The Hurt Locker
Details: (MA15+), 131 mins, In Cinemas 18 February 2010, United States, English
Synopsis: An intense portrayal of elite soldiers who have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world: disarming bombs in the heat of combat. When a new sergeant, James (Jeremy Renner), takes over a highly trained bomb disposal team amidst violent conflict, he surprises his two subordinates, Sanborn and Eldridge, by recklessly plunging them into a deadly game of urban combat. James behaves as if he's indifferent to death. As the men struggle to control their wild new leader, the city explodes into chaos, and James' true character reveals itself in a way that will change each man forever.
One of the best war movies yet made.
Filmmakers have taken us to the Middle East’s ongoing conflicts before. Peter Berg’s intense The Kingdom (2007), Brian de Palma’s Redacted (2007) and Sam Mendes Jarhead (2005) all put us in ‘The Suck’, bullets cracking into concrete walls over our heads and hostile civilians screaming at us, “Get out! Get out!”.
But, try as those skilled directors might, those movie-going experiences remained abstract; there was no doubt that we were watching from the relative safety of overpriced cinema seats. As good as they were (and The Kingdom was very good), they were no more involving than a good action film or a sad drama.
This sanitised view has hurt the credibility of Iraq-themed films to-date, but Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is less about the intensity of the conflict (though it does that with aplomb), and more about understanding the men in the heat and by extension, what defines their bravery and drives them into the path of death.
With her hand-held camera, naturalistic dialogue and authentic locations, Bigelow has finally created the defining work that fans of her cult films Near Dark (1987), Strange Days (1995) and Point Break (1991, and yes, that Point Break) always knew she had in her.
At the height of the 2004 Iraqi conflict, an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team is cracking-wise and prepping for the latest bomb-in-a-car boot assignment. The camaraderie is obvious – Sgt Thompson (Guy Pearce) has led these men for a long time and his banter with Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is peppered with frat boy familiarities that you might not expect from a bomb-disposal team in a hotbed warzone.
Things go bad in a sequence of stomach-tightening developments and, soon, the unit gets a new specialist, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner). A fearless, some say insane leader, James does not immediately click with his crew and this lack of faith and understanding in a conflict environment like Iraq intensifies their emotions and reactions.
With unrelenting tension, Bigelow reveals the men as they interact and perform the most delicate of military functions. The Hurt Locker, a colloquialism meaning a place where hurt and pain is unavoidable, is not a ‘Danger UXB’-type nailbiter, where the tension is derived from ‘Green wire or red wire?’ moments. It is an exploration of the personality traits of men who seek out those situations, and the heightened sense of ego and sense of self-worth they need to achieve their goals.
To that end, Jeremy Renner as the unhinged James is a revelation. Renner first caught industry attention as the title character in David Jacobson’s Dahmer (2002); here he finds that razor-sharp focus that propels James forward, even though it detaches him from his men and ultimately, from the loved ones he enlisted to protect. Bigelow and her leading man define the other sacrifice that most fighting men have to make – their sense of what constitutes normality in the ‘real world’.
Mackie, Geraghty and Christian Camargo all create strong characterisations as the men in the unit, but this is definitely Renner’s show. Star power is minimal – single scene cameos from Pearce, David Morse and an almost-unrecognisable Ralph Fiennes, are fleeting but impactful.
The film’s narrative comes a little unstuck late on, when James befriends a local lad (Christopher Sayegh) whom he nicknames ‘Beckham’, and when the family tensions from back home impact the units strained relations. They seem ‘war-movie’ clichés compared to the authenticity of all that has gone before. But these are relatively small gripes when so much of the action and inherent drama of The Hurt Locker works at a pitch rarely glimpsed in American war movies. On that count alone it must rank as one of the best ever made.
Problems lurk behind the hype.
Katherine Bigelow’s powerful if flawed Iraq war movie about a US bomb disposal unit has become a cause celebre among critics, but only partly for the right reasons. The desire to see Bigelow win this year’s Oscar for best director is being widely seen as a chance to right historic wrongs, since (incredible as it may seem) she would become the first female filmmaker to achieve the honour. In this atmosphere more nuanced assessments of the film’s strengths and weaknesses can easily be lost.
I wouldn’t deny for a second that Bigelow has made a gripping film about the experience of the American military personnel in the Iraqi conflict. This is an effective thriller that doubles as a character study, with the relatively little-known Jeremy Renner making a terrific debut in the lead role as Staff Sgt. William James. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, a war correspondent who has reported from Iraq, maintain an intriguingly ambivalent attitude towards James, viewing him both as an extraordinary hero and, more problematically, as an adrenalin junkie who seems to get high on danger and therefore takes unnecessary risks.
The film is structured unconventionally as a series of episodic sequences that don’t so much build upon one another dramatically as repeat with variations. It’s an approach that may well be aimed at communicating the sense of circularity in the Iraq–serving soldier’s experience – the feeling this war is not one of those battles that can be lost or won. Instead it’s a guerilla war where a standing army is at a natural disadvantage, a sitting target for an unseen enemy who can strike at any time.
One long sequence, involving a battle with snipers in the desert breaks up the film by providing contrast to the surrounding urban sequences, though I suspect it could have been removed without substantially weakening the overall narrative.
The film is almost entirely individualistic and existential in its focus – and thoroughly apolitical. We gain a vivid feel for what life is like on the streets for the ordinary soldier, but get no sense of why some Iraqis are trying to kill them. The Iraqi people are treated almost contemptibly by the filmmakers. With the sole exception of a young boy befriended by one of the soldiers, they don’t exist as rounded human beings with their own thoughts, desires and fears. They’re simply the “other”.
This raises the question of whether politics can reasonably be left out of a film about the disastrous aftermath of an American-led invasion of a sovereign nation carried out under false pretences. It might help to try to imagine how we might react to, say, an Indonesian film about the existential dilemmas of that nation’s soldiers as they struggled to subdue East Timorese freedom fighters. Not very comfortable, perhaps.
The Hurt Locker has been effusively praised by many reviewers for what they take to be its realism. By this they seem to mean that it’s filmed with lots of shakycam to lend a faux-documentary feel - that subjective sense that we are really there, in the thick of it. I have never previously had any problems with handheld camera but Bigelow’s use of the device is so extreme that half way through I had to move from halfway back to near the rear of the cinema. As visual rhetoric, it’s way over the top.
But is the film really an accurate evocation if life on the streets of Iraq? Not if you believe what many Americans who have served there have to say. Check the commentary boards on the Internet Movie Database and it quickly becomes clear that US servicemen overwhelmingly find the film ridiculous and lacking in credibility (and this in a film that sets out to portray them sympathetically.)
We should never forget a successful movie is a fictional construct, a mythic retelling of events rather than an exact mirror of the world. But note that great war films – say Apocalypse Now, The Thin Red Line – wear their mythic and poetic ambitions on their sleeves. The visual rhetoric of The Hurt Locker, by contrast, is based on a claim to accuracy that it hasn’t earned. That doesn’t make it a bad film – far from it. But it does make it problematic.
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