Since the beginning of the Iraq War (that's 2003 in case you somehow forgot), there have been a number of fictional movies about the controversial war, most of them ignored by the public and many of them panned by critics. Not surprisingly, most of these movies have an opinion or two about the war itself and they tend to be quite cloying or bullheaded about their point. Not that The Hurt Locker is completely devoid of a political opinion. It in fact begins with a quote by New York Times writer and vocal Iraq War critic Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug." However, it's certainly less concerned with mulling over the stigma of war than it is with communicating the experience of being there. This is the most relevant, nuanced and viscerally jolting war film since Full Metal Jacket. I kid you not.
Part of why it stands above the rest of the Iraq War catalog is that, rather than focusing on the soldiers' prepared outlook of war and attaching combat (an important part of their lives) onto them, The Hurt Locker tells us the soldiers' experience by putting said experience on screen. No philosophizing, no emotional reactionary outbursts. We see it, we feel it, and then we watch what it does to the soldiers, and we understand the breakdown.
You know how every action movie has that tension-filled bomb defusing scene? This movie has about half a dozen of them, each packing enough suspense to make your heart put a dent on your ribcage. Director Kathryn Bigelow lines three in front of the movie, almost back-to-back, before she even gets a story going. It gives us a taste of what routine and procedure are like for these guys.
Written by former journalist and first-time screenwriter Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker tells the story of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq whose job is to sweep the streets of Baghdad, defusing found explosives. When team leader Sgt. Thompson (Guy Pearce) is killed by a blast, a "wild man" is assigned to replace him. Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) doesn't seem to mind the danger, always walking into each potential death as if he was a cowboy diving into a bar fight. The first day he arrives in camp, he unblocks the window in his quarters, refusing to worry about incoming mortars because he likes the sunlight. It is in him that the "war is a drug" mantra becomes painfully obvious. He has a wife (Evangeline Lilly) and a young son back home, but doesn't seem to connect to them the way he connects to explosives. Renner plays him not quite like a junkie, but certainly with shades of it. When he's not at work, he's restless, looking for an excuse for action. When he is, he shuts everything out, drawn to his bombs and determined to conquer them.
Keeping him safe are his two team members Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). They're more ideas than characters; two reactions to Thompson's death. Sanborn becomes a stickler for protocol in the name of safety, while Eldridge is shaken by his own mortality. I wish they're given more to do, especially when you have a brilliant talent like Mackie in the role, but what it lacks in character development it makes up for with simple but beautiful human touches—a soldier helping another drink from a juice box becomes a tender moment.
With such a complicated war, though, things are never simple. The movie is sympathetic for the troops but at the same time reveals the consequence of their presence. It uses paranoia as a way to generate suspense, but also to comment on the double-edged sword that is the Iraq War. When Sanborn roughhouses an Iraqi gawker during a mission, it's his duty to be careful on a dangerous job and suspect any approaching Iraqi, but the look on the civilian's face says something else: he's trying to be friendly and helpful, yet he is assumed and treated as a threat by the Americans. Hatred brews.
"Well, if he ain't an insurgent, he is now," one soldier jokes as they arrest a trespassing civilian.
Boal was embedded with an actual bomb squad in Baghdad back in 2004 and his first-hand knowledge on the matter shows in the script; from the soldiers' camp lifestyle to the atmosphere of each mission, in which every nearby spectator could be a hostile. Toying with our anxiety, The Hurt Locker never develops an antagonist, yet presents a number of suspects in each situation for our heroes to defend against. You always hear filmmakers saying, "the city is another character," and often they fall short, but there's no other way to describe it here. Bigelow turns Baghdad into a sprawling yet claustrophobic villain. A cameraman on a fence, a curious Iraqi watching from a balcony, a taxi taking a wrong turn—these are all elements of the city that she uses to kidnap our breath at gun point.
After a summer full of disappointing action movies, The Hurt Locker is easily the most pulse-pounding movie of the summer. Of course there's more to it than that, but bullet-by-bullet, Bigelow's sharp filmmaking here shames the likes of Michael Bay and McG. They could learn a thing or two from her on how to make an exciting action film.
"The Hurt Locker" opens July 10, 2009 and is rated R. Action, War. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal. Starring Anthony Mackie, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly, Guy Pearce, Jeremy Renner, Ralph Fiennes, Brian Geraghty, Christian Camargo.