After six years, dozens of attempts, and hundreds of millions of dollars wasted, Hollywood has finally produced a decent film about the Iraq War. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which opens in wide release this weekend, is not a straight depiction of American heroism; but it is a revelatory examination of the experiences and motivations of U.S. soldiers. The movie follows an Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit in Iraq. Needless to say, the American servicemen tasked with defusing bombs are extraordinarily skilled and brave. However, such tense and dangerous work can take an enormous psychological toll on those willing to do it.
The Hurt Locker is remarkably cohesive considering its lack of a linear plot; in many ways, it is just a series of illustrative set pieces. The film takes us back to 2004, at a point in the Iraq War when an improvised explosive device (IED) seemingly could be found around every corner. Staff Sergeant William James takes over as the team leader of a three-man EOD unit, after the previous team leader dies while trying to defuse a remotely detonated IED. James quickly demonstrates that he’s incapable of fear. In one of his first outings as team leader, he strips off his bomb suit before dismantling a car bomb. “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die comfortable,” James announces. His performance impresses the officers at the scene, but the two other men on his team become convinced that James is going to get them killed.
Sergeant James is unnervingly good at what he does, having disarmed some 873 IEDs (and he keeps totems from each defused bomb as mementos). The other two members of his EOD unit attempt to rein him in, but they also spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what makes James . . . well, tick. The film moves smoothly from one tense episode to the next: The team gets caught in a firefight in the desert when they encounter a special-forces unit that has two high-value terrorists in custody; James sneaks off base to get some answers about what has happened to an Iraqi boy with whom he’s become friendly; the team drinks and discusses their lives back home in between tense adventures in the field. There are numerous scenes of the team working to defuse various IEDs. To Bigelow’s great credit, the many bomb-dismantling scenes are all expertly staged and shot. Though the team is shown performing the same tasks over and over, the scenes are always taut, the circumstances well differentiated, and the outcome never certain.
Nearly all aspects of the film come together. Kathryn Bigelow is a journeyman director with a wildly uneven oeuvre. Her film Near Dark (1987) is a near-masterpiece as trashy horror flicks go, but it remains a mostly unseen genre flick. Her big-budget 1995 science-fiction outing, Strange Days, was a terrible mess. The Hurt Locker, a low-budget film shot in Jordan, demonstrates Bigelow’s talents. She provides images that linger long afterward, and the film is as much a weighty character study as it is a compelling action flick.
The acting is superb all around. Film veterans Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce provide cameos, but Jeremy Renner, a relative unknown to the big screen, steals the show as Sergeant James. Renner plays a heroic and empathetic leader, but he never lets you forget that Sergeant James is an emotionally damaged enigma. It’s an absolute star turn.
Mark Boal also deserves credit for penning a first-rate script. Boal is not a Hollywood screenwriter, and thank goodness for that. He is a journalist who was embedded with an EOD team in Iraq, and his commitment to portraying the experiences of the characters keeps politics and moral relativism from creeping into the story. While U.S. troops are not depicted as perfect angels, they are shown fighting an enemy that manipulates children and forces people to become suicide bombers against their will. Boal clearly has a gift for characterization, and that holds together what would otherwise be a disjointed story.
My only major criticism of the film is that, while it wrestles with the issue of what motivates Sergeant James, it offers no satisfactory answers. During one scene near the end of the movie, James is asked point blank what drives him and why he seems not to care about risking his life when he has a wife and son back home. His only response? “I don’t know.” In an epigraph at the beginning, the film appears to suggest that James is literally addicted to war. While that may be a partial explanation of what motivates some soldiers, it does not address the full range of questions that the film raises.
But whether or not we understand what drives its protagonist, The Hurt Locker remains, at this point, the best Iraq War movie ever made.