Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated The Hurt Locker is perhaps one of the best war films ever made – and quite certainly the definitive cinematic work dealing with the current war in Iraq. While its realism may be questioned, the film undeniably offers a rare, eye-opening look at the nature of modern warfare and roots of insurgency in the Middle East. The absence of large scale confrontations and a highly memorable twist at the end of the film make The Hurt Locker a far more potent and personally moving experience than its somewhat distant cousins Black Hawk Down (2001) and Tears of the Sun (2003). Kudos to Bigelow for crafting this gem.
Unlike many lesser works focusing on similar subject matter, The Hurt Locker does not bore with a lengthy opening sequence or superfluous background information on the conflict that serves as its setting. Instead, the film begins with the simple statement that “war is a drug” and wastes no time in providing evidence to back this assertion. From the get-go, the audience is mercilessly thrown into a khaki-colored, sun-drenched reality of bleak pastels and derelict buildings where a US Army squad is working hard to deactivate a roadside bomb with the help of a remote-controlled robot. When the robot sent in to plant C4 on the IED in order to carry out a controlled explosion suffers a technical problem, the squad’s bomb technician SSG Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) makes his way into the “kill zone” to plant the explosives by hand. Insurgents active the explosives remotely by mobile phone and Thompson perishes in the resulting blast. SSG Will James (Jeremy Renner) is assigned to the squad to take the dead man’s place.
Upon joining the elite unit, James proceeds to act with what at first appears to be reckless abandon – manually locating chains of linked explosives instead of using a robot and single-handedly stopping suspected insurgent terrorists in runaway vehicles. Soon, however, it becomes clear that this man is in fact driven by an arrogant sense of independence, which leads him to complete assignments in the manner he personally sees fit, disobeying military protocol and even the orders of his superiors. An experienced bomb expert with a track record of 873 successfully disabled IEDs, he describes the correct approach to performing his dangerous job simply as “the way you don’t die” when asked by a high ranking officer.
Whether disarming a car bomb under enemy fire, talking face-to-face with a suicide bomber rigged with terrorist explosives or playing a game of hide-and-seek with insurgent snipers, James remains remarkably cold-blooded and seemingly detached from the horrific chaos of his surroundings – impenetrable, it would appear, to death itself. The casual viewer may be tempted to disregard these various brief episodes as simple vignettes of military life in the field, yet they are in fact important plot devices Bigelow uses to develop the personality of her main character.
A closer look reveals James’ coolness to be the end result of a deep personal transformation in which he has completely accepted the inherent risks of his job and resigned himself to the harsh realities of fate. Having faced and tricked death so many times, James has become addicted to the adrenaline rush he gets disarming explosives out in the field. What remains of love and humanity in the heart of this man is sparked by the murder of a young Iraqi boy selling DVDs, exemplified by James’ unexpectedly brusque reaction – breaking into a private civilian residence and attempting to find those responsible.
Filmed in Jordan, only miles away from the Iraqi border, the film does a terrific job of capturing the feeling of impending death potentially lurking around every corner and translating it to the big screen. Death is simple in the world of The Hurt Locker; life is short and expendable; staying alive is the tricky part. Perhaps most striking about the experience, however, is the ending twist, a surprising touch which adds much-needed closure to the work’s finale. For James, who has managed to avoid ending up in the titular hurt locker (military slang for suffering trauma in an explosion) and return home in one piece from his tour of duty, this seemingly positive outcome comes at a great price. As he explains to his young son, when a man grows older, there are fewer and fewer things left that he loves – and in James’ case of growing older quickly, all that’s left for him to love is war.
Much has been said about the realism and authenticity of the situations portrayed in The Hurt Locker both by fans praising the work for its documentary-like cinematography and hands-on approach and by current and former members of the military, generally disapproving of the film. While clearly it is no secret that The Hurt Locker is not as technically accurate and fact-based as such renowned genre classics as Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Black Hawk Down, Bigelow’s film nonetheless delivers a deeply meaningful cinematic experience of far greater artistic merit than most of its better researched counterparts. Yes – in real life most of the IEDs would be disarmed by the robot, each site would likely be completely cordoned off to eliminate the threat of enemy ambush and the EOD squad probably would not tolerate the behavior of a character like James – but this is a work of fiction and as such it focuses primarily on the experiences of human beings thrown into a war zone, not the caliber of the rifles they are using. Hence, despite its technical inaccuracies, The Hurt Locker comes highly recommended to the general audience, and to war film aficionados in particular.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jeremy Renner (SSG William James), Anthony Mackie (Sgt. JT Sanborn)
Genre: Action | Drama | Thriller | War
Runtime: 131 mins | Country: US | Language: English/Arabic