Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Hurt Locker: A Review


Baghdad Blues...

Films based on the Iraq Intervention can be tricky things. More often than not, the political viewpoints of the creative team get in the way of the story. They become exercises in neo-propaganda as opposed to actual films. The Hurt Locker has managed to sidestep the temptation to go after the politics of the war by putting its focus on those who are actually on the ground.

The film is the story of Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) who alongside Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Makie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) attempt to complete the 38 days they have left in their tour of Iraq without getting killed. It is James' job to disarm improvised explosive devices (IED) placed in various locations (roads, cars) while Sanborn and Eldridge protect James. James is an expert on disarming weapons but is highly unorthodox to say the least. Sometimes, he comes off as a bit crazy--removing his protective gear, not answering when he's called back until he's ready. For James, the bombs are puzzles to be solved. He gets the job done and that's all he cares about. While not exactly having a death wish, he seems somewhat oblivious to the risks he puts both himself and the team in. As the days count down, the team continues to go through a series of attacks from insurgents and they see all sorts of violence to both those in high positions in the Army and the civilian population.

The Hurt Locker on the surface is just a series of incidents that take place during a certain time in the Iraq Intervention. However, it's shot in a documentary-type style by director Kathryn Bigelow that gives it an immediacy that most other war films have either not tried or tried and failed at. She and writer Mark Boal never cheat by trying to make the soldiers excessively heroic or cartoonish villains. Instead, they are portrayed as ordinary men in terrible situations who attempt to deal with the situation they are in the best way they can. You never get long speeches about how terrible we are by being in Iraq or praising about how our involvement in Iraq will make it a better nation. By keeping its focus squarely on the mission and on those who are working at it, The Hurt Locker manages to let those who oppose the war find reasons to do so and those who support the actions of the troops rally to them.

On occasion, the script does make its views on the conflict known, but in a subtle way. For example, in a tense scene where a taxi is involved in a standoff with the troops, James comments, "If he wasn't an insurgent, he sure the hell is now". Near the end, as Eldridge is being flown out, he shouts out, "Let's get out of this f*&^ing desert". Read into it whatever you like: I read it was anti-Iraq.

The performances were strong. Mackie's Sandborn is a man who wants to get out and is counting down the days, but one who knows his first priority is to protect those under him. There is a hostility between him and James for most of the film, but near the end they see they both have the same mindset about protecting others, though they don't do it the same way. At the heart of The Hurt Locker is Renner's James, a man who has only one interest: diffusing the bombs. He is most alive when he is closest to death, and while at time his performance veers dangerously close to having all soldiers seen as reckless and slightly crazed it's only when he fears a local youth he's befriended has come to a violent and shocking end does the façade begin to slowly crack. The pressures of war are finally beginning to take hold on him. Near the end, when he is confronted with a reluctant suicide bomber, does he seem to realize that the intellectual problems of disarming a weapon are wrapped (sometimes literally) with the lives of people.

The film captures brilliantly what being there would really be like. The American troops are almost always surrounded by Iraqis, who remain in the shadows, always watching, always being a threat (real and imagined) to their lives. In a world where anyone can be the enemy, The Hurt Locker brings the fear and paranoia these kids are constantly surrounded with.

In the end, The Hurt Locker isn't the greatest war film (pro-or-con) in history. It's unlikely it will be in the same league as All Quiet on the Western Front. However, as a document on the situation the soldiers faced during the Iraq Intervention, it may be the most accurate for those of us who did not serve.


2010 Best Picture: The King's Speech

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