You're probably hearing two things about The Hurt Locker, director Katheryn Bigelow’s fictional look at a US Army bomb dispersal unit in Bahgdad. One is that it’s the first really great Iraq War movie. The other that it’s a “smart” action movie, much-welcomed in a summer dominated by a very dumb action movie.
And those things are true, but they're true because of one another. The Hurt Locker is an effective Iraq War movie because it focuses on the (unbelievably riveting) actions of its characters rather than the big speeches they make about the moral or political “worthiness” of the war. And it comes off as a smart action movie because the characters, the dangers, and the stakes all feel very real thanks to the Iraq setting.
The Hurt Locker follows three bomb dispersal specialists day after harrowing day as they near the end of their combat-zone rotation. Sgt. Sanborn (the terrific Anthony Mackie) keeps his stuff wired tight, wanting only to stick to procedure and get home alive. The fresher-faced Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is trying to hold it together as he copes with the death he’s seen and the actions he’s taken. And thrust into the middle of this fragile ball of nerves is Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), a crackerjack bomb technician whose possibly reckless, seemingly fearless methods put the other two men even more on edge.
The job is deceptively “simple”: Someone sees a suspicious object or car, James and his team roll in, assess the situation, and if there is an explosive device, James dons massive space-suit-like protective gear and helmet and walks right up to the bomb and tries to disarm it.
What makes The Hurt Locker such a mesmerizing work of pure cinema is that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who was an embedded reporter with such a team in 2004) don’t take any cheap or easy ways out with their characters or the action. On paper, James may sound like another gung-ho cowboy type, but as played by Renner he’s anything but. He’s quiet and introverted, laser-focused on not just his job (which he’s very good at) but the idea of his job—what it means to him and does to him, to walk up several times a day and fiddle around with wires on a device that—bulky protective suit or no—is intended to liquefy him. Most of the film’s best scenes come from James’s dealing with mind-bogglingly dangerous mechanical (and sometimes interpersonal) problems, where we see his calm cool is merely a clinging-by-the-fingernails defense and survival mechanism that kicks in on adrenaline-fueled instinct.
Renner is an unknown, unless you caught him as the title character in 2002's creepy little indie film Dahmer. But after this summer, Renner is likely on the way to the spotlight. His masterful, low-key achievement is he plays James simultaneously on three levels: the cocksure machismo surface where the daredevil intensity is balanced by a good-natured, caring demeanor; the single-minded obsession below—fueled by fear—that drives him and makes him so good at his job; and finally, the man struggling with the psychological fact that he has become addicted to fear and its attendant rush. James is learning that, as the opening quote from New York Times writer Chris Hedges notes, “War is a drug.”
But the reason The Hurt Locker is garnering so much praise (and Oscar rumblings) is simple: the film does not spend much time sitting around pondering the philosophical, political, or psychological trappings of war. Those ideas are there, but they’re shown, not told. And they’re shown by having James and his team wade into one gut-twisting situation after another.
Bigelow’s career has mostly consisted of making stylish, visually kenetic action films like Near Dark, Point Break, and Strange Days. But with The Hurt Locker she reaches that perfect point where a mature director knows just how much style and flash is needed to tautly bring a film to life, rather than smother it with pointless sizzle. This is a case where style—shaky cameras, devastating slo-mo, a gritty attention to details—helps create and serve the substance.
Some may feel the characters in The Hurt Locker—including James—remain undefined, but that’s the film's point, driven home by the melancholy epilogue. While in Iraq, while under constant stress and sometimes terror, they are shaped only by their job. The script gives the team some down time, but as you might expect, even their relaxation is only a reaction to what they’re trying to relax from. Nor is The Hurt Locker a story driven movie. In fact, the film works best in its first half when it feels like a series of tense vignettes. It’s only in the last act, when James involves himself in a mystery surrounding a young Iraqi boy, that The Hurt Locker drags a bit—mostly because it starts to feel uncharacteristically conventional.
That attempt to insert some narrative structure towards the end is about the only thing Hollywood about this film. There are a couple bigger stars in The Hurt Locker—you can look them up on IMDB if you really want to know, but pointedly they are around barely long enough for you to recognize them.
Bigelow and Boal have no interest in assigning blame for the War on the Bush Doctrine or the insurgents, and their military characters are not superpatriotic “American Heroes.” (Nor are they portrayed as crude caricatures or near-psychotic misfits.) Instead, the film makers–including cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski–want to first give the audience the faintest sense of what it feels like to be wired directly into these life-or-instant-death situations. And then to explore how those moments come to not just define a person, but draw them in, addict them to the terror.
Let’s be honest, as viewers we love gripping, "can't look/can't look away" films like The Hurt Locker because we too are addicted to danger—as long as there’s a screen and the artifice of the cinema between us and it. But at least The Hurt Locker works a lot harder to earn its suspense and action beats. And when things do explode, the explosions matter—they aren't "fun," and no fantasy heroes walk slowly, cooly away from big, pretty orange fireballs.