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Long Way Home

It begins with a quote from a journalist that war is a drug. He, much like the person who wrote the screenplay, followed, studied and bonded with the soldiers and reached the aforementioned conclusion. He is correct.

But there is another level. The level that explains why many take drugs in the first place.

Sergeant William James is in an ill-defined, but nevertheless seemingly content, relationship and has a son, “the one thing.” He has much to live for.

Yet, he chooses to serve not one but two (and possibly additional) terms in Iraq, defusing improvised explosive devices (IEDs). He even commences the latter term with a smile on his face.

Sure, just as “The Hurt Locker” intends to communicate, James is addicted to the adrenaline rush of ever-present, yet often increasing danger. Unlike so many cliché reckless action heroes, however, he does not delight in the fact that he very likely might die. The threat, no matter how much it screams, seems to have little effect on him. Similarly, he seeks not medals or accolades to make up for some esteem deficiency.

James is a masochist.

He continues working to defuse a car bomb when there is hardly any point. He puts himself at risk by taking too much time attempting to free an unwilling suicide bomber even when he knows it is impossible. He coats the area around one IED with tear gas, effectively making his job more difficult and panicking his fellow team members.

This is his greatest flaw. This is the masochist’s greatest flaw.

The pain so desired winds up afflicting those who care about and rely on them, which serve as logical consequences for a way of life rooted so deeply in selfishness.

If James had not insisted on pursuing those responsible for the fire in the Green Zone, his team member would not have been in as much danger and would have gone home with a healthy femur.

It is understandable why James would want to do something. With so much insanity surrounding him, wanting to be the person who does something just seems only right. Unfortunately, his penchant for suicide missions means that those associated with him are pulled into the same risk.

James cannot see the threat he poses to those around him. He is constantly looking myopically outward through his own inward lens. Not self-absorbed so much as self-volunteering, James chooses to be the man most at-risk because he does not like himself, thus is the best candidate to be put in danger of death.

He walks with a cocky stride, yes. Knowingly toward that which many wish upon those who do – comeuppance.

His confidence comes in assurance that death is no deterrent.

By the end of his first term, this near-nihilism has infected once-cautious Sergeant J.T. Sanborn. The team member, like most young men thrust into war, is experiencing an existential crisis. He cannot see the point in living, particularly with no offspring to depend on his continued survival. James’ masochism damages another. Again.

He returns to America only to be confused in a supermarket. His partner will not listen to his experiences. And his son is still too young for deep connection. So James ventures back to his real home, the service.

Like most with his condition, James will continue to hurt others and experience the aftermath of guilt, still stuck in the same cycle of self-inflicted pain. An indirect cycle with plenty of collateral damage.

Angel in the Snow

Fear of introspection may be the greatest impetus for routine. To many, pride in practice is more than a substitute, but a, nay the, higher goal.

On the surface, that which shifts focus away from the self seems selfless, thus noble.

If true, then why is Ryan Bingham’s backpack empty?

The protagonist of Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” identifies not with the participation in process notion often associated with many Native American and other pre-class-based societies, but with the efficiency in which he believes to have mastered it.

His impenetrable smirk derives from the constant proof that he is even more mechanical than the dehumanizing airport system that nurtures him. Without this confidence, Ryan would not be able to conquer his profession, wherein repeated insults and tableaus of murky futures necessitate a perfected art of detachment, lest one be pulled into the comfortless abyss of infinite consequences.

Ryan’s trainee, Natalie, narrowly avoids this fate by distancing herself from the business altogether (subtly foreshadowed by an expertly framed shot with her boxed in by empty office chairs and a look of quivering disbelief on par with many of those she serviced).

What makes Ryan’s own slow transformation so believable and admirable is just that – it does not happen simply because of a single drastic event that “puts everything into perspective.”

It is not just the broken apprentice. Or the rejection of a non-relationship. Or even the suicide of someone he fired.

His transformation arises from attentive absorption of wisdom. The way adults learn. Such a method of growth is essential for a person incessantly called a child throughout his life by those who know that willingness and commitment to forming deep connections are the greatest indicator of maturity.

At one point in the film, as Ryan and romantic interest Alex are walking up to the pre-reception dinner for his sister’s wedding, Elliott Smith’s “Angel in the Snow” accompanies them. Few lyrics could better describe the interaction family, friends and just about everyone he encounters have with Ryan than a “frozen still life that fell down to lay beside you.” He gradually becomes aware of this chiefly through his relationship with Alex, which is later revealed to be everything he used to thrive on – single serving and constrictively purposeful. Thus, Ryan is able to know what it feels like to be the cold outline in the snow.

He learns one of the harshest lessons upon discovery of Alex’s family, which includes a husband and children. Referred to by her as “real life,” she offers Ryan a glimpse into the avenues he carefully avoided. His earlier talk with a groom-to-be shivering with cold feet, wherein he protects a man momentarily engulfed in nihilism from following the apathetic path of Ryan’s rolling luggage, is shown to be a lesson that Ryan himself had not yet even fully understood.

Struggling in the nadir of doubt, the eventual groom asks, “What’s the point?” Ryan’s answer is “company,” because it makes everything better and life worth living.

It is difficult to tell if he believes himself yet.

He eventually decides to take a flight to an arbitrary destination. No plans. No expectations.

This willingness to let himself be free is why the ending is not depressing.

Now that Ryan has given up questioning others “What’s In Your Backpack?” he can finally look at his own. Moreover, with this newfound openness to self-exploration, it allows room for others to finally enter his life.

Because if there is no space for yourself, how can anyone else fit?