Thursday, October 7, 2010

War, Tension And Ignoring The Politics Of War, The Hurt Locker Succeeds!

The Good: Excellent acting, Good tension, DVD bonus features, Direction, Moments of character
The Bad: Almost-absent plot, Light on character development.
The Basics: A powerful exploration of what the military's bomb squad goes through, The Hurt Locker is a repetitive, ratcheting narrative that explores the dangers of a war zone.

When the Oscars finished their broadcast this year, I was on-line in moments. While some people were calling their bookies and other were calling those they knew personally in the industry to congratulate or commiserate with them, I was logging into the on-line card catalog for my local library system. The reason was simple; I had not seen this year's Best Picture Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker. As thrilled as I was that Avatar did not triumph for the year's big prize, it meant that I had another Best Picture winner to watch in order to retain my status as a reviewer who had reviewed all of the Best Picture Oscar winners. So, I was right on contacting my library to get the film in and the next day, it was there for me.

War movies tend to do well at the Oscars, so that The Hurt Locker won is actually little surprise to anyone betting on such things. But what I found most surprising after I sat down to watch it was how much I enjoyed it. This is a big surprise for me as I have been a staunch advocate against the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Hurt Locker is set in war-torn Iraq, but what makes it so good is that it manages to tell its story, the story of U.S. soldiers in Baghdad without miring itself in the politics of the war in any way, shape or form. Embedded thus with the soldiers, the reasons for and debates over the war in Iraq dissipate. The men - it's only men we see - are there, doing their job and that is all.

Sergeant Matt Thompson is in Baghdad working as part of the ordinance retrieval unit (bomb squad) when he meets an unfortunate and untimely end. Thompson's body and possessions are shipped home and with thirty-eight days left in Bravo company's, Thompson is replaced with Sergeant William James. James is a maverick who has defused over eight hundred bombs and tends to keep souvenirs from each of his successful endeavors. James does not work by the book, which annoys his comrades, JT Sanborn and Specialist Eldridge who are responsible with covering him and supplying him with tools whenever he needs to defuse a weapon.

As the unit encounters more complex weapons, James earns the respect of his comrades. The trio is put in ever more dangerous situations diffusing improvised explosive devices and James, Sanborn and Eldridge have to protect a U.N. installation in the green zone, a group of independent contractors and investigate a bombing that puts one of them in even more jeopardy.

The Hurt Locker is not a movie chock full of character development or even much in the way of plot, but it sparkles with the unpleasant realities of war and conflict. James and his team are simply counting down the days until they are able to return home and there are essentially four scenes where the trio finds themselves in a situation, discovers the weaponry, and deals with it. And while Sanborn especially is initially grated on by James's style, he is forced to respect the quality of the Sergeant's work. The film is not exactly a male bonding film, though, as the characters only come together through shared conflict and fear that each day will be their last.

James initially comes across as cocky, but just as he proves himself to Sanborn, he proves himself to the audience by actually being good at his job. And while James has a son and ex-wife at home, Sanborn is only left to dream of surviving long enough to get out and start a family. Unfortunately, The Hurt Locker is not the story of what comes afterwards. Instead, this is the story of troops embedded in a country hostile to them, getting shot at, blown up and trying to save lives using brains and courage to stop powerful weapons from detonating.

Fortunately, the film is not monolithic. The unit's psychiatrist, Cambridge, is arrogant and inefficient and Eldridge is twitchy. In fact, Eldridge becomes annoyingly unlikable and the story rightly shifts to Sanborn and James. While Eldridge is deeply human, he is angry and unpleasant in ways that make him antagonistic. This tends to parallel the coldness of how the enemy (we never see leaders or even any organized enemy characters, which makes the film a study in frustration for the protagonists) uses their own as weapons. Suicide bombers are shown and while The Hurt Locker illustrates the humanity and coercion used on some of them, the most horrific moments come in how one of James' friends is treated by the enemy.

But, again, The Hurt Locker is shockingly apolitical. What makes it work so well is that the men profiled are just working. They are smart - Sanborn evaluates potential bomb blast patterns quickly and he has a strong tactical mind - and they just want to do their work and get out. But the movie presents this straightforward life with a coldness that makes it stark and difficult to watch. James cuts into people and locks to try to diffuse explosives and he works indiscriminately and efficiently. But this is a life most of us do not live, so watching it creates a tension-filled environment that is not easy to watch and is often repetitive and troubling for the ratcheting up of the mood.

More than just successfully manipulating mood, The Hurt Locker is well-acted and well-directed. Jeremy Renner is wonderfully cold as Sergeant James. He has a steel-eyed glare that connotes efficiency and calculation and he is utterly convincing in each and every scene he is in. In fact, Renner stands out as a strong, masculine performer who makes for a perfectly plausible soldier.

Similarly, Anthony Mackie is plausible as Sanborn and Geraghty is wonderful in keeping Eldridge on edge. The Hurt Locker is populated by supporting actors who pop in, make auspicious appearances and then bring the focus back to Renner and Mackie. Guy Pearce opens the film well as Thompson with a similar sense of efficiency that Renner brings to James. Even David Morse makes a cameo that makes him a plausible military official. Evangeline Lily enters the film rather late and her brief appearance offers Renner a chance to play off someone else and he uses the opportunity to recharacterize James as a very uncomfortable man.

And this is where The Hurt Locker begs for a sequel. The nature of the unending war in Iraq makes Sergeant James work as a character. But a brilliant sequel could - and should - come from exploring what happens when a man wound so tight tries to reintegrate into non-military society. The Hurt Locker illustrates how someone whose life revolves around the adrenalin rush has difficulty with reintegration, but the film overcomes that conflict with a simple plot device.

The Hurt Locker ignores the development of character in favor of illustrating an uncommon character doing what he does. A sequel which explores the character and what happens when he is no longer in his element could be as compelling a story as The Hurt Locker. With the deftness which this story illustrates war conditions and the nature of those working and living in dangerous conditions day after day, one hopes the veterans might get their story illustrated as well.

Either way, The Hurt Locker works for anyone who likes an intense drama as well as those who like war stories. And for happy liberals who abhor war, this is a good film to illustrate the conditions of war and its dehumanizing nature, without getting mired in a debate as to the causes of this specific war.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project, which is available by clicking here! Please check it out!]

For other films with combat scenarios, please check out my reviews of:
Revenge Of The Sith


For other film reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

| | |


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I'd prefer you not spoil movies in comments, but, thanks for reading and responding to the review. I'm an idealist in some ways and in that regard, how to assimilate soldiers back to a peacetime society is of great interest to me. If you've never seen the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "The Hunted," it's a great example of this debate and the struggle of soldiers and something that has not been cinematically over-represented.