“War is a force that gives us meaning. War is a drug.” The truth of these words, written by author and war correspondent Chris Hedges, that are used to open The Hurt Locker becomes evident mere minutes into its viewing, and further reveals itself as the piece progresses. Heartbeats quicken, muscles tighten, breathing shallows. And that’s just the viewer.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq war action/drama is so replete with tension that no sooner has that first scene reached its climactic conclusion and the pace momentarily dropped than one is left waiting, like an avowed adrenaline junkie, for the next big hit. And you certainly never have to wait long, for The Hurt Locker is a white-knuckle ride of a movie; the cinematic equivalent of base jumping or swimming with sharks.
The ride we’re taken on follows the day by day excursions of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, who traverse Baghdad’s concrete jungle to neutralize the threat of suspected IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). Amidst the acronyms and ruins are Specialist Owen Eldridge, Sergeant JT Sanborn, and Staff Sergeant William James. The focus is drawn intimately around the team’s members and its activities, and never strays from start to finish, bringing us into the microcosm of their own personal contact with the conflict as a whole. Eldridge is wound tightly due to a preoccupation with the proximity of his own death, Sanborn equally so in his quest for effectiveness through protocol, and both of them thanks to the impossibly brazen attitude of their new team leader.
The simplicity of the distraction-free plot and gritty presentation lend proceedings a documentary feel – we ride alongside the young soldiers as they attempt to dismantle car bombs, engage insurgents, and diffuse charges hidden amongst the piles of rubble which litter their battlefield. And there is a distinct duality in terms of what we are presented, for we also share in those hours of the day when our team are not on duty. Yet given the intolerable pressure of the environment in which they operate, tension only gives way to tension, as the perils of the day job can’t fail to bleed into every facet of their behaviour and being. We see the effectiveness of the men in action, and of the action within the men.
Of these men, Renner’s fearlessly unhinged Staff Sergeant is the star, and the embodiment of this effectiveness. He eschews the relative safety of procedure and operational rules in favour of an intimate acquaintance with all things deadly, and not only thrives upon but craves the sense of liveliness that near-death can bring. Renner’s performance is one of effortless intensity and attempted humanity – his character aware of his inclinations and motivations, but trying to resist surrendering to them entirely. The quintessential action-man, at ease with action but struggling in his attempts to find comfort as a man.
Renner and his cohort are directed with consummate skill and control by Bigelow. She never lets the tension wane, but even within this perpetual heightened state the anxiety and apprehension ebbs and flows, and tempo is toyed with expertly. One scene in which the squad engages in a sniper battle across a barren desert exhibits this to a tee – the calm precedes the storm which precedes the calm, and so on. The audience is on edge right along with the protagonists, and left similarly drained afterwards. The twitchy handheld footage which helps to bring this to fruition is far from a novel device, but is used to excellent effect here, and is punctuated by artistic directorial flourishes which fit neatly and poignantly. Sound too plays a crucial role: each explosion tears magnificently from the speakers, and each bullet fired rings out with a visceral reminder of its potential impact.
Unusually, given the context, The Hurt Locker frees itself from any politicizing or moralizing – about Iraq, terrorism, or war itself. The resultant destruction and desolation are made crystal clear, but no stance is offered nor conclusion drawn. The story is told on a more micro level: it is a story of men not nations, and this conflict is simply the canvass upon which a picture is drawn. The picture is graphic, chilling, and all too real, but not because of ideology or policy, simply because it takes us to the heart of an undeniably torturous situation.
The building blocks from which The Hurt Locker is comprised are neither original nor innovative. For non-stop battlefield drama we’ve had Black Hawk Down, for the psychological effects of war upon combatants Jarhead, and for perilous thrill-seeking Bigelow’s own Point Break. Yet here she presents each of these things so fully, so pertinently and with such attentiveness that the resultant composition stands apart. It is the complete package, and a truly great war movie. If war is a force that gives us meaning, then here is a film that shows us how.