The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker January 19, 2010

Many of the films that focus on the war in Iraq look at the effects of the war on soldiers returning from battle, think In the Valley of Elah, Brothers, Stop-Loss, etc.  Few films have yet to consistently place audiences in the heat of battle.  One of the most recent films to do so is Kathryn Bigelow‘s The Hurt Locker, a film being touted by many critics as one of the best films of the year.

The Hurt Locker, based on the personal wartime experiences of journalist Mark Boal, follows Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), a bomb disposal technician with legendary skills who shows up on the scene after his predecessor meets an untimely end.  Sgt. James works with Sgt. J T Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), and the trinity reveals three, perhaps prevalent, different types of soldiers.  Sgt. James represents a reckless, devil-may-care type, Sgt. Sanborn is a by-the-book soldier counting down the days until he goes home, and Spc. Eldridge is a nervous young soldier struggling to process the arbitrariness of death that surrounds him.  The film focuses on the various types of IED‘s, and locations where they are placed, that Sgt. James and his crew defuse.  Though Sgt. Sanborn and Spc. Eldridge play key roles (and Mackie and Geraghty give fine performances in them), the film really is a character study of Sgt. James, whose “at-homeness” in his vulnerability before a live bomb destructs every aspect of his personal life.

Much has been made of The Hurt Locker and rightfully so, yet to call it the best film of the year or the greatest war film ever made is to say too much.  The brilliance of the film is simply its subject matter…a bomb disposal unit and the tension that automatically comes with the territory.  Bigelow does this extreme justice, ratcheting up the fear and anxiety that only rarely explodes.  Yet when Sgt. James isn’t cowered in front of a live bomb, except in a couple of cases, the film loses much of its effectiveness.  It feels as if we’ve seen some of these emotions in other films.  This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just nothing new or groundbreaking as many people seem to think the film is.  There are at least two entire scenes that could have been left out altogether, one of which works against Bigelow’s portrayal of American soldiers as heroes, but in a way that distracts from the tone of the rest of the film.

Speaking of heroism, The Hurt Locker adds to this notion by presenting the situation in Iraq in realistic fashion.  One of the film’s strengths is the lack of assurance of just who is who in terms of the Iraqis.  Anyone can be a suicide bomber.  Unfortunately, a correlation of such a reality…or at least this portrayal of it…is that everyone can be/is a threat.  As such, The Hurt Locker suffers from a lack of diversity on the part of the non-military presence, which is again to say the Iraqis.  Still, the willingness to put one’s self in harm’s way, to endure harsh conditions in extreme danger (the image from the sniper scene above is especially poignant) remains at the forefront of the film.

Bigelow has proven her hand at fast-paced action, suspenseful action, and explosive set pieces.  It would be interesting to see what kind of drama she could craft with the Iraqi citizens in the forefront and the American military presence in the background.  On the other hand, I realize that this story belongs to the Iraqi filmmakers themselves, and I doubt that we will have to wait long to see it.

The Hurt Locker (131 mins) is rated R for war violence and language and is available on DVD.

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