Films about the Iraq War have shown box-office hoodoo, but if anyone can break the curse, it’s director Kathryn Bigelow. A proven hand at adrenalized action, Bigelow (Strange Days, Point Break) locates in The Hurt Locker both the expected and unexpected drama of an Army bomb squad doing much needed and highly dangerous work in 2004 Baghdad.
Bigelow immediately establishes her action dynamics and inhospitable setting in a gripping opening sequence of Bravo Company about their work of locating, sizing up and defusing IEDs. One member of the company will not survive the operation, which opens the door for Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, in a breakout performance) to join the team. Despite his precise skill, he’s exasperatingly cavalier, rushing in where angels fear to tread. His willful, wild disregard of safety protocols can be taken as no-nonsense or pure nonsense, depending on one’s point of view. To James’ still-shaken colleagues--Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty)--their new commander is himself a ticking time bomb, whose recklessness threatens to deliver them more fatality.
Is James a realist, or does he have a death wish? “I don’t know,” he says. “I guess I don’t think about it.” His answer proves at least partly disingenuous when he reveals the collection under his bunk of “stuff that almost killed me”: bomb souvenirs--and his wedding ring. Over illicit alcohol, the three men sloppily bond and have it out, but no conversation or impromptu boxing match is as clarifying as seeing action. The shared experience of war explains why these men quickly understand each other in a way the nervous Eldridge’s Army shrink cannot (if Eldridge just gives it a chance, the doctor offers, war can be “fun”).
While mostly eschewing overt politics, Bigelow depicts a campaign of palpable chaos and nagging confusion. In this context, it’s easy to understand the appeal disarmament has for James, its clarity, its definitiveness, its microcosmic restoration of order. With the help of a well-informed screenplay by journalist Mark Boal, Bigelow dispenses with the red-wire/blue-wire lies Hollywood told you and replaces them with a heady brew of documentary realism and action poetry. The brilliance of the picture is in her staging of the bomb sequences, from which she squeezes every ounce of tension. Shooting in Jordan (a few hours’ drive from combat areas in Iraq) for maximum authenticity, Bigelow makes use of multiple simultaneous camera angles from up to a dozen 16mm cameras.
The guts of the picture come from Bigelow, but the heart of the picture is Renner, who strongly projects James’ tortured impulses and his need for the culture of war. The latter is not a new point to be made—Stop-Loss already made it fairly effectively—but The Hurt Locker realistically conveys the sense of men on the verge of a nervous breakdown feeling increasingly alienated from the insanity of insular America’s land of plenty. Undoubtedly, The Hurt Locker is the strongest fiction film set in the Iraq War to date.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]