Directed by:Kathryn Bigelow
Is The Hurt Locker an action movie that’s so well made it becomes a drama with hidden substance, a thought-provoking message film masquerading as melodrama- - or is it just what it seems, a pulse-pounding thriller? It’s so tightly packed you can be forgiven for believing there’s more here than meets the eye - - but what does meet the eye constitutes one of the best movies of the year.
Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, K-19 The Widowmaker) has been working in the action genre for years, but her track record, while impressive, yields no indication of the skill and heft she brings to this claustrophobic study of a bomb disposal unit in Baghdad, circa 2004. The three-man team assigned to dismantle the home-made IED’s which appeared in that city like mushrooms following a spring rain at the height of the conflict is comprised of Staff Sgt. William James, (Jeremy Renner) Sergeant. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). As team leader, James is a risk junkie, the kind of mountain climber who likes to work with limited pitons, a skydiver who waits just beyond the last second to pull the cord on his parachute…he does what he does for his brothers in arms and his country, but every bit as much for the adrenaline rush it provides. Sanborn, also a career soldier, is junior to James in command but in charge of Eldridge in managing the bomb site; these two provide what limited back-up James has as he lies in a dusty street gently pulling at a bit of exposed wire to see where it leads or wedged beneath the twisted frame of an abandoned car, sorting through the maze of electrical detonation possibilities, anyone of which might be the piece of crudely fashioned electronics that will blow him out of his boots.
Sanborn, a taciturn African-American career soldier, has primary responsibility for keeping an eye on the bevy of onlookers the disposal team draws when it goes into action; are these truly innocent people like those of us here in this country who gather to gawk at a burning building or a traffic accident, or are they participants in the terror who’ll try to detonate the bomb James is working so feverishly to deactivate? Will one of them turn out to be a suicide bomber trying to create an even larger level of carnage? Given the language barrier, are Sanborn’s shouted commands to the Iraqis around him ignored or simply misunderstood? (The scene of a taxi stopped at a checkpoint makes clear how unintended death can so easily occur in this environment. Because he believes James’ willingness to stay in volatile situations for far longer than is necessary could get all three of them killed, Sanborn urges prudence, advice James pointedly and consistently rejects.
Geraghty’s Specialist Eldridge becomes the everyman audiences will instinctively identify with; young, frightened and impressionable, he’s focused on a single objective…serving his time and getting home safely. Sweating profusely in his combat fatigues, hesitant to do anything on his own initiative unless ordered to do so by Sanborn, Eldridge surely personifies the instinct for self-preservation common to anyone in a combat situation, especially one as eerily fluid and dangerous as those found in urban guerilla warfare. He hates James even more than Sanborn does and the accusatory tone he takes with his superior near the film’s end stands as a crisp summation of what so often lies ahead for those who return from Iraq forever physically and psychologically altered.
There are few attempts at dramatic introspection here; these are simply men at work and the camera is content to focus on what they do, without much concern for who they are. The barracks rough-housing scenes don’t work well and James’ interaction with a young soccer-playing kid grow distractingly sentimental, but that’s like complaining about the residual imperfections in a bar of Ivory soap; this one’s 99 & 44/100’s percent pure unadulterated adrenalin, with a perfect balance between heroics and the matter-of-factness of military life, best displayed in the events leading up to and through a desert ambush outside Baghdad in the middle of the film, where James acts as Sanborn’s spotter as the squad join a quartet of paid mercenaries to fight off a frighteningly staged sniper attack.
Veteran actors Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce and David Morse make cameo appearances here as older members of the military, each personifying an aspect of that profession; heroism, gung-ho enthusiasm and career advancement. Their screen time is individually and collectively brief, but especially valuable to lend heft to what surrounds them; when Morse commends James’ lust for danger and then casually tells one of his men that a wounded Iraqi “can’t make it”, the resulting sound of a gunshot off camera speaks eloquently about the human capacity for incomprehensible cruelty.
No wonder so many of our service men and women come home as walking nightmares…
Bigelow manages to create such a comprehensive sense of danger in nearly every scene of this tension-packed movie that every minute of its month-long storyline seems to unfold in the film’s 2 hour and 10 minute running time. She has the capacity to elongate and compress time with gripping realism, equal parts violence (never overly explicit) and mordant wit. She opens her film with the following quote; “War is a drug”. After seeing this extraordinary movie, you’ll be tempted to believe that for some of its participants, that’s frighteningly accurate description.
The Verdict? For sheer nerve-wracking tension, it’s going to be a long time before anyone tops this gem.
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