Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker stands the best chance yet of breaking the resistance of audiences to movies about the war in Iraq. It’s already far and away the best-reviewed film on the topic. And it’s not hard to see why. Not only is it the best-made and most compelling film on the war, it is also almost scrupulously apolitical in its approach. I don’t think the film actually is apolitical, but it’s savvy enough to just put the material out there and let the viewer decide what to think. The movie has one basic point—that war is, or can be, a drug. Rather than preach that, it illustrates the theme—as well as its counterpoint—via a suspense-driven character study, making it the kind of war picture we haven’t seen in some considerable time.
Claims that it’s the best movie about war since Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) may not be far off the mark, though it’s worth noting that The Hurt Locker lacks the scope and the perspective of distance of the Kubrick film. It’s an altogether more intimate work, and one that’s powerful in an entirely different way.
The Hurt Locker follows a single bomb squad through a stint in Iraq. At the film’s beginning, the squad consists of Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, Half Nelson), Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, Bobby). The opening sequence finds them on a more or less routine mission—one conducted by the book—that goes wrong through what may well be completely accidental circumstances. These circumstances might in fact be due more to language and cultural differences than to any other factor. The film doesn’t address this point directly, but the results cause Thompson to be replaced by Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, 28 Weeks Later).
James is everything that Thompson wasn’t. He’s cocky, full of himself and not much of a team player. Rather than go by the rules and safely detonate bombs from a distance with the aid of robotics, James prefers to get right into the thick of things and defuse the bombs, caring little for his own safety or that of his team. His attitude doesn’t sit well with Sanborn and only adds to the basic horror of Eldridge, who is clearly out of his element in this milieu to begin with.
James is also not exactly the most open of men. He sets up his basic daredevil character and offers little for his comrades beyond that. When an exasperated Sanborn calls him “redneck trailer trash,” James merely observes that his compatriot has him pretty well pegged. Even the viewer is left to little more than bits and pieces of what’s beneath the hot-dog facade. The film allows us glimpses of the pain underneath all this. It even offers suggestions of humanity—or more correctly of a desire for it—but it never elaborates on any of this.
The film is developed very shrewdly and effectively through a series of set pieces. Each of these—starting with the brilliantly achieved opening sequence—is a little essay in effective filmmaking. Bigelow understands how to achieve both suspense and perfectly lucid action. While she employs the currently trendy shaky-cam approach—more at the beginning of the film than later on—she has a firm grasp of the logistics of the action. You’re never left wondering who’s shooting at whom or where the characters are in relation to each other.
The results are a tense, exciting, suspenseful movie with characters that seem less like actors than like real people. Though Renner gives a strong performance in the lead, there are really no movie-star turns in the entire picture—not even in the “guest star” appearances of Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce. The film simply feels real. Its conclusion—which, yes, can be read politically as a broader statement about the U.S., and not just about James—is as chilling and devastating as anything you’ll find in current film. This is the closest any film on the subject of the war in Iraq has gotten to greatness. Rated R for war violence and language.