Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo, Suhail Aldabbach, Christopher Sayegh, Nabil Koni, Sam Spruell, Sam Redford, Feisal Sadoun, Barrie Rice
Written by: Mark Boal
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
MPAA Rating: R for war violence and language
Running Time: 131
Date: 09/03/2008

The Hurt Locker (2009)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Learning to Love the Bomb

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I've been dragged to most of the recent Iraq war movies, and some of them have been interesting and informative, but they all have one thing in common: a somber, self-important, condescending attitude about the horrors and futility of war. The problem is that I already know all this going in. What I want to see is some explanation. If war is so horrible, why does everyone keep making war movies? Why on earth should we watch them? Certainly it's not to change anyone's mind, because these movies generally preach to the converted. But finally, here comes Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, and it does something that all the others fail to do. It considers the dangerous idea that, indeed, war can be fun.

The movie is a good deal closer in spirit to the action-oriented war movies of the 1940s and 1950s, with their gung-ho attitude and intense male bonding; films of the kind that Samuel Fuller and Don Siegel used to make. (And make no mistake: Kathryn Bigelow is one of the finest living directors of male-bonding genre films.) I'm not saying that The Hurt Locker made me want to sign up and jet off to Iraq, but it did not have an agenda and did not preach to me. It did that rarest of rare things in American movies: it allowed me to form my own ideas. It's a simple, straightforward presentation, but in nearly every shot comes an odd duality: this sucks, and this is cool.

In a great performance, Jeremy Renner (Dahmer, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) plays the movie's lynchpin, Staff Sergeant William James of the Army bomb squad. It's 2004, and Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) have a little over a month to the end of their tour. When they lose their regular sergeant to an explosion, James is sent in as a replacement. James has a little of John Wayne in him. He straps on the heavy bomb suit and marches into danger without any of the caution of his commander. When the helmet gets too hot during his intricate work, he simply removes it. If the radio is squawking too much, he turns it off. He's at his coolest, most focused and most imperturbable during the job, while fiddling with live bombs.

But in his off hours, he's like a trapped raccoon, with a vaguely sad, vaguely maniacal expression on his face. Like Sanborn and Eldridge, we're never sure if we like him, or if we can trust him, or if we should stay away from him. After one particularly precarious day, the three men relax in their bunk with some drinking and horseplay. After a few minutes, the horseplay gets rougher, with James suddenly crossing the line. But in battle, he's a champ. During one tense scene in which the trio -- and some British allies -- is under fire from a distant sniper, the time drags by and the men get thirstier and woozier. James and Sanborn are on a ridge, watching, while Eldridge attempts to fetch a packet of juice from the supplies below. James takes the juice, opens it, and gives the entire thing to Sanborn, taking nothing for himself.

Bigelow presents James as the movie's center, but we watch him through Sanborn and Eldridge's eyes; they're both like any other solider you would expect. They hate Iraq. It's too hot, and it's a mess and they want to go home, but they're understandably fascinated by James. He shows them his secret box full of bits and pieces of bombs that almost killed him (the "hurt locker" of the title), his only real keepsakes, and perhaps the only things by which he can measure his life. At the same time, we see a few scenes of James on his own, befriending a young Iraqi boy who sells DVDs in a market, and taking it personally when the boy later turns up dead. These scenes are equally fascinating, with his motivations remaining equally mysterious.

As a war movie, The Hurt Locker can be thrilling. Bigelow's set pieces are exquisitely timed and perfectly built. In one scene, she escalates tension merely by showing more and more Iraqi spectators turning up on their front porches to watch James dismantle a wired car. In another -- shown in the trailer -- James finds a bomb buried in the sand, traces the trip wire and comes up with half a dozen more bombs just like it. (His reaction is perfect: "oh boy..."). Bigelow shoots largely with hand-held cameras, but not surprisingly, she knows precisely how to do it, emphasizing the emotional turmoil but making the space and action perfectly clear. Most Hollywood hacks simply shake their cameras around, mistakenly thinking that simulated chaos and actual chaos are the same thing.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal tell the story in a series of episodes, much like Samuel Fuller's WWII masterpiece The Big Red One (1980). This allows the characters to develop and each set piece to unfold in its own time, with its own mood, without concern for villains or subplots or forward thrust. There are several supporting characters played by recognizable stars, but they each leave the movie as quickly as they entered it. It's as if Bigelow is suggesting that there are other movies just beyond this one, and we could go in that direction, but we won't. Yes, there's a bigger picture, but where we're going is more unusual. The proof is that Boal -- who spent lots of time researching and writing in Iraq -- also wrote what would become Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah (2007), but Haggis re-wrote that and turned it into one of those somber, self-serving things I was talking about. Bigelow trusts Boal's vision and marries her own sensibility to his, coming up with something far more genuine and fascinating.

The major point of The Hurt Locker is made clear in just a few powerful, pointed and striking visual scenes toward the end, following by a final shot I'll not soon forget. I've long been a supporter of Bigelow's, and I count her vampire film Near Dark (1987) as one of my top 100 favorites. Indeed, it helps to consider her other films, which include cop movies, sci-fi movies, the cult classic skydiving/surfing/undercover cop movie Point Break (1991), and even a submarine movie, when thinking of this one. It's not too soon to declare The Hurt Locker a masterpiece from this gifted and underrated director. But it's the kind of popcorn masterpiece that people might actually like to see -- and I'd like to see again -- rather than one that's kept on a dusty shelf.

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