The Hurt Locker (dir: Kathryn Bigelow)
Set in the current Iraq war, after the proclamation of “Mission Accomplished” and the transformation of a battlefield army into an occupation force, The Hurt Locker follows the finals days in the rotation of a bomb disposal unit (the days count down with each mission) as it gets new cowboy team leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a maverick who steps up to a bomb like a gunfighter in an old west showdown, tough and swaggering and on his own terms.
James doesn’t follow the rules. Every bomb is a challenge he refuses to back down from, even when the intelligence expert on the three-man team, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), counsels him that he’s vulnerable to snipers. James simply tosses the headset and assumes his teammates will watch his back, scanning the windows and the roofs for any potential gunman, which in a busy urban street surrounded by apartment buildings and open roofs can be myriad.
This may be the same sun-bleached Iraq of dusty dirt streets and open deserts we’ve seen in other Iraq war films, but it’s a different kind of movie. Kathryn Bigelow’s handheld camerawork roams like a spotter’s eyes, always surveying, always getting another look, and the cuts are shifts of perspective that both to keep you off-balance and give a sense of how vigilant they are. The digital photography is razor sharp with a clarity both hyper-real and adrenaline-charged. Bigelow shows us how they see the world out of necessity.
In one stand-out sequence, a desert stop to help a unit of private soldiers (led by guest star Ralph Fiennes) back from a bounty hunt becomes an ambush. It’s the closest the film gets to a classic war movie: they become a team centered by James, who serves as spotter to Sanborn on the precision long-range rifle and gives verbal support to the less-steely Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) watching their backs.
So many war movies get the chaos of battle and the suddenness of death. Bigelow is just as interested in the stillness, the patience, the importance of waiting until you have some certainty that there is no one else out there waiting to kill you. These guys do their jobs, trust one another to do their jobs and stay vigilant, and team leader James, up now seen as just a maverick without rule, shows himself to be an authentic leader and a crack soldier.
Jeremy Renner is remarkably effective as James, a man of action in the manner of a Howard Hawks hero: he’s defined by what he does and how he does it, not what he says. James is the best at what he does, and when he does it he is in control. When he’s not, he’s just another guy looking for his place in the world. There’s no political message here, nobody questioning their mission or arguing policy. These are just men doing their jobs in an unforgiving workplace, and Bigelow, more than anything, is interested in how they do it, because the how is the difference between going home at the end of the rotation in one piece or not.
A quote by Chris Hedges opens the film: “… war is a drug.” And sure, we see the rush of danger and the adrenaline high of combat, but by the end of the film the phrase takes on new, more troubling meaning. Home from his rotation, James is lost, unsettled, uncommunicative. He’s been trained to kill and to survive and to do the most dangerous job on Earth – disarm bombs – and the army has not seen fit to retrain him for civilian life. Becoming the best comes at a cost and he bears the brunt of it… until he gives in to the drug once again.
Kathryn Bigelow won the 2009 Golden Space Needle Award for Best Director. I hope an Oscar is in the offing, for she fully deserves it.
Also reviewed in the Seattle PostGlobe.