“You’ll know when you’re in it.”
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
Why is it that numerous films already made about the Iraq War have been so underwhelming? There have been many in the last few years (The Kingdom, Lions For Lambs, Rendition) yet none have really found an audience or the insight they were hoping for. I think because the war is still ongoing it is difficult to have the proper perspective to have a meaningful narrative set there. I certainly didn’t think that the first great film about the Iraq War would come from Kathryn Bigelow, director of K-19: The Widowmaker and Point Break.
The Hurt Locker puts us right in Baghdad where a documentary-like camera introduces us to an elite bomb squad headed by the suave-but-possibly-insane Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) and supported by the skeptical Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and nervous Specialist Eldridge. Their duty is to find makeshift bombs and diffuse them (often while the anonymous bomb maker watches from the windows). Sgt. James’ thrill-seeking new approach to the job is causing trouble in his small team who know how easy it is to die. It is a simple premise that sets the stage for an involving character drama interwoven with masterfully done action scenes.
Ultimately The Hurt Locker triumphs where other Iraq films fail because it does not try to invent any grand statements about the United States in the Middle East or convey any political messages whatsoever. Instead it takes the idea (given to us the the first few seconds of the film) that war is a drug. The rest of the film is spent mostly examining the effects of it on these soldiers, how they get it, how it effects their relationships to each other and to what lengths they will go to get their next fix.
There is a plot though, don’t worry, but although the story is exciting it smartly backs away from a predictable lead up to the final conflict and instead shows us these soldiers day after day moving from set piece to set piece. These scenes are beautifully choreographed but completely unrelated. But where some viewers will be turned off by this choice others will notice that this un-relatedness of plot points helps clarify the characters’ struggle by not making it into a race to defeat the final villain. This is key because it’s what differentiates this movie from being like the others and makes it solely about the emotional arcs of these three soldiers. And it is powerful. No doubt writer Mark Boal’s time as a war journalist has affected him.
The directing too needs to be noticed. Not just noticed, but studied and appreciated. Director Kathryn Bigelow sets up the stakes gut-wrenchingly well in the first scene throwing us mercilessly into what these soldiers do and not getting too bogged down in exposition as movies so often do nowadays. Bigelow has learned well from Hitchcock in how to deliver thrills. The camera, although hand-held is never gimmicky and shows us exactly what we need to see and proceeds through rich, even cuts propelling genuine tension as opposed the the artificial excitement that rapid cutting can give you. The film also has some well chosen moments to use slow-motion to show us action in unnerving clarity. But Bigelow knows this is about the characters and gives the performances plenty of room to breathe.
There is a scene in The Hurt Locker which troubled me at first because it seems so out of place. Sgt. James, in a very Hollywood turn of events goes out on a vigilante mission to try to find a man he thinks may have killed someone he cares about. The mission is futile and he returns to base, his soul at a new low. I was confused at first, but realized the film is trying to express the soldiers need to have a definite conflict or a defined villain they can conquer. It is a harsh truth to find out allies look like enemies (and vice versa) and there will be no great reward or glory. There is just the un-ending job day after day. You can find many things in a war like this, but not meaning. It is when Sgt. James realizes this we can really see the lengths he will go to and maybe can never really return from.
This is a beautiful film that I cannot wait to watch again. Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty all give extraordinary performances showing not only men in crisis with themselves but with each other and the carefully constructed bonds between them. I expect this film will garner some high acclaim come awards season especially considering the Academy will have ten nominees (ten!) for Best Picture in 2010. The Hurt Locker is as troubling as it is moving and (except for maybe Up) there hasn’t been a better movie this year.
Great Moment: Just watch for the scene with Evangeline Lilly. There’s a lot there.