Review by Tom Clift
Based on a script by Mark Boal, a freelance journalist who spent time embedded with a real life bomb disposal unit in Iraq, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a war film that purports to give a realistic look at the life of a soldier on the frontlines in Baghdad. The story follows an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit made up of Sergeant J.T. Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge (played by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) and their newly assigned team leader Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a thrill seeking soldier whose cavalier attitude and unorthodox methods soon begin to put the lives of his men at risk. The winner of six Academy Awards including Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture, the films' refreshing lack of politics, along with its phenomenal direction and first rate performances make it the best film yet made about the war in Iraq, both a mind blowing action picture and fascinating character study of a man who can only find meaning in his life when it could end at any second.
The first term that comes to mind when describing The Hurt Locker is one I’m hesitant to use, as it has become a sort of buzz word in Hollywood in recent times. That term is “gritty realism”, something that so many films both big and small try to attain with most of them falling well short. But where they fail, The Hurt Locker may have succeeded – while I have never been a soldier or experienced military conflict of any sort, director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days) has crafted a war movie that feels more believable than any I have ever watched and from the fantastic opening scene the sense of location, and of the constant danger that can be found in that location, is intense and ever present. One thing that may strike some as being odd is the movies pacing; there is no central mission (a la Saving Private Ryan) but rather a series of individual days and tasks – depicted through several set pieces of gut-wrenching tension – all counting down to the end of Bravo Companies rotation.
For Eldridge and Sanborn, this day cannot come soon enough. But for Sergeant James, the thrill of conflict is his only reason to live; the real world seeming mundane and pointless by comparison. He is the kind of man who thrives in the combat zone, and in many ways he is the archetypal action hero, a risk taking, wise cracking wild man; a brave and charismatic soldier with no regard for authority and who is the very best at what he does. But when Bigelow and Boal take this larger than life character that we have seen so many times before and insert him into this true to life world they have created, we realize that men like James are actually extremely dangerous and destructive. The young Iraqi boy who he befriends say it best when he describes James as “a gangster”. This is how James sees himself, and while we have no doubt that he would sacrifice himself for his men in an instant, his reckless actions make him just as big a threat to their safety as any enemy combatant.
My criticisms of The Hurt Locker are few and far between. My biggest one would be that we spend so much time on the mental state of James that the other two central characters are somewhat shortchanged. I thought Eldridges sub-plot dealing with his own psychological issues was seriously under-developed not to mention more than a little clichéd, whilst Sanborn displays almost no personality barring his final scene. This is no criticism of the actors, with all three leading men giving fantastic performances; it was simply a matter of not having spent enough time with them. The movie is already over two hours, perhaps a little too long, especially given that the nature of the films structure would have made it relatively easy to make cuts. While it certainly doesn't kill the film, a second viewing does drag briefly in certain points.
The first words we see on screen in The Hurt Locker are a quote from war journalist Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug”. If war is a drug, than James is junkie, a desperate addict who will go to enormous lengths to get his fix. It is here perhaps that the message of The Hurt Locker can be found: unlike so many films made about the Iraq War, this story does not hammer home the evils of this conflict; this is not the tale of greedy oil companies and easily bought politicians. It is the story of the individuals who aren’t involved in the politics of the war, and yet they are the ones whose lives are being put on the line. This may in fact be the first Iraq War film that isn’t a blatantly anti-Iraq war film and yet by focusing not on the conspiracy theories but rather on the real people involved, it still manages to be a very powerful testament against not one but all wars.
However all psychoanalysis aside, Sergeant James is still a captivating and undeniable fantastic action hero. This is where The Hurt Locker succeeds above all else; as a gripping action thriller that gives the audience the heart stopping feeling of being right there in the middle of the conflict. There is a palpable tension in the bomb disposal scenes, Bigelow using handheld cameras to draw you in; an extended sniper sequence halfway into the film is so well executed that you can almost feel the flies crawling over your eyelids and the sweat pouring down your brow. Digital cinematography and handheld cameras usually irritate me, but Bigelow proves herself to be one of the few directors capable of employing documentary style filmmaking in a way that adds to that sense of real life peril rather than just being distracting. Meanwhile, the lingering shots of the bystanders watching every IED (improvised explosive device) disposal Bravo company handles sends across the terrifying message that in this war, the enemy could be anyone.
If any film in recent times deserves to be described as having a “gritty realism”, it is this one. The reason this film works so well is because you absolutely believe these scenes could happen, and every decision Bigelow makes, from the cinema vérité camera work to the overpowering sound design, the eerie score and her brave choice to shoot the film in Jordan, just kilometers from the Iraqi border, makes The Hurt Locker one of the most powerful yet pragmatic depictions of war ever put to screen, for the simple reason that it allows the audience to imagine themselves in the same situation as the movies characters. Bigelow throws you into the streets of Baghdad and puts you directly in the line of fire. And while her central character ultimately doesn’t seem to learn much, no viewer can leave The Hurt Locker with their perspective on war unchanged.