Every war produces a plethora of films. World War II gave us everything from 1947’s The Best Years of Our Life to 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. We relived the Vietnam War through Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Now Hollywood has started to weigh in on the war in Iraq, bringing to the screen Brian DePalma’s Redacted, Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah, and The Messenger, by first time director, Oren Moverman.
The Hurt Locker, directed by a woman, may prove to be the definitive film about the war in Iraq. Kathryn Bigelow has already won the Director’s Guild Award and an Academy Award nomination, the fourth woman to be nominated in that category. Although Bigelow’s film has taken in less than $13 million at the box office—a fraction of the more than $2 billion her ex-husband’s film, Avatar, has so far grossed worldwide—The Hurt Locker is by far the greater artistic achievement.
Warning: This film is not for the faint of heart. At times The Hurt Locker feels less like fiction and more like a documentary about army specialists whose job it is to defuse bombs on the streets of Iraq. Mark Boal, a freelance writer who was embedded with a bomb squad, wrote the story and no doubt pulled from his experience. The title refers to being injured in an explosion: “They sent him to the hurt locker.” The tension comes from watching these specialists deal day in and day out with the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that litter the streets of Baghdad. Oftentimes these bombs cannot be detonated in place. The destruction would be too great. Each one must be deactivated and there are no James Bond shortcuts here. While the specialist wears body armor, that protection often does little to shield the soldier from what the bomb can deliver.
Casting unknowns in the major roles allows us to view these soldiers anonymously. We don’t need to get by their star quality to believe they are truly soldiers. They represent troops serving in Iraq, putting themselves in danger every day, counting down the days until their tours end and they can leave.
Jeremy Renner, as Sergeant First Class William James, won’t remain an unknown for long. His performance has earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. His Sergeant James approaches his job with relish, viewing each bomb he faces as a puzzle that must be solved. The men in his unit (played by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) view James as a human puzzle providing few clues as to what makes him tick. While James pulls and tugs at the wires that surround each device, an explosion seems imminent. After defusing more than 800 IEDs and counting, James is good at what he does. How long can his luck hold out? The days left in Bravo Company’s tour of duty flash on the screen. Fewer days does not necessarily mean less danger. Even 24 hours can bring with it disaster.
The movie seems claustrophobic, even though the landscape of Iraq at times appears endless. (The film was actually shot in Jordan). Baghdad appears inhospitable to American troops, with only the children being friendly. The faces that peer out from windows and doorways are at the least suspicious and at the most sinister and threatening. Anyone lifting a cellphone is a danger to detonate a bomb and one can easily understand how innocent civilians are often believed to be the enemy and shot or accidentally caught in the crossfire.
Sergeant James does get to go home to his wife and young son. Rather than feeling safe and relieved to be away from bombs and Iraq, James seems out of his element. A vast supermarket seems like alien territory to him. While he is decisive in selecting the wire that will disarm a bomb, he can’t make a selection when faced with endless choices in the cereal aisle.
“The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” That line flashes on the screen at the beginning of the movie, eventually shortened to its essence: “War is a drug.” Some fight the addiction; others succumb to it. In the end, we may not understand what drives specialists like Sergeant James to chase that rush. But we are glad he’s on our team.