Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is one of the most thrilling action films I’ve seen in the past few years. It features set piece after pulse-quickening set piece. But unlike other action films, you do not look forward to each subsequent moment of action. The next action sequence might take the life of a beloved character. Without ever telling us much about the characters who inhabit the film, we understand and deeply care about them. It is a film you want to end as soon as it begins, provided everyone survives to the final credits. That is not a criticism.
The Hurt Locker takes place in 2004, during the early stages of the Iraq war. The Bravo Company are in the final weeks of their rotation and are looking forward to heading home. None more so than the members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, which include Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) However, they are soon joined by a new unit leader, Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner), a bomb-diffuser who is equal parts adrenaline junkie and suicidal maniac. The film follows their attempts to survive the most dangerous job in one of the world’s most dangerous places.
Bigelow displays the surest hand of any filmmaker of the past year, deftly balancing layers upon layers of increasing conflict. A man diffuses a bomb; he is flanked by his immediate unit members, who are themselves also protected by soldiers, who are each enclosed by dozens of Iraqi civilians in the surrounding buildings, amongst which hides a terrorist. The geography of every situation, despite its structural complexity, is immediately understandable. Despite the sprawling danger of every situation, Bigelow never forgets to bring the camera up close on Sergeant James face, as beads of sweat collect and eventually drop onto the red and blue wires in his hands.
The film was written by freelance journalist Mark Boal, who himself was embedded for a time with a U.S. army bomb squad. While the tension of the bomb diffusing sequences must be attributed to Kathryn Bigelow, credit for the engaging character drama which carries the film belongs to Boal. It is both the most flattering and somewhat indicting portrayal of soldiers from the second gulf war. The men of the Bravo Company are unspeakably brave and devoted to their nation’s cause, for reasons they do not discuss, and perhaps do not even understand.
Renner gives one of those performances that makes you want to see everything he has ever acted in prior. He reminds me of a young Mel Gibson; equally charismatic and dangerously unhinged. Mackie also proves himself to be one of the best and most interesting actors around; his is a more subtle performance, but it feels the most real. The cast is also fitted out by numerous character actors; some quite famous and surprisingly given little screen-time considering their stature. Their appearance in the film reminds the audience that no-one, whether they be little-known indie actors or Oscar-nominated movie stars, are safe in the EOD.
Many words have been written about the politics (or lack thereof) in Bigelow’s war film. Some believe that the film does not address the war enough, whereas others believe that the mere fact it does not comment on the war is a commentary in itself. I wonder if it’s possible for a film set during war to be about anything other than that very war. Take a film like The Deer Hunter, which was set during the Vietnam War, but was not actually about the Vietnam War. It was about a generation of boys fighting a battle they did not understand. It was about the effect war had on them, and how they changed when they returned back home. The Hurt Locker asks a similar question, although for a new war and a new generation. That is, does war create soldiers, or is this generation made up of soldiers waiting for a war? As stated in the opening credits of the film, “war is a drug”. It’s true that war can get into our blood. The film just questions whether or not it was there all along.