The Hurt Locker

Scott Bradley


When Stanley Kubrick undertook his Vietnam film Full Metal Jacket, the legendary director reportedly wanted to make a movie about “war as a phenomenon,” rather than a conventional anti-war film like his classic Paths of Glory. Kubrick was interested in the experience of war and what it offers to those who fight: Excitement as well as horror; absurdity as well as pathos; and—for some—a clear-eyed, stripped-down trip to the existential edge. Only a few modern films have managed to pull off this rather tricky balancing act: Full Metal Jacket and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now come most immediately to mind. Not surprisingly, both were set against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam.

Now we’re in a war with a great many similarities to Vietnam: Undertaken for dubious reasons and maintained by its own self-feeding momentum with no clear exit strategy (which was apparently part of the plan). And Hollywood, over the past few years, has begun its attempt to grapple with the reality and meaning of the United States’ involvement in Iraq with a series of well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful films dealing (sometimes indirectly) with the war.

The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, is the first Iraq film to confront this war in the way that Coppola and  Kubrick, especially, addressed Vietnam. It’s also the first great Iraq war movie, interested in people and action (in both the dramatic and pyrotechnic sense) rather than grand statements and politics.

“War is a drug,” says the film’s epigraph, and that statement represents the double-edged notion The Hurt Locker explores: That war, like drugs, can—for a certain kind of person—offer exhilaration and enlightenment, even while taking an enormous psychological and spiritual toll.

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant William James is one of those people. He’s a top man in Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD). More to the point: James does one thing, and does it very well:  He defuses bombs (873 and counting).

He’s completely uninterested in the “why” of the Iraq war; one suspects that, like the famous Voltaire quote “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him,” if bombs didn’t exist, Sergeant James would find it necessary to invent bombs,  so he could defuse them.  As played, in a star-making performance by Jeremy Renner (seen previously in Dahmer, 28 Weeks Later, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—he’s terrific in all three), Sergeant James is a cocky professional—“a wild man” one of his superiors calls him—who’s not only very good at his job, but gets off on the adrenaline rush of bomb disposal. Which puts him into immediate conflict with his support team, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), two guys who are just trying to get through their tour in Iraq alive.

The fine performances of Renner, Mackie, and Geraghty are well served by the screenplay by journalist Mark Boal (whose reportage was the basis for a very different Iraq war film, Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah). Boal spent a lot of time covering all aspects of the Iraq war (including being embedded with a bomb disposal unit), and it shows in the script’s precision and believability. His writing has the same qualities as Vietnam war correspondent and Dispatches author Michael Herr (who co-wrote both Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket):  Lived-in and keenly observed; mordantly funny and deeply aware of life-and-death realities. Boal clearly likes and respects the soldiers he’s writing about, but never turns them into phony action icons or caricatured martyrs, which makes the film’s moments of heroism and tragedy all the more effective.

The other great key to The Hurt Locker’s resounding success is the absolutely stunning return to form for director Kathryn Bigelow. So promising in her early work (especially the great revisionist vampire film Near Dark), Bigelow hasn’t had the right project for her formidable visual and intellectual skills in a long time, instead producing a series of fascinating but frustrating failures, like Blue Steel and Strange Days (although it’s hard not to love her silly but completely entertaining bank-robbing surfers thriller, Point Break).

With The Hurt Locker she is completely at the top of her game, plunging us via handheld camerawork into the dusty, bombed-out, sun-drenched chaos of Baghdad. The jittery cinematography (by Barry Ackroyd), combined with superbly tight editing (by Bob Murawski and Chris Innis), gives the film an extraordinary immediacy and urgency, as well as an unexpected clarity; like great action directors such as William Friedkin and Michael Mann, Bigelow has an amazing sense of geography, and knows exactly how much visual information the audience needs to get what’s going on. She’s also a stated fan of Sam Peckinpah. Like the director of The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, she possesses an uncanny ability to find poetry and beauty in violence without ever glamorizing or trivializing it. Bigelow is an extraordinary talent, and her work on The Hurt Locker frankly—no pun intended—blows away that of most of her contemporaries.

However one feels about the Iraq war, and wherever you stand on the political spectrum, The Hurt Locker is absolutely essential and invaluable viewing. Technically brilliant and existentially provocative, time may prove it to be one of the great war movies; if nothing else, it instantly and firmly establishes itself amongst the very best American films of recent years.