warfare have been transformed profoundly in modern times. The armies replete with latest technology, automaton bomb disposal units with remote controls, soldiers equipped with high-tech weaponry and electronic gizmos are all new aspects of modern warfare. Alongside such technological innovations one can easily observe the changing character of warfare such as urban combat, uselessness of tanks and heavy infantry in cities, suicide bombers, insurgency and guerrilla warfare tactics. Moreover, as shown in ‘The Hurt Locker’ ordinary people try hard to survive and earn their living in the middle of a low intensity war. Hence, war is their part of daily life.
Modern economy and modern business have changed profoundly too. In the movie ‘Up in the Air’, we see the satiric depiction of cruelty of capitalism and changing nature of modern business in two ways. First, the implementation of a new technology by a smart newbie co-worker into Bingham’s job speeds up the firing process via providing the service online which consequently eliminates the only human aspect of the job. The main aim is to render the business more efficient and less costly but ironically much crueller. This is a cinematic expression of the dilemma between the cruelty and the efficiency principle of capitalism in a satiric way.
Second, the company Bingham works for is an outsourcing company which provides other companies a service that “prepares the newly unemployed for the emotional and physical hurdles of job hunting” after they are made redundant. It has become much easier to outsource almost any services for the last two decades. Companies have been outsourcing to decrease their expenses. Outsourcing is also used by militaries due to declining numbers of volunteers and conscription on the one hand while there is a rise of domestic dissent against war after the corpses of soldiers coming back home from Iraq or Afghanistan every other day. In ‘The Hurt Locker’ there is a scene where the leader of a mercenary group shot at two captives while they are on the run. The mercenary turns to the rest of the group and say “dead or alive 500.000”. That reminds me the Westerns in which cowboys search for outlaws for the head money. Rather than wandering the mountains and woods of Western America, today’s mercenaries wander around the deserts and the streets of Baghdad to hunt down insurgents or fugitive Iraqis just for money. They are the new cowboys of globalization era in the ‘Wild East’.
I believe both movies explain excellently a great deal about the modern business and modern warfare even if it is not the main intention of directors. How the modern business and modern warfare have evolved and what they have become in today’s world is depicted wonderfully. In my opinion, both of them are praise-worthy, unquestionable for the excellent performances and distinct directorship as well as shrewdly written storylines regardless of winning an Oscar.
* Kadri Kaan Renda is a Doctoral Researcher at King’s College, London and is one of the two Vice-Chairmen of CESRAN.