Kathryn Bigelow’s latest, which premiered close to a year ago at the Venice Film Festival, has gradually acquired the status of Best Iraq War Movie Anybody’s Made. This is due in part to reviews like the one in USA Today declaring it “easily the best of the movies which have focused on the ongoing war” and the Globe and Mail’s calling it “the only significant feature film to come out of the current Iraq War.” It’s also due to the fact that The Hurt Locker is wicked gripping stuff. But the best? That might be a stretch.
First of all, when we speak of pictures about the war in Iraq, we’re talking not only about sanctimonious clunkers almost nobody saw (Grace Is Gone, Lions for Lambs, Redacted), but about some of the finest documentaries to hit theaters in years. Is The Hurt Locker a more significant work of cinema than the Oscar-nominated No End in Sight or the Academy-Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side? In the first place, we’re talking apples and oranges. In the second place, no, it’s not.
It is a highly watchable, white-knuckle exercise, however, and one of the reasons it’s proving more palatable to audiences than previous Iraq movies, I suspect, is that Bigelow has gone for good old-fashioned action and suspense and tossed the politics. This is a picture over which Rush Limbaugh and George Clooney could easily share a bag of Orville Redenbacher while enjoying every intense minute equally.
Shot in Jordan and set in 2004, it’s the stripped-down story of a three-man Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squad based in Baghdad, running out the clock on the final month of a one-year rotation. The unit specializes in disarming IEDs. Sometimes it utilizes a remote-controlled robot; sometimes it doesn’t. The opening scene involves one of these machines. Fair warning: You do not want to be late. The Goobers will wait for you.
For the balance of the film, the squad is composed of Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), a by-the-book intelligence officer; Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), whose job is to cover a bomb scene with his rifle — and who is rapidly coming unraveled — and Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who is the member of the outfit personally responsible for destroying or disarming the deadly devices they encounter.
Quite possibly you won’t recognize him, but you’ve probably run across Renner before. He had minor roles in such films as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and North Country. With his hair dyed the color of the desert sand and the most riveting role of his career to work with, though, the actor is transmogrified. His performance is completely out of left field — its tone and power a total surprise. From the moment he strides into the frame, The Hurt Locker is his picture.
Though I’m not sure “stride” is the right word. That’s because James’ job requires him to wear a protective ensemble that’s a cross between a space suit and old-fashioned deep-sea-diving gear. In temperatures topping 130 Fahrenheit, it’s a miracle he can even move, and no surprise — except to his squad mates — when, on one of his first assignments, he sidles up to a roadside bomb and strips off the outfit. “If I’m gonna die,” he half jokes, “I’m at least gonna be comfortable.”
It’s that kind of recklessness that initially raises doubts about James. In no time flat, however, doubt is replaced by respect for both his courage and his steely precision under pressure. The scene in the city is surreal. One after another, suspected IEDs are reported, and James and his crew dutifully arrive and attend to them under the continual surveillance of men, women and children lining balconies, gathered at storefronts and peering from windows as though watching a sporting event. As all three soldiers know too well, any one of these onlookers could be holding a cellphone ready to set off the device. We understand at once why civility is a luxury the three can’t afford.
I’ll be honest: The Hurt Locker’s half-dozen or so setpieces are minimalist masterworks of suspense. Death might come from any direction at any moment, and yet James goes about his business with the unruffled focus of a surgeon. It makes for mesmerizing cinema. At the same time, the movie raises a question — in my mind at least — that I’m not sure it even attempts to answer: Why bother?
“Let them know that if they’re gonna leave a bomb on the side of the road,” one of James’ counterparts declares in an early scene, “we’re gonna blow up their fucking road.” Makes sense to me. What I’m not sure I understand is the point of putting soldiers in harm’s way. Why not secure the area and simply set the thing off from a safe distance with a couple of RPGs? At least half the time, the road’s getting blown up either way (one technique for disarming a bomb is to blow it up with another bomb attached to it). I’m just not sure I see the point in guys like Staff Sgt. William James getting blown up in the process.