While there is only one Iraq War, what a civilian sees in the USA is wholly different from what a US soldier or an Iraqi sees. The media, whether through voluntary censorship or government censorship, has presented a sentimental version of the war: fearless heroes who protect civilians and ensure democracy. Of course, the truth of this war — and any war — is multiplicitous, and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker seeks to fill in part of that gap in understanding.
In my view, the most ingenious part of this movie is how relentlessly suspense-filled action sequences serve to develop characters and themes. The script is written by first-time screenwriter Mark Boal, who was an embedded journalist with an actual EOD (Explosive Ordnanace Disposal) team in Iraq. The story is structured around one bomb-defusing scenario after the next. Actor Jeremy Renner stars as Staff Sargeant William James, a true warrior whose battle-courage is little different from recklessness. We identify with his “bad dude” persona but see how his fearlessness comes from an adrenaline addiction. This bomb tech has no place in the world other than inches from death.
The Hurt Locker was produced independently on a relatively low budget and shot on location in Jordan, only a few miles from the Iraqi border. Director Bigelow decided to shoot on location after considering Morocco, and the effect is an authenticity only available to a war movie made only miles from the actual war while the war is not yet over. Every audio and visual effect is used to build suspense and reproduce the dreadfulness inherent in touching something that could blow any person into smithereens. Just as suspenseful is the fact that any “haji” (local Iraqi) could be an insurgent. Indeed I was on the edge of my seat throughout.
A few stars cameo (Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, David Morse), but for the two-hour movie we follow three relative unknowns: Jeremy Renner (as James), Anthony Mackie (as Sgt. JT Sanborn), and Brian Geraghty (as Specialist Owen Eldridge). Their characters represent different aspects of every soldier, from reckless courage to fear to psychological frailty. We see how their comradeship belies the soldier’s difficulty in building an emotional attachment to someone who could die the next second. We see their survivor’s guilt, their selfish desire to simply survive, and the brutal effect of constantly facing their own mortality.
The Hurt Locker fits strongly within the traditional war film genre. One departure is that war justifications — political considerations — disappear as the characters simply do their jobs. The soldiers don’t curse much and also don’t utter racist or homophobic pejoratives, which builds our respect for them and keeps the audience focused on the story — and the ovenlike desert setting ready to explode at any moment. One of my favorite moments was when the soused Staff Sgt. James decides to sleep in his ballistic EOD helmet, purposefully or not a reference to The Iliad‘s Hector, the Trojan warrior who removes his fearsome battle helmet to embrace his son.
The Hurt Locker is a great movie because of these kinds of resonances, even if the movie is not technically innovative in structure or special effects. One could do much worse than portray the Iraq War as one man placing his hands on a bomb, not knowing if it’s life or death.