“The Hurt Locker” was the last war movie to win the Best Picture Oscar. It continued a long tradition of war movies being honored by the Academy Awards. The other winners were “Wings”, “All Quiet”, “Mrs. Miniver”, “Casablanca”, “Best Years of Our Lives”, “From Here to Eternity”, “Bridge on the River Kwai”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Patton”, “Deer Hunter”, “Platoon”, “Schindler’s List”, “Braveheart”, and “The English Patient”. That’s a lot more war movies than comedies or horror movies. It took a war movie to give a female the first Best Director award. Kathryn Bigelow achieved this first with her direction. The idea and screenplay came from her friend Mark Boal. Boal had been embedded with a bomb disposal unit in Iraq and the movie was based on incidents and individuals from his experience. He won the Best Original Screenplay. The pair teamed up again for “Zero Dark Thirty”. The title was used by bomb disposal teams to mean being wounded or in bad shape (it goes back to the Vietnam War).
“The Hurt Locker” has one of the greatest openings of any war movie. The theme is set by a quote from Chris Hedges who wrote War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” We are dropped onto a Baghdad street for the disposal of a IED made from a 155 mm howitzer shell. You know you are watching a special movie when one of the marquee actors does not survive the opening scene. It’s a very suspenseful scene that culminates with an incredible explosion effect. The replacement is Sgt. First Class James (Jeremy Renner). He is a veteran who has disarmed 873 devices, but he is not stressed out about it. In truth, he is an adrenalin junkie, gambler, and a loose cannon. In other words, he is our anti-hero. The rest of the trio consists of Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). Sanborn is a by the book type who just wants to get through his tour and return home. Eldridge is the youngster who is open to a new leadership style. Once this dynamic is established, the movie becomes very episodic. I have decided it would be appropriate to deal with each in order.
1. James uncovers six artillery shells are rigged to one primacord. Since he’s a maverick, he doesn’t just cut the cord. GRADE = A
2. James is confronted with a car bomb. He treats it like a puzzle. GRADE = B
3. The trio hook up with a band of mercenaries and they get ambushed by some insurgents. There is a sniper duel between an insurgent and Sanborn. GRADE = B
4. They are sent in to a bomb factory. A corpse was being prepared as an IED. James recognizes the corpse as a boy he had befriended. GRADE = B
5. James makes a foray into town seeking revenge for the boy. GRADE = D
6. There is an explosion in the Green Zone at night. James gets a wild hair and convinces the others to split up and rove the alleyways. He don’t need no stinkin’ standard operating procedures. GRADE = B-
7. James has to deal with a human bomb. An innocent civilian has been rigged with explosives and needs a reckless, but insanely lucky expert. GRADE = A+
“The Hurt Locker” is the type of movie where the screenwriter can claim that all of the incidents happened, but of course, not to one person. It is also the type of movie, like “Platoon”, that enhances the incidents to advance the theme. In this case the theme is clear. War is addictive. This is not exactly news. However, it has not really become an American phenomenon until relatively recently. It was commonly mentioned in oral histories from the Vietnam War. It explains why some grunts re-upped. And many had trouble adjusting to the boredom of the home front. (That’s why the grocery store cereal aisle scene is the most iconic from the movie.) Our recent wars in the Middle East have had a similar vibe, except that our video game generation actively seeks the thrill of combat. “Generation Kill” does an excellent job with this. “The Hurt Locker” is probably the best movie set in the Iraqi War, but “Generation Kill” is the go-to source for the soldier experience. James is thankfully not a realistic portrayal of a typical soldier. This is a problem because he fits comfortably into our anti-hero tradition, but the audience might get the impression he is a typical bomb disposal tech. In fact, many actual experts were offended by the portrayal. James is a Hollywood character and the liberties are justified. However, just be aware that James does several silly things and much of his actions would never be allowed. Our anti-heroes are expected to rock the boat, but they usually are not a-holes. James is grade A. Kudos to Boal, but I wonder if the audience gets this. Especially the current generation. It doesn’t help that the last incident humanizes him. The real heroes are Sanborn and Eldridge. The guys who seriously considered fragging James and perhaps should have.
“The Hurt Locker” is very competently done. Bigelow certainly deserved the accolades. For a relatively low budget film, it has big production values. It was filmed in the heat of Jordan which added to the verisimilitude. The cinematography is visceral. The movie features multiple perspectives. There is some strategic use of POV. The opening explosion is special and sets the tone of danger for the rest of the film. The movie is well-acted by an outstanding cast. It’s basically a three man show and all are strong. Renner was nominated for Best Actor and he is great. He is perfect as the unlikeable James. Mackie and Geraghty stay with him. The dynamics between the trio are the foundation of the movie. There is not a lot of dialogue, but what they say is true to soldier talk. But it’s their interaction that is key. Sanborn represents proper procedure and clashes with the rule-breaking James. The bemused Eldridge is caught in the middle and is the designated PTSD casualty. It is refreshing that he sides mostly with Sanborn.
Surprisingly, “The Hurt Locker” is not really anti-war. Bigelow and Boal were not interested in weighing in on the war. The movie concentrates on the effects of war on men. The only way to comprehend James is to go back to the opening quote. What keeps the movie from being great is the impression that an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Team leader could get away with flouting the rules like James does. What revs up the entertainment for the mass audience reduces it for a war movie fan that can discern bull crap when he sees it.
GRADE = A-