When discussing Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed new film, The Hurt Locker, film critics – and cinephiles in general – have repeatedly taken the time to point out that it is not like any of the other, mostly sub par, war films that have taken on the controversial subject of the particular war in which we are currently engaged. However, I would argue that, except perhaps as a point of reference, such comparisons are mostly superfluous, perhaps even insulting to what might just be one of the finest war films made in recent memory. The Hurt Locker is a film about war, war in general, that is, and only about a specific war inasmuch as it takes place in a specific place and at a specific time. It is not a polemic for or against the war, the men who started the war, or even the men who wage the war. This is not a political film. However, The Hurt Locker is a film about war in general, about what war does to people, about what makes war horrible and terrifying and glorious and addicting all at once. It suggests that war is a drug and introduces you to the people who can’t escape it’s firm grasp.
Of course, since it does take place in Iraq, in 2004, Bigelow’s (Point Break) film is a thoroughly modern war movie about thoroughly modern warfare. It’s fast-paced, abundantly visceral and, naturally, action packed. From the opening shot (of a motorized bot exploring the rubble-filled streets of Baghdad for bombs) to the final frames, Locker is a film in constant motion, which is appropriate since it’s characters are never in one place for long, and when they are they certainly aren’t sitting still. Viewers discover quickly that staying still for long is dangerous, very dangerous.
Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (played superbly by Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are Army specialists (Delta Company) highly skilled at identifying and diffusing bombs and I.E.D.s. They are the best of the best and they are charged with providing safety and peace-of-mind for the thousands of soldiers who patrol the city’s streets, not to mention the many civilians who make their home there. Of course, that charge provides them with little peace-of-mind, even less safety, and very little thanks, especially when brash Staff Sgt. William “wild man” James takes over as squad leader. James, played with deep complexity by Jeremy Renner, has his own way of doing things, a way that makes sanity and safety extremely hard to come by for the careful Sanborn and the nervous Eldridge. Of course, James is good at what he does – great, even – and his way is law. Quickly Sanborn and Eldridge discover that that way isn’t exactly “by the book” and are faced with the difficulty of obeying orders with which they wholeheartedly disagree.
Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (In the Valley of Elah), have structured their film episodically such that it counts down the number of days the squad has left in Irag (for example, “30 Days Left in Delta Company’s Rotation”). Not surprisingly, this device heightens the intensity of the film as the three soldiers make their way toward some sort of personal conclusion: either they will survive and head home to their families and friends, to their dreams and futures; or they will die in the line of duty, fighting for their country, obeying orders, serving the man next to them. Not much mention is made of a national ethos or of patriotism, nor of the reasons they were fighting in the first place. These are men whose lot it is to fight and who do so well, and bravely. They perform time and again, under great stress and in the most dire of circumstances, always looking out for the other guys, yet always with an eye towards the day when they’ll be released, allowed to go home. Free.Yet, for James, the “wild man,” fighting is more than a job; diffusing these bombs seems to have become an addiction, a way to fill some need, an adrenaline rush. There’s a simplicity in it, in facing danger with a job to do, in proving again and again that no one is better at that job than he. For James, the war provides him with an outlet that being home, with his son and girlfriend, doesn’t. He craves the excitement, the rush, the noise of battle. He consistently pushes the envelope, diving into the most dangerous fights, returning for more, always dragging his squad along with him for the ride.
Not surprisingly, Sanborn and Eldridge don’t much appreciate James’ approach. As they begin to discover their squad leader’s addiction they also begin to fear that they won’t make it home after all – or, if they do, they know they won’t arrive home the same as when they left. And as the film slowly counts down the days in Delta Company, the audience is forced to come to terms with they are experiencing. What does all this mean? What does this killing and dying and bravery mean? What if these men, with whom the audience quickly begins to empathize, die and never make it home. What if they never step off that plane and never again get to walk through a grocery store or clean leaves out of gutters or become fathers? These are questions not singular to the war in Iraq, nor only to these soldiers. In fact, these are questions all men must face every day. What if this it, what if this is the end? What does all my work and courage and fear and love and living and dying mean? Does it matter that I was good at what I did, that I did it bravely, that I sacrificed myself for a cause, for others? And what if it is an addiction, what if I can’t help myself?
Well, suggests The Hurt Locker sadly but realistically, no matter the answers to these questions wars will go on, they will still be fought. Endlessly. Some of them will be fought on battle fields and some in streets; but many others will be waged inside souls: inside minds and hearts. The film ends with a beautiful wide angle shot of a single, soldier (I can’t say who for that would spoil the film!) defiantly making his way through those rubble filled streets of Baghdad, heading into the vanishing lines of the danger and death which holds the city captive, ready as always to his job. Bigelow overlays the gorgeous, poetic shot with the loud noises of heavy metal, surely meant to offset the ironic, paradoxical beauty of the images and surely meant to represent the noise of war. No, there’s no end in sight.
The Hurt Locker is a visceral, agonizing, poetic film about the nature of wars and the men who wage them. And like most war films its about camaraderie, courage, fear, and death. But most importantly, The Hurt Locker is a film about living, about the men whose job it is to keep others alive and the dangerous job that living is.