Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 2:08 am on August 14, 2009

Status: In limited release (opened 6/26/09)
Directed By: Kathryn Bigelow
Written By: Mark Boal
Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty

To paraphrase Boogie Nights, everybody is good at one special thing. For Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, that one thing is dismantling bombs, specifically the improvised explosive devices that plague post-invasion Iraq. He takes over as leader of Bravo Company in Baghdad in 2004, as their year-long tour of duty is nearing its end. Along with Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), James responds to reports of discovered or suspected IEDs and does the dirty work of disarming them on the spot. As we meet up with him, he’s already done this 873 times, each time putting his life at risk, and he shows no desire to give it up any time soon.

Baghdad in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion seems like no place to live, and most of its inhabitants don’t appear to particularly care if they do. There are burned-out buildings, death and destruction everywhere, and the city is littered with IEDs, giving Bravo Company plenty of work to do, and James in particular never wastes time diving right in. Explosive Ordnance Disposal isn’t just his job, it’s his lifeblood, his purpose, and his obsession.

The title of The Hurt Locker comes from a poem by Brian Turner, who writes based on his experiences as a soldier in the Iraq war. The film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, spent time in Iraq with an EOD squad, and the reality of those experiences shows through. It opens with a quote proclaiming that war is a drug, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the actions of Staff Sergeant James. Renner injects him with the obsessive qualities of an addict, a man who is not just good at what he does, but needs desperately to do it. He gets off on it. He keeps a souvenir piece of every bomb he’s dismantled under his bed, as if they were notches in his bedpost.

James won’t leave until he’s accomplished his mission, no matter the cost or the risk to himself and his unit. When a particularly clever car bomb has him stumped, he ignores the imminent danger around him and the pleas of his company, feverishly working until he’s overcome the challenge of figuring out and conquering the device, getting his fix in the process. When he believes a village boy he’s befriended to have been murdered, he breeches protocol, leaves base, and invades an innocent professor’s home to try to find the killer. Then he gets up the next morning, dons his bombsuit, and goes to dismantle another IED. He’s obsessed to the point of becoming a man with a singular function. Ask him to save hundreds of lives while the clock is ticking, and he’s focused and unflappable. Ask him to pick up cereal at the grocery store, though, and he’ll stand in the aisle, dumbfounded by the myriad choices.

Bigelow and her cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shoot with a combination of dramatic and documentary styles, and the mix works perfectly. We see scenes of Bravo’s humvee trailing a cloud of sand across vast desert landscapes and shootout sequences that put us right in the middle of the action. Then we ride along in that Humvee, bouncing with the terrain, as Sanborn reveals his dreams and Eldridge his fears. Some sequences are beautifully cinematic, others are very down-and-dirty. The focus is always on these men and what they do and their motivations and the challenges they face.

The cast all around is excellent. The three relatively unknown actors who make up Bravo Company never imbue their characters with cliches, though they each are presented as a slightly simplified and generalized type of soldier so as to amplify the personality traits being depicted. Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes head the supporting cast, and both are as good as usual. And it’s amazing what Evangeline Lilly conveys in but a small amount of screen time.

The primary emotion of this film is suspense, and it builds it constantly and effectively. Bigelow knows just how to structure a scene to maximize the tension of the situation, focusing on the task at hand and then cutting to the surroundings at just the right times. We feel the claustrophobia of James’s bombsuit, we share the tension felt by Sanborn and Eldridge, and we feel the suspense of knowing that the bomb may go off at any moment. The film establishes early on—in its introductory scene, in fact—that we can never assume that any member of the team is indispensable, that any character is immortal. There’s another scene of an ambush in the desert that ends up in a standoff that lasts until dusk, and the exhaustion—not to mention the thirst—of the soldiers who are pinned in is almost as overwhelming to the audience as it is to them. It’s effective filmmaking, not just because of its subject matter, but because we care about its subjects and what might happen to them, and feel that we’re all too familiar with the stakes.

The Hurt Locker is one of the best war movies I’ve ever seen, and probably the best movie so far this year of any genre. It isn’t about the war, it’s about the warriors. It not only makes us sympathize with their situation, but it makes us feel that we’ve gained a small amount of understanding of it, and some empathy as well. It’s focused and unflinching in its depictions of its characters, and far-reaching in the precision of the emotions it invokes. War is a drug, and James is an addict, and The Hurt Locker helps us understand just exactly what that might actually mean.

Comments (4)

4 Responses to “War Addict”:

  • Comment by Mark J. at 4:17 pm on August 15, 2009

    My nephew is the First Sergeant of an EOD company. He’s been in EOD for nearly a decade and is currently in Iraq on his fourth combat tour. I can’t wait to ask him about this film to get his slant on it. The number of IEDs the film’s protagonist has dismantled (873) seems high enough to be pure Hollywood fiction. That’s one a day *every day* for more than two years. From what my nephew has told me, they go up to IEDs or suspected IEDs in a heavily armored vehicle and blow the things to smithereens. He’s also talked about the close monitoring the EOD techs get to make sure they’re not “adrenaline junkies,” but insightful techs with a healthy respect for the danger they’re in.

  • I’d be really interested to hear his take on it. The film does touch on some things that you mentioned that I didn’t include in my review… There’s a psychologist who monitors the well-being of one of the bomb techs. They also use a remote-controlled robot to investigate the IEDs and/or detonate them before going in in person (though James eschews this practice after he takes over the company).

    The number of bombs (873) he claims to have dismantled may, in fact, simply be an exaggeration on the character’s part. (It did occur to me just how long you’d have to be there to rack up that number.) The box under his bed certainly doesn’t seem big enough to hold that many bomb-parts. Maybe it’s the equivalent of saying, “I’ve slept with hundreds of women.”

  • Comment by K-Dogg at 2:32 pm on July 21, 2010

    Hey Mike,

    I just recently got around to watching Hurt Locker and figured I’d stop by, read your review, and offer some thoughts.

    I felt the movie did an overall good job of exploring the idea of soldiers that are addicted to the adrenaline of combat and war. I’m coming up on the end of my third year in the army and I can say I’ve met soldiers that are very much combat junkies. The first Drill Sergeant I had in boot camp used to say that the most fun he had ever had was when he was kicking in doors and raiding buldings in Iraq because it was such a thrill.

    The problem I had with the movie was that soldiers like SSgt James don’t exist in real life. In the military there are SOPs (Standard Operating Proceedures) for everything. And I mean everything. And if you violate them you had better have had a damn good reason. There is also a standing order against putting yourself in unnecesary danger. The scene where James foregoes the robot in order to handle the IED himself would have most likely gotten him relieved of duty in real life. There is no such thing as a “cowboy” or “lone wolf” soldier in the army. Those people disappear quickly.

    I happened to speak with an EOD team leader last week who had done a tour in Afghanistan and he said 873 is actually pretty low for a career EOD tech. Of course I’m just going by what he said so I can’t quote any official sources on the subject.

    Overall I liked the film in its style and exploration of the idea of an adrenaline junkie. I felt the actors did well and that the characters were well developed. It just painted a very inaccurate picture of how the military actually operates.

  • Thanks for your comments, Karl. I think you’re probably right in echoing Mark’s sentiments about the Hollywood-fabrication elements of the film, especially in its need to exaggerate the “cowboy” aspect of James’s character. It’s nice to hear that you enjoyed the movie nonetheless, though; it makes me feel like a little less of a sucker for being so taken in by it.