2009’s sucker-punching Iraq war military drama, The Hurt Locker, is a tense and episodic film, and perhaps one of the most individual war movies ever made. In any examination of war, politics almost inevitably find a way to trickle down into the story’s bloodstream and flood it with its ideological leanings and proclivities. What makes The Hurt Locker so special is that it manages to very handily avoid the bleeding of politics into its episodic portrayal of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad’s last 38 days in Iraq, which is no small feat when considering that war’s continued controversy and prominence in popular conscience more than half a decade after it began.
Instead of diving into the Iraq kerfuffle from any specific political bent, director Kathryn Bigelow made The Hurt Locker a story on the ground about the soldiers fighting the war, and simply that. Decisions aren’t made based on how the characters feel about their presence in the territory; there is no dichotomy established in our small unit of brave marines, separating them into liberals and conservatives. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine what, if any, sort of political leanings soft-featured actor Jeremy Renner’s combat-addicted Staff Sergeant, William James, holds; he and the two soldiers whose company he is assigned to are merely trying to make it out of the war zone alive, and when that’s your situation, personal politics don’t really seem to matter much.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty of room to view The Hurt Locker through a political lens, but the choice to do so is left entirely up to us. Bigelow is more interested in telling the story of the soldier’s lot in life, focusing on the dangers inherent in their professions and the terrible choices they have to make in the field, culminating in a brief yet thoroughly sobering examination of how those elements impact a soldier when he or she returns home. (Which impels them, in Renner’s case, to make even more terrible choices.) The film is also adept at covering the nature of urban warfare; suspicion and paranoia is at a premium in each tense mission, as James’ job leaves him vulnerable and fragile in a world where passive on-lookers could very well be insurgents (as we see in the film’s opening sequence wherein team members Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) witness the demise of their original Staff Sergeant (a chameleon-like Guy Pearce, so collected and natural it takes a moment to realize it’s him) at the hands of a remote bomb detonated by a spectator via a cell phone.).
(Aside: If Bigelow has any sort of political point to make, then it’s pretty clearly about how US occupancy in the Middle East ultimately creates as many hostile insurgents as it eliminates or otherwise removes.)
Perhaps the film’s greatest revelation is Renner, who plays James sort of as the antithesis of the Hollywood war hero. Unlike the more macho soldiers of testosterone-fueled movies like Black Hawk Down or We Were Soldiers, James has no interest in blowing things up (it’s explicit in his job description that he’s not supposed to). He’s a tough guy in his own way– decked out in his impressive EOD suit, he unflinchingly pulls a gun on a civilian car speeding through the military blockade near which an IED has been spotted– but he’s not out in the field disarming bombs to earn medals and make his nation proud, or even to make his planet a better place. He’s there for the rush, and Renner’s performance brilliantly realizes James’ dangerous addiction to the thrill of being in the fog of war, and shows a side of America’s armed forces usually ignored in favor of glorified depictions of valor and selflessness. Despite his antics and his personality, James is still sympathetic in his fashion; it’s hard to believe that he’s just this way, and that he isn’t a product of the environment he has been working in for so long (and if you asked him, he probably wouldn’t tell you what came first, the war or the addiction). More sympathetic are supporting players Mackie and Geraghty as the soldiers assigned to provide surveillance and covering fire for James as he gets his job done: Mackie wants to make it out alive and have a family, and Geraghty is struggling with survivor’s guilt, something that deserves more attention as more soldiers return home from the war in Iraq. Together, each soldier serves as part of the punctuation in the question, “why do soldiers do what they do?”, and while the film never truly comes to a satisfying conclusion to this query, that is almost certainly the point.
None of this should suggest that the movie is simply a character examination set in the midst of the Iraq War: The Hurt Locker is structured via tense, detailed, and extremely well-shot and well-composed gunfights and standoffs, perforated with equally as tense character moments in between. Perhaps the culmination of the action on display occurs in a vivid, white-knuckle confrontation in the desert when the EOD squad runs into a stranded Ralph Fiennes‘ private military contractor as he and his team come under fire by insurgents; the abrupt nature of the loss of life in the scene is startling, and this violence is underscored by the graceful manner in which Bigelow highlights the trajectory of a bullet casing falling to the ground or an explosion billowing out from its point of detonation.
The veteran director successfully draws out a strange and terrible sort of beauty from these images, paying a certain amount of awed reverence to them despite their inherently lethal nature much in the same way that Pearce’s doomed Staff Sergeant waxes eloquent about them in the film’s opening moments. Spent ammunition practically pirouettes through the air as it’s ejected from its housing; the plume of a detonated bomb’s blast slowly unfurls, cutting through the sky like an incendiary and cruel flower blooming.
Ultimately Bigelow has made a war film that truly earns descriptors such as “harrowing”. The Hurt Locker doesn’t end on anything resembling an up note. It doesn’t provide any kind of emotional recompense for the unflinching brutality on display. Instead, The Hurt Locker resonates through an uncompromising presentation of war that strips combat (and subsequently the soldier) down to its barest essentials elements. The film willfully eschews thrilling and moving heroics in favor of something slightly harsher and certainly more palatable. Perhaps to her greatest credit, though, is that she manages to achieve this without losing any compassion or consideration for both her characters and the world in which she is operating.