In the last couple of years a number of movies about the Iraq War have come and gone, barely making an impact with audiences. Well intentioned, but earnest movies like Lions for Lambs, Redacted and In the Valley of Elah were box office poison to a public inundated by images of the war on television. That downward spiral may be stopped by a movie from action director Kathryn Bigelow, a character study placed against the backdrop of the Iraq War called The Hurt Locker.
Set in 2004 Baghdad, The Hurt Locker follows a series of missions with the Bravo Troop as they dismantle IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the last 38 days of their rotation in Iraq.
What emerges is more a wartime character study than a war movie. There are shoot outs and terrifically tense moments, but the action is, by and large, low key and realistic. Bigelow stages effective action scenes but they don’t have the over-the-top bluster we’re used to in modern war movies, instead they rely on intensity and the shocking randomness of wartime violence to make them memorable.
At the center of the action is Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) an adrenaline addicted bomb diffuser who revels in risk taking. His team members, Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), still rocked by the sudden passing of their previous team leader, see James as a reckless troublemaker who may kill himself, or worse, get them killed. The tension in the film comes from their relationship with the showboating bomb expert as much as the battle scenes.
The film is episodic; not so much a story as it is a series of events, but as the clock ticks down toward the end of their stay in Iraq and the end of the movie it becomes clear that Bigelow is letting the pictures tell a bigger story. The relationship of the men is the main thrust but her use of “show me don’t tell me” shots of life in Iraq in the midst of the unrest tell us a broader tale. The wordless way life in the background plays out shows us the uneasy relationship between the soldiers and the locals. It’s subtle, evocative filmmaking that binds the whole thing together.
The Hurt Locker isn’t a typical Iraq War film and that’s probably a good thing. By focusing on the people fighting the war and the effect of soldiering Kathryn Bigelow has made the most effective and most harrowing movie about the consequences of the war since Coming Home.