We were only going to be able to withstand so many In the Valley of Elahs and Home of the Braves before someone finally cranked out a film about the Iraq war that was actually truly great. I’m more than thrilled to say that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is absolutely that film. It is far and away the most powerful and affecting movie I have seen all year and is likely to stay that way.
You’ve probably started hearing something about this movie, as it’s beginning to make a bit of noise. It’s already made quite the impression on critics, but more than that I think this movie has the power to capture audiences all over the country and become a big hit. It’s thoroughly enthralling from the first frame to the last and will surely have you on the edge of your seat at many a moment, but there’s something more to it–something smarter and contemplative yet wholly accessible, and that’s what’s so amazing and important about this film.
First off, let it be said that the film is not preachy in the least bit–that’s not what it’s here to do. It’s not a political film, and it’s not about making some kind of heady pretentious statement about the current war that will have no significance in twenty years. You won’t find anything in this film to be pushing an agenda or an ideology of any sort. That is, not unless you consider “war is hell” to be an ideology rather than a given–and a given is exactly what it is in The Hurt Locker. “War is hell” is the presupposition of the film, which is about exploring what it takes–or maybe who it takes–to be able to withstand that kind of hell and come out ready for more.
The who in this movie is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team (or bomb sqaud, if you prefer) of the U.S. Army in today’s Iraq war. We follow them around during the last 38 days of their tour. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) has been brought in to replace the team’s previous captain, who was killed when a roadside bomb was detonated before he was able to escape the kill zone. Under his command are Specialists J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), and they are both quite taken aback by the dangerous ways in which James goes about handling the tense and terrifying situations that they have to deal with on a daily basis. James has a rough attitude and an unshakable determination for completing his job, and sometimes comes close to getting everyone killed. We ride with the three of them on their daily routines and watch as they continually face life-or-death situations.
At first, it sounds a little bit familiar, but I assure you that it’s not. This is an experience not exactly comparable to any war film I’ve seen in recent years. As far as a basic plot goes, it’s a bit on the episodic side, but I mean that in a good way. For this movie, it’s entirely appropriate and all the better for it, as well. The Hurt Locker is very much about exploring the day-to-day of war, in the context of the real human lives that are constantly at stake.
On the surface, Kathryn Bigelow’s film is a taut and pulse-pounding action film, but it’s the intimate combat and the pervasive air of suspense–the action-based elements of the movie–that not only breathe life into the film, but are the key to its profound importance. I hate to have to bring back my anti-Transformers rant all over again, but this is the textbook example of what great cinematic action is–action that is founded on the idea that we should actually care about who and what is at stake, and should be affected by each minor scrape to every major explosion that occurs or even merely threatens to occur.
Pushing aside the label of “action film,” which might seem demeaning, but shouldn’t (blame Michael Bay), as a “war film,” I’ve seen few quite as powerful as this one. I’ve never seen any kind of combat myself–I’m not in the military, hell, I’ve never even been outside the United States–but I know what fear is, and this movie captures the fear of war in a way that I’ve never seen anything else try and tackle before: the constant knowledge that every day you’re out there, you are as close to the end as you’ve ever come. People die in war every day, as Eldridge observes. “Why not me?”
Bigelow pays respect to the soldiers and their courage like no other film has been able to before. She knows that the best way to honor them is not to glorify them in broad strokes of overzealous pomposity, but by simply–and straightforwardly–showing them doing what it is they are there to do. And damn, is it pretty harrowing. It’s an exhausting film with its suspense, its power, and its unflinching sadness and desperation. It’s not always easy to watch, but it is always nothing short of gripping and important filmmaking.
Performances in the film are fantastic from everyone involved. Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty are both outstanding in their roles of the hard-ass and the sheepish guy, respectively. Their are even a few brief cameos from Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, and David Morse, that are all very good–especially Morse. But, it’s Renner’s movie all the way. His character is so perfectly realized and genuine at every turn, that you can’t take your eyes off of him. He was nominated for last year’s Independent Spirit Award for his role in this film, and rightfully so. This year we might be seeing him up for some Oscar gold.
The Hurt Locker is one hell of a great film. It has the makings of a classic and scenes that will stay burned in your memory and be discussed at length for years. By not getting bogged down in pre-dated preachiness, Bigelow creates a timeless and absorbing portrait of the horrors of war and the daily sacrifices being made by those fighting it. It’s reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear in the way that it uses such a simple and common genre technique as white-knuckle suspense to illustrate an unimaginable real-life horror. I’ve always enjoyed Bigelow’s films in the past, but this one is a truly remarkable accomplishment. With that Best Picture playing field now opened up to ten nominees, I should hope that we’ll be seeing The Hurt Locker popping up in there (though it would undoubtedly deserve final five status, as well). If not, Oscar and I will be having some issues.