Already celebrated for its breathtaking realism in depicting soldiers and explosions, The Hurt Locker is being called “the best Iraq war movie,” with the qualification that the genre has been weak and the public response weaker. This is Kathryn Bigelow all right: macho men in dazzling exploits, exhilarating and always a little terrifying to watch, with adrenalin and testosterone spurting off the screen. If war is a drug, this movie could give you a contact high. Bigelow was obviously born to make a war movie. The only question is why she took this long to do so. Writer Mark Boal led her into it. He embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq, and came back with remarkable stories and a character to hold them together. He’s Staff Sergeant William James, who’s what in the genteel days of The English Patient was more commonly called a “sapper,” a combat engineer who specializes in demolitions, minefields, and the like. Bigelow wisely chose Jeremy Renner, an unknown and unglamorous actor, for this pleasingly enigmatic role of a man who may be closer to bombs and timers than to his own comrades.
The Hurt Locker (soldier slang for a real bad place) gives you immediacy and verité soldier life, with the shaky digital camera and in-and-out zooms of the genre (the action is so good, we soon forget them, while in Brian De Palms’s crude 2007 Redacted, they grate all through). Such authenticity is achieved in Brit documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s more political, excellent, little seen, low-budget 2005 drama Battle for Haditha. It may not make his film unbiased, but Broomfield most notably gives more detail of the Iraqi P.O.V., using using real Iraqis, while Bigelow sticks to showing Iraqis as the American soldiers experience them, an experience that turns out to be insane, paranoia-inducing, and scary. (In both movies one of the few friendly forms of contact is buying and selling pirated DVDs, the US soldiers buying, the Iraqis selling, and in both this contact becomes a key plot element.)
Obviously Bigelow also had a much bigger budget, the better to provide a wealth of spectacular explosions, essential (or justified anyway) since this is about a small team of three men whose main (but by no means only) job is to find and defuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the DIY but sometimes highly ingenious signature weapons of the Iraqi insurgency. There is also a horrifying body bomb; a complicated and lethal car bomb in front of a UN building; a suicide bomber who has a change of heart (as in Hany Abu-Assad’s 2005 Paradise Now); and a hairy firefight with snipers (with a somewhat obtrusive cameo by Ralph Fiennes) out in the desert. Besides which the adrenalin-numbed Sergeant James independently gets himself and his two squad members, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), into various private and probably unnecessary severe crap storms. All of this is staged with stunning accomplishment and a strong focus on character and the interactions, intense even when alienated, of these three men.
The movie takes no political stand, other than the opening quote from Chris Hedges: “War is a drug.” This is like the point of view Andrew Swoford used for Sam Mendes’ 2005 Jarhead, which, however unsuccessful in some aspects and poorly received, conveys that soldiers don’t question war because they’re too busy doing dangerous jobs, or waiting and hoping to do them, and trying to stay alive until, God willing, their tour ends.
The Hurt Locker is episodic and cyclical. Thanks to Boal’s writing, Bigelow’s fine directing, and an excellent cast, the episodes never seem routine or repetitive. But if you emerge with a sense of numbing danger and pointlessness that may not be inappropriate. The only structure is the routine one of datelines saying how many days are left in Bravo company’s tour. But this is a figure that, as Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss depicts, can be set back to start again.
The opening sequence is excruciatingly tense, a textbook street IED diffusion job that conveys how terrified the two backup guys are and sets up what’s to come. This is a team, with all three in radio contact and each with his function, Sanborn the lookout in charge of Eldridge, who’s the guard. The street is surrounded with buildings and people and deep in unknowns. When James arrives shortly after, we don’t feel the danger except by remembering the first sequence, because James is so immune to it. Sanborn and Eldridge are freaking out because James doesn’t stay in touch with him when he’s suited up dealing with the device. They feel lost. There’s immediate intense conflict between Sanborn, an elegant, chiseled black man with extensive intelligence experience, and the puffy-cheeked James whom Sanborn calls “redneck trailer trash” straight off to his face. These telegraphed macho conflicts, essential Bigelow, work because the jobs being done are all so convincingly and intensely depicted.
We also realize that though James may leave his men to fend for themselves and not follow the textbook, he’s so brilliant at what he does it doesn’t seem to matter. Maybe detonating improvised bombs in a war zone is so risky only an insane daredevil can excel at it. Every time James goes out he knows his life is on the line, but he is not out to get killed. He knows, as he tells an officer congratulating him on an exploit, that the best way to defuse a bomb is “whatever way doesn’t get you killed.”
This movie is about the adrenalin rush of war but also about loving your work and doing it exceedingly well, and how that may hurt those around you but become your sole raison d’etre. In one of the film’s too few pauses for breath, James and his team relax by listening to earsplitting music, getting blasted on whiskey, and beating up on each other. Thus they come to a kind of mute understanding. Eldridge is the bull-necked baby, whose sweetness allows him to voice the bitter message that this is meaningless and that he is going to die. Eldridge also declares that he will disappear and no one will care. Sanborn comes to admire him and wish he could do what James does. But nobody can do what James does. He’s a “wild man,” a trapeze artist flying without a net, a matador walking in for the kill of a nasty bull 365 days a year.
You’ll have to see if the way we’re left hanging becomes thought-provoking in a Brechtian way, or if you’re just left limp and numb. Brilliant and intense as Kathryn Bigelow’s film is, like a distillation of the most intense moments of her best earlier films (like Near Dark and Point Break fused), it lacks emotional depths, chiefly because the characters can’t linger over any emotions and we don’t get time to resonate with them.
James is a lovely creation, believable and intriguing in his opacity. The movie gets the American Iraq war soldier’s sense of danger, of the routine hostility of the locals. A gang of little boys throw rocks at the crew’s Humvee as if just playing. A man standing in a shop with a cell phone is an imminent danger. A housewife in a burqa attacks the invincible James in her house and he seems overwhelmed. Iraqis who’re friendly are terrifying, and may be unhinged (and still dangerous) — or daredevils, like James himself.
This is a great movie, and meaty stuff, but it still somehow leaves you empty. The other Iraq movies were cloying and had too much to say, but though a lack of preaching is one of The Hurt Locker‘s strengths, its focus on one man somehow doing a job isolated even from his own team fails to provide any larger context of the war or of the country. The director is so caught up in what she’s doing that it’s infectious, but the compelling intensity also represents a loss of perspective. Still, if there is any non-documentary Iraq war movie that’s a must-see, this has got to be it, and it’s by far the best thing the uneven but gifted Kathryn Bigelow has ever done. It’s a game-changer, the new American war movie to beat.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, David Morse
Runtime: 131 min