The Hurt Locker 
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenwriter: Mark Boal
The Hurt Locker is a great film. It is a film about a war, The Iraq War, that was begun on political terms, and continues to be debated within the media and within society on political terms. On terms of conservative versus liberal, and and good versus evil. But The Hurt Locker refuses to take such a simplistic view, and understands that for the soldiers who actually fight the war, and die in the war, it is not about such facile things.
The film follows a bomb squad in Baghdad over the last 38 days of their year-long rotation. The team leader was just killed in a bomb explosion, and so a new one is assigned. The new team leader is SSgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who we learn has diffused 873 bombs. He remembers every single one. He’s a “wild man,” someone notes. A cowboy. He’s not only good at what he does: he’s literally the best. And what’s more, he loves doing it, even at the expense of the lives of his team, it seems. The other people in James’ team are Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and Spec. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). From the moment he sees James, Sanborn has problems with him. He fears that James’ gung-ho style will get him and Eldridge killed, and he’s only got a little over a month until he ships out. He’s a man who works by the book, and as a team member. James works to his own rhythm. Eldridge, even more than Sanborn, fears he’s going to die. He’s the kind of guy you can imagine signed up because his buddies were, but never knew what exactly he was getting himself into. The overall point, however, is that these three men are all in the same place, doing the same thing, no matter what their differences are.
As good as both Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty are (and they are good, very good), however, this is definitely Jeremy Renner’s show, and he delivers beautifully. The film opens with a quote: “War is a drug.” Renner’s SSgt. James is the embodiment of this. He has a wife and a child at home, and yet in spite of that, he seems to enjoy putting himself in danger. The idea that his kid could grow up without a father doesn’t seem to be the number one factor in his mind. “What’s the best way to diffuse a bomb?” he’s asked at one point. “The way you don’t die, sir,” he replies. Yet although he at first seems like no more than just this gung-ho cowboy we see, through the film we discover there’s more to him than simply that. He cares about his team, and despite his apparent death wish, it is not death that is the drug for him. It is the bombs. In one of the most emotionally powerful scenes, we see the compassion he has as he gives up a drink of juice for Sanborn, despite the fact that he must be just as thirsty, waiting in the desert for hours.
That same scene is also one of the great examples of why The Hurt Locker succeeds so well. Kathryn Bigelow has crafted scenes that are perfect in how taut, tense, and suspenseful they are. The suspense never lifts up, even when all is said and done. But it is not just the idea that a bomb could potentially go off, or that someone could get shot and possibly die. It’s the thought that anyone in the street could be the person with the detonator, or the bomb hidden under his shirt. It’s frightening when crowds begin to form, or when a man videotapes the soldiers. Why is he videotaping them? Or when a man just has a cell phone. It could be a bomb detonator. The depictions she has are frighteningly real. It’s not that all of these people mean to do the soldiers harm, but it is the simple fact that the ones who do are impossible to tell apart from the ones who don’t. This is the reality that the men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan deal with on a daily basis, and Bigelow deserves all the accolades she receives for her honest depiction of it.
There is an undeniable skill in the way that Bigelow continues to raise the suspense, the doubt, and the awareness of the audience to the all-too-possible fatal outcome of every single encounter. The film is edited so skillfully that even the quick cuts that these days can seem so forced, don’t. And Bigelow is not afraid to linger, to examine her characters, and allow the audience a moment to take in the emotions swirling inside them: the fear, the anxiety, and even the adrenaline. She’s as interested in their internal struggles as she is their external ones. The film is also not just about the action and suspense. It’s worried with the way in which we as humans approach the idea of war itself. Bigelow is not afraid to be both upfront in her approach to the idea of war being not simply a way to die, but as a way to live. Things like “war is a drug,” Jeremy Renner’s character and his attachment to the thrill of bomb diffusion, and notice even the fact that in one seen, Eldridge is playing the video game “Gears of War.” Is war nothing but a game? Whether or not Bigelow is trying to answer this question, she is certainly looking at the gears that make war turn.
The Hurt Locker will go down as one of the great films of the decade, and will be remembered as the Platoon of this generation. Like Platoon, The Hurt Locker takes an honest yet uncompromising look at the conflict it’s depicting. It does not try to whitewash the realities, but at the same time refuses to apply a simplistic liberal or conservative interpretation of the conflict. Part of me feels as though this review doesn’t do justice to the film itself, and that it really must be seen to be understood in its entirety. The first time I saw it, I was humbled by the skill of its acting, directing, editing, and overall execution. The second time I saw it, my appreciation for those things was not only heightened, but I was awed by the sad and true power it leaves you with. Here at home in the United States, the conflicts in the Middle East are debated endlessly on political terms. But The Hurt Locker reminds us that over there, it’s not about politics. It’s not about shades of black of white, but really, shades of gray.