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.
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.