Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” is probably the most pro-military movie that has come out of Hollywood in the last few years. And truth be told, it’s not even that pro-military. It’s just that compared to the most recent dozen or so entrants, “The Hurt Locker” does not seem to share the blatant distaste for America’s men in uniform, and as a result will appear to buck the trend more than it actually does, or indeed, sets out to do. The film does not gleefully castrate the men whose occupation just happens to be the enforcers of America’s foreign policy, their journeys to war at the behest of the bogeyman of Hollywood filmmakers for the last 8 years, that oft mocked figure of hatred, George W. Bush. Unfortunately for Bigelow and “The Hurt Locker”, the country remains fatigued on the Iraq War itself, and it’ll be a while yet before any movie that tackles the subject is welcomed with box office glory. Or at least, without total and complete shunning.
“The Hurt Locker” stars Jeremy Renner as Staff Sergeant William James, the team leader of an Army bomb disposal 3-men unit in Iraq during the early days of the occupation. The country is still in a state of constant flux, with I.E.D.’s (improvised explosive devices) showing up every day, and the civilian populace weary of their occupiers. When we first meet James’ men – Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) – they are witnesses to the death of their previous team leader (Guy Pearce, in a cameo). In comes James, who seems uninterested in ingratiating himself with Sanborn and Eldridge, though over time the team does manage to gel enough to get the job done. All the while, Sanborn and Eldridge count down the time left before their unit is rotated out of country, hoping that James doesn’t get them killed before then. A month and change, and counting…
That really is all there is in terms of plot. “The Hurt Locker” is less a movie about driving plot narrative than it is an exploration of the men who live and work in a thriving war zone, where every civilian face hides a potential insurgent, and death happens without explanation or indeed, justification … they just do. Much of the film feels intentionally episodic, as James and his team are called in whenever their services are required. There are no real villains, just hidden insurgency and their destructive explosives. Some may find the lack of an identifiable bad guy to be unnatural, but in the context of the movie, and the war it explores, it makes perfect sense. There is no Bin Laden running around planting bombs, just faceless people in a war zone. They could be friends, or enemies, or somewhere in-between. In that kind of environment, even a seemingly friendly looking face cannot be trusted until confirmation is 100%.
“The Hurt Locker” provides an incredible glimpse into the mindset of men who live and work while surrounded by devices that can rip a neighborhood to shreds. Credit goes to first-time screenwriter Mark Boal, whose script never once diverts from the three men that make up James’ bomb disposal unit. We see the war through their very limited viewpoint, with people from the outside world wandering in and out like ghosts. We know some of these strangers by name, and others are just faces in a crowd, hidden behind unknown motives. Boal, a former combat reporter who has been to the war theater knows what he’s talking about. He also wrote the story that became the basis for the 2007 movie “In the Valley of Elah”, another Iraq War-themed effort that found no audience. Unfortunately for Boal, “The Hurt Locker” will fare no better, but at least the film’s originality will give him opportunities to tell more tales in the future.
It would be unfair to slap “The Hurt Locker” with a pro- or anti-war label, because honestly, it is neither of those things. The film is not concerned with the politics of the military action (indeed, no one ever discusses the rights and wrongs of invading Iraq in the movie, or care to even broach the subject), and in that respect some may find it lacking. Then again, you’re probably one of those people who watch movies to have your opinions re-enforced. “The Hurt Locker” will not offer you more ammunition for your next argument with someone of an opposing political viewpoint, but it will introduce you to some extraordinary and twisted individuals who you will probably never meet in your lifetime. All three main characters in “The Hurt Locker” are so unassuming that if you were to bump into them in a supermarket, you would never know that they used to make their living by defusing objects of mass death that could kill an entire village.
Director Kathryn Bigelow is no stranger to movies about manly man and their violent actions, and “The Hurt Locker”, while in her usual comfort zone, is like nothing she’s directed before. The film’s lack of a villain allows Bigelow to explore the characters more in-depth, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t offer up some spectacular action set pieces. It’s just that in the case of “The Hurt Locker”, gunfights don’t happen every day, but when they do happen, they tend to be spontaneous, deadly, and very final. The film is strung together with some incredibly intense moments, and every time James and company journey outside their protective base to disarm an I.E.D., things usually get hairy pretty fast. Bigelow wrings every last drop of suffocating suspense from these encounters, until you aren’t sure you can survive the next one. But like James, you can’t wait for your next fix, while at the same time like Sanborn and Eldridge, you will wonder if it’ll be the last time you see these guys again.
Jeremy Renner always do good work when he’s wearing fatigues and slinging an assault rifle, having done it on two previous occasions (“S.W.A.T.” and “28 Weeks Later”), and he’s right at home as the daring, driven, and some would say, completely out of his mind James. Anthony Mackie (“We are Marshall”, “Notorious”) is great as the tough and very capable, but also cautious Sanborn. Brian Geraghty is probably saddled with the most familiar character in the whole movie, his Eldridge being one of those young, inexperienced soldiers that mind as well have “K.I.A.” tattooed on his forehead. While Bigelow keeps the tension coming with each bomb encounter, Boal keeps the interpersonal conflicts between the three men continuously simmering. These are not friends, they will probably never be friends, but until the moment where they can take off their uniform and fade back into society, they will just have to make do and keep each other alive.
“The Hurt Locker” features a number of high-profile cameos, from Guy Pearce as the bomb unit’s former team leader who meets a visually horrifying end, to David Morse as a way too enthusiastic (and kind of creepy) Colonel. Ralph Fiennes shows up as a contractor that James and Sanborn run into in the desert, leading to a long gunfight with insurgents in the area. Lost’s Evangeline Lilly plays James’ wife, who, like Sanborn and Eldridge, finds the man she loves to be a complete mystery. Newcomer Christopher Sayegh plays a local Iraqi boy who James befriends, much to his regret, and Christian Camargo is effective as a high-ranking Colonel who hasn’t seen half of the things that the men he attempts to counsel have.
Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” is above concerning itself with politics, and isn’t interested in changing your minds about the war, George W. Bush, or the occupation of Iraq. It is, simply, a movie about men at war, and why they do the things they do. Some do it because it’s a job; others do it because nothing else compares. “The Hurt Locker” won’t buck the depressing trend of Iraq War-themed movies of the last few years, which is unfortunate because it is different enough that it shouldn’t be spoken in the same breath as those other movies. This is a great, suspenseful action movie that just happens to take place in the middle of a war. Approach it with that frame of mind and “The Hurt Locker” will please, impress, and get your heart racing.
Kathryn Bigelow (director) / Mark Boal (screenplay)
CAST: Jeremy Renner … Staff Sergeant William James
Anthony Mackie … Sergeant JT Sanborn
Brian Geraghty … Specialist Owen Eldridge
Guy Pearce … Sergeant Matt Thompson
Ralph Fiennes … Contractor Team Leader
David Morse … Colonel Reed
Evangeline Lilly … Connie James