The Hurt Locker, the Olympics, and Adrenaline Addicts


On the surface Sgt. James looks like an adrenaline junkie. The Hurt Locker suggests this by beginning with a quote from journalist Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” Kathryn Bigelow, its director, also directed Point Blank, which depicts surfers seeking that adrenaline high. Disarming bombs before they detonate is an exciting job and James does seem to get a rush from doing it.

Sgt. James is a complex guy. He refuses to use some of the standard precautions designed to protect him but he’s competent and very good at what he does. While his methods add tension to an already stressful mission his support team Sgt. Sanborn and Pfc. Eldridge respect his bravery and skill, though they are very uncomfortable with his unpredictability. He’s competent and takes pride in his work. He seems to genuinely want to help and shows compassion for victims of war. While his desire for excitement seems insatiable, James is also a tough, direct, heroic soldier doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. James’ dismissive attitude toward danger gives him a bit of a Chuck Norris/John Wayne persona.

Psychology Today ran a blog article about adrenaline addiction in extreme sports. This year’s Olympics features athletes like snowboarder Shaun White who are scary-fun to watch. Olympic  events seem to call for increasing athletic prowess.  The question of whether the original luge design was too fast still lingers.  Were officials trying to make it higher and faster and more thrilling than ever before? We watch the Olympics, X-games, car races, and other extreme sports so that we can vicariously experience a little of that rush.  And it always takes a little bit more the next time to achieve the same rush. Adrenaline addiction seems to happen when someone is exposed to constant danger. Fear results in the release of endorphins to deal with pain and dopamine and epinephrine which enhance performance. Cocaine mimics dopamine and speed tries to duplicate the effects of epinephrine. So it’s possible that extreme sports athletes or bomb experts might develop an addiction to these naturally occurring drugs which course through their bodies because of fear.

After a particularly harrowing incident James turns to Sanborn and asks him if he knows why he is the way he is.  We don’t know whether James’ experiences in war have led him to become this way or whether he has found an outlet that feeds an existing predisposition for the thrill of danger. Even James doesn’t know.

I wonder what attracts us to those dangerous jobs and hobbies in the first place? James seems to genuinely love his wife and child, and experiences regret that he can’t enjoy the mundane routine of going to the grocery store with them. James tries to explain to his child how life strips away wonder and pleasure until only one thing makes him feel fully alive.

This scene  broke my heart. We are meant to feel fully alive, fully engaged, passionate and excited. We ought to have extreme moments in our lives, but expecting this to be the norm is like writing an autobiography consisting of a page full of punctuation marks. Stuff is supposed to happen in between and that stuff matters too. Sometimes it even matters more.

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