17 July 2009 | Chris Knipp
"The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.""--Chris Hedges.
Already celebrated for its breathtaking realism in depicting soldiers and explosions, The Hurt Locker is being called "the best Iraq war movie," with the qualification that the genre has been weak and the public response weaker. This is Kathryn Bigelow all right: macho men in dazzling exploits, exhilarating and always a little terrifying to watch, with adrenalin and testosterone spurting off the screen. If war is a drug, this movie could give you a contact high. Bigelow was obviously born to make a war movie. The only question is why she took this long to do so. Writer Mark Boal led her into it. He embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq, and came back with remarkable stories and a character to hold them together. He's Staff Sergeant William James, who's what in the genteel days of The English Patient was more commonly called a "sapper," a combat engineer who specializes in demolitions, minefields, and the like. Bigelow wisely chose Jeremy Renner, an unknown and unglamorous actor, for this pleasingly enigmatic role of a man who may be closer to bombs and timers than to his own comrades.
The Hurt Locker (soldier slang for a real bad place) gives you immediacy and vérité soldier life, with the shaky digital camera and in-and-out zooms of the genre (the action is so good, we soon forget them, while in Brian De Palms's crude 2007 Redacted, they grate all through). Such authenticity is achieved in Brit documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield's more political, excellent, little seen, low-budget 2005 drama The Battle for Haditha. It may not make his film unbiased, but Broomfield most notably gives more detail of the Iraqi P.O.V. -- using real Iraqis -- while Bigelow sticks to showing Iraqis as the American soldiers experience them -- an experience that turns out to be insane, paranoia-inducing, and scary. (In both movies one of the few friendly forms of contact is buying and selling pirated DVD's, the US soldiers buying, the Iraqis selling, and in both this contact becomes a key plot element.) Obviously Bigelow also had a much bigger budget, the better to provide a wealth of spectacular explosions, essential (or justified anyway) since this is about a small team of three men whose main (but by no means only) job is to find and defuse improvised explosive devices (IED's), the DIY but sometimes highly ingenious signature weapons of the Iraqi insurgency. There is also a horrifying body bomb; a complicated and lethal car bomb in front of a UN building; a suicide bomber who has a change of heart (as in Hany Abu-Assad's 2005 Paradise Now); and a hairy firefight with snipers (and a somewhat obtrusive cameo by Ralph Fiennes) out in the desert. Besides which the adrenalin-numbed Sergeant James independently gets himself and his two squad members, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), into various private and probably unnecessary severe crap storms. All of this is staged with stunning accomplishment and a strong focus on character and the interactions, intense even when alienated, of these three men.
The movie takes no political stand, other than Hedges' "war is a drug." This is like the point of view of Andrew Swoford used for Sam Mendes' 2005 Jarhead, which, however unsuccessful in some aspects and poorly received, conveys that soldiers don't question war because they're too busy doing dangerous jobs, or waiting and hoping to do them, and trying to stay alive till, God willing, their tour ends.
The Hurt Locker is episodic and cyclical. It ends where it begins, with the protagonist joining a new team of strangers for another tour. Thanks to Boal's writing, Bigelow's fine directing, and an excellent cast, the episodes never seem routine or repetitive. But if you emerge with a sense of numbing danger and pointlessness that may not be inappropriate. The only structure is the routine one of datelines saying how many days are left in Bravo company's tour. But this is a figure that, as Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss depicts, is often set back to start again.
The opening sequence, where James's predecessor is killed, leaving Eldridge and Sanborn in need of a new leader, is pretty obvious. It's so carefully set up you know what will happen. It's still excruciatingly tense, a textbook street IED diffusion job that conveys how terrified the two backup guys are and sets up what's to come. This is a team, with all three in radio contact and each with his function, Eldridge the lookout in charge of Sanborn, who's the guard. The street is surrounded with buildings and people and deep in unknowns. When James arrives shortly after his predecessor's body has been shipped home, he does a similar job, but it's all different.
First we don't feel the danger except by remembering the first sequence, because James is so immune to it. Sanborn and Eldridge are freaking out because James doesn't stay in touch with him when he's suited up dealing with the device. They feel lost. We realize that the three before were a great team and we sense the rage and abandonment of his bereaved mates. There's immediate intense conflict between Eldridge, an elegant, chiseled black man with extensive Intelligence experience, and the puffy-cheeked James whom Eldridge calls "redneck trailer trash" straight off to his face. These telegraphed macho conflicts, essential Bigelow, work because the jobs being done are all so convincingly and intensely depicted.
This is a great movie but it leaves you empty. The director is so caught up in what she's doing that it's infectious, but the compelling intensity also represents a loss of perspective. Still, if there is any non-documentary Iraq war movie that's a must-see, this has got to be it, and it's by far the best thing the uneven but gifted Kathryn Bigelow has ever done. It's a game-changer, the new American war movie to beat.
(This is a cut version of a 1,600-word review.)