By Willie Krischke – July 2, 2009
While there have been a plethora of must-see documentaries about the war in Iraq, worthwhile dramas have been few and far between. (In fact, two of the best, “Stop-Loss” and “In the Valley of Elah,” weren’t actually about the war, but about the after-effects of the war on soldiers’ lives.) Now comes Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” which may be the first essential war movie to come out of this mess we’re in. And it succeeds because it doesn’t really bother with “this mess we’re in” it dives wholeheartedly into the realities, the textures, the detritus as well as the fortitude, quiet heroism, and everyday struggle of war. The soldiers in “The Hurt Locker” don’t have time or energy to pontificate about the virtues of spreading liberty in the desert, or to feel conflicted about the apparent absence of WMDs or potential length of engagement. They are too busy staying alive.
The focus is on a 3-man bomb squad, which must be one of the ballsiest specialties in the Army. In a war (or occupation, you choose) littered with random, improvised explosive devices (IEDs, in soldier-speak) hidden in piles of garbage and trunks of cars, the life of a bomb squad is a daily ride of tension and exhilaration. “The Hurt Locker” opens with a quote about the addictive properties of war, and watching these men work, one doesn’t doubt it. Either the pressure breaks you or you eat it up.
At least one of these three men eats it up. Played by Jeremy Renner, he is the new guy on the squad and the team leader, there to replace his counterpart who didn’t get out of the way of a bomb fast enough. The other two men on his team, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, are pretty shaken up by the death of their friend and leader, and Renner’s cowboy tactics don’t excite or amuse them. Geraghty is nervous and insecure; one wonders how this guy ended up on a bomb squad in the first place. Mackie, on the other hand, is methodical and cautious, trusting that doing things by the book will gain him safe passage home. When Mackie expresses his dissatisfaction with Renner’s reckless ways, Renner just responds, “Oh, you’ll get the hang of it eventually.” We learn that Renner has defused more than 800 bombs, and keeps little pieces of them underneath this bed, as mementos. He is not a normal, well-adjusted human being. But he is good at his job. Very good at it.
With her chosen depth of focus, it’s crucial that director Kathryn Bigelow nails what it feels like to be on the ground in a war zone. There’s no pulling back here to examine what it all means; everything runs situation to situation, from one bomb to the next. She absolutely masters it; capturing the tension, the exhaustion, the disorientation and the exhilaration of these men at work. There’s a lot of handheld camera work here, and not a lot of dialogue beyond soldiers relaying info and orders to each other. And the heat almost feels palpable, as we watch heat waves rise off the sand and trash-littered streets. At times it reminded me of the mesmerizing and intense “Black Hawk Down,” and yet it manages to dig a little deeper into its characters than seems possible at first. The men work hard and play hard, trade barbs and encouragement and sometimes punches, and by the end, they feel terribly real and startlingly different.
“The Hurt Locker” gets sidetracked just a bit with a subplot that feels borrowed straight from “Good Morning Vietnam;” but even this bit of bad judgement doesn’t really derail its tone or pace. It ends rather poorly; we can see what’s coming from a mile away, but it still feels choppy and improvised. But despite its flaws, “The Hurt Locker” is a movie to see and remember, one we’ll be coming back to in future decades to remind us of what this war was like, and how it was faught: by men, tested to the very limit of their training, psyche and talents, who are just trying to stay alive.
- if you liked “Black Hawk Down” and the way it depicts war.
- if you’re tired of Killer Robot action scenes and want to see some real men put their lives on the line.
- if you’ve been waiting for a good war movie to come out of this war.
- if your favorite war movie is “Good Morning Vietnam.”
- if you don’t like intense and violent combat sequences.