Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Baghdad, 2004. Staff Sergeant Thompson, team leader of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, is killed whilst attempted to detonate a bomb. He is replaced by Sargeant William James, who works closely with Sergeant JT Sanborn and Sergeant Owen Eldridge, though his colleagues find his behaviour, which includes approaching explosives minus his protective suit, reckless for the whole unit. When dealing with a suspected device in a car outside a UN building, the team come under fire from snipers, who also seek to record this on camera. Sanborn and Eldridge want to evacuate but James stays to disarm the device. They meet a group of British contractors in the desert, who are hunting wanted Iraqis. They are attacked, where three of the British are killed. Eldridge kills the last of the snipers.
They search a school, where James finds what he assumes is the body of a local boy he was friendly to. The boy has been gutted; his body packed with explosives. Outside, Colonel Cambridge, who has been treating Eldridge’s depression, is killed in an ambush. James finds the boy’s employer and asks what happened to the boy and where his parents live. It is a trick and James is alone, at night, in central Baghdad, before eventually returning to the camp. James leads the team on a mission that night, where Eldridge is seriously wounded. The next day, James discovers the local boy is alive. On the final day of their rotation period, James attempts to disarm a time bomb locked to a man’s chest, but he is unable to. James returns home shortly after, but is shown returning for another year of service.
Given the controversial nature of the invasion of Iraq, Hollywood naturally began to explore the subject in recent years, though not to the effect that might have been imagined. A series of Iraq-themed films, which includes ‘Lions For Lambs’, ‘Redacted’, ‘In The Valley of Elah’ (all 2007) and ‘Stop Loss’ (2008) have all been commercial failures and met critical indifference. Some have suggested public apathy towards the war in Iraq. Everyday the news reports from events on the ground with great detail and scrutiny, so why do we need Hollywood’s take on events? ‘The Hurt Locker’ has the potential to change the perception of Iraq-themed films. Smaller in budget that most of its contemporaries ($11m), featuring a cast of mostly unknowns (save cameos from Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce) and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, a gifted and experienced female action director, it’s an assured piece of work and almost certainly one of the finest films of 2009.
What partly separates it from its contemporaries, and this might partly explain why critics have been more receptive to the film, is that is doesn’t have a firm interest in politics (although critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum have argued that any film about Iraq is intrinsically political). Although audiences are mostly signing from the same hymnsheet, give or take those in the Republican heartlands, the handwringing politics that have been the cornerstone of previous Iraq-themed films have been off-putting; their liberal agendas delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. ‘The Hurt Locker’ doesn’t go in for such overt political discussion; there’s no larger questions such as “why are we here?” being asked. Instead, it’s a film that solely looks at events on the ground, not the decisions made at a higher level, and it’s all the better for that.
The film shows the events that wouldn’t normally be shown or discussed in the media, where the more political issues are usually focused upon; the everyday routines of the American armed forces, which in this case is a bomb disposal unit. The work of James, Sanborn and Eldridge is demonstrated in painstaking detail. Disabling bombs is not a simple task; just watch how tense the attempt to remove the bombs locked to a man’s chest in three minutes becomes, especially given the fact that James is unable to outwit the terrorists. Bigelow is keen to show that this is the work these men have chosen to undertake and that it certainly shouldn’t be equated with heroism. James’s maverick brilliance rightly receives the scorn of his colleagues. Sanborn ferociously punches James the first time he risks the safety of the team and James’s behaviour gradually becomes more reckless, culminating in a dangerous night-time mission that results in the injury of Eldridge, who sustained these wounds when he was kidnapped, then rescued by James and Sanborn.
The opening quotation on screen reveals the essence of the film in a nutshell; that “war is a drug”. Although the film never ventures into the psychological effects of war in much detail, they’re always there. Eldridge is undergoing counselling, whilst James appears to have something akin to a breakdown towards the end of the film. When he returns home, it’s all too obvious that he’s unable to adjust to civilian life, partly because of his own troubled domestic situation. It’s no wonder that he can’t wait to ship out again. These men are capable of doing nothing else. Always at the core of ‘The Hurt Locker’ is the sense of adrenaline; that James feeds off these (extra)ordinary circumstances – this is his fix. There’s always the constant sense of mortality, summed up in Sanborn’s declaration “if you’re in Iraq, you’re dead”. These men know that their lives are on the line every day and that’s a risk they take. Living is purely a matter of chance.
Aside from a couple of descents into cliché, such as when Colonel Cambridge returns to action after being taunted for not being on the front line and immediately dies or when James has a stereotypical breakdown in a shower, ‘The Hurt Locker’ is a superb, audacious film that tackles a much covered subject with a fresh perspective and free from political baggage. Jeremy Renner delivers a star-making performance as James and Bigelow films in subjective fashion; with shots frequently taken from the point of view of specific individuals but she always deploys the contemporary style of action film making – all jittery, hand-held footage that shows Iraq as alien terrain, where chaos outweighs order, where the end result needs to be victory rather than liberty but it’s no place for heroes; just men doing a job because that’s all they can do.