DIR: Kathryn Bigelow • WRI: Mark Boal • PRO: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Nicolas Chartier, Greg Shapiro • DOP: Barry Ackroyd • ED: Chris Innis, Bob Murawski • DES: Karl Júlíusson • CAST: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Bryan Geraghty, Evangeline Lilly
Jeremy Renner may not have received an Oscar® nomination earlier this year for The Hurt Locker, yet he more than deserved it. In Kathryn Bigelow’s (Point Break, K 19:The Widowmaker) excellent Iraqi war movie, his is the standout performance in what could be considered the first truly effective look at the war in Iraq ,or, more specifically, the occupation of Iraq by US-led forces. As bomb disposal expert Staff Sergeant William James, Renner brings an intensity and believability to a role that, like the film as a whole, could so easily have succumbed to the clichés that are home to many war movies, be it melodramatic, crazed soldiers or pseudo-lecturing on the depravity of war.
Based on Mark Boal’s book of the same name, The Hurt Locker focuses on a Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Bomb Disposal unit with Bravo Company in modern day Baghdad. The unit, consisting of Staff Sgt James, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Bryan Geraghty) are sent to areas where there are suspected bombs, with Sgt. James, the maverick soldier of the piece, sent into the firing line as the man tasked with defusing whatever device may or may not be planted on the streets of Iraq.
In the film’s opening scene, we see James’s predecessor with Bravo Company, Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), killed, after the bomb which he aimed to defuse was set off by a nearby shopkeeper. As the viewer soon realises, the soldiers stationed in Iraq take every little move as potentially hostile and often with good reason – an idle car, an individual using their phone, even a misplaced piece of rubble all pose deadly risks to those monitoring the streets of Iraq. In less capable hands this point could well have been laboured, but Bigelow effectively builds up the tension and paranoia which constantly follows the soldiers in their actions. Indeed, the narrative is set up according to how many days are left in Bravo Company’s ‘rotation’ in Iraq, putting forward the very real time-bomb of survival these young soldiers face.
Bigelow’s film may infuriate some viewers for ostensibly taking at times an apolitical stance towards the conflict. Yet permeating the surface are instances of Bigelow probing the mindsets of the men sent to take part in this war and the dichotomy of service versus survival. Indeed, throughout The Hurt Locker, Mark Boal’s script is littered with acerbic comments on the realities on the ground. After US soldiers arrest a taxi driver who sped passed a checkpoint without stopping, Sgt. James wryly comments, ‘If he wasn’t an insurgent before, he sure the hell is now’. In another instance, a US Soldier asks Sgt. James, ‘Can’t we just shoot him?’ in reference to an innocent family man who begs the US soldiers to defuse a bomb he was made to carry. Whilst Specialist Eldridge and Sgt. Sanborn see little point in the conflict; for Sgt. James his role as a bomb technician is a calling – something he was born to do and which he excels at. Reckless and brash (taking his protective suit off whilst defusing bombs), he is more at home on the streets of Iraq than the domesticity of the US, seen so lucidly in his bafflement at trying to choose a cereal from the multitude on offer in a supermarket on his return home. Moments of simple humanity and camaraderie punctuating the lives of the soldiers do at times feel forced, yet at the same time are all the more poignant given the veritable vacuum which Iraq poses for these men. Thus, a simple friendship between Sgt. James and an Iraqi boy nicknamed ‘Beckham’ is surprisingly believable as James struggles to bond with his fellow soldiers at Camp Victory (As Sgt. Sanborn caustically notes, Camp Victory was formerly called Camp Liberty, but ‘Victory sounds better’).
The film’s close may seem like a calling card for enlistment in Iraq, yet this would be to miss Bigelow/Boal’s crucial point. Whatever about the merits of the Iraqi invasion or occupation, the viewpoints of the soldiers on the ground are equally revealing – isolated, dangerous and constantly fighting for survival, Iraq is a twilight zone not only for modern warfare, but modern life itself.
(See biog here)