The Hurt Locker (2008)
Written by: Mark Boal
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Guy Pearce, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Christopher Sayegh
There is, apparently, a simple rule-of-thumb (at least for those folks who keep track of these things) that war movies, no matter how well-made they may be, simply do not attract huge audiences to theaters in times of war.
Certainly, people who are old enough to remember World War II and its immediate aftermath can make a good case that this is not always the case and that many of them, whether they were adults or kids at the time, watched movies such as Air Force, Back to Bataan, Guadalcanal Diary, Sahara, The Flying Tigers and A Walk in the Sun, not to mention the various newsreels and government-produced propaganda films.
That having been said, movies about America’s post-World War II conflicts made while the bullets were flying and the soldiers, sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and Air Force personnel were in harm’s way often flopped or were less-than-critically acclaimed. (John Wayne’s The Green Berets may be liked by fans of the Duke, but it was neither a big hit nor a “critics’ favorite” when it ran in theaters back in 1968.)
In most cases, many producers and directors often wait several years after a conflict ends before attempting to dramatize it, as did Ed Zwick with Desert Storm in 1996’s Courage Under Fire and Clint Eastwood with the Grenada invasion in 1985’s Heartbreak Ridge.
Unfortunately, the highly-controversial Iraq War and the Afghanistan branch of the War on Terror have turned off the average American movie watcher to war movies in general and especially movies about Iraq and Afghanistan.
This, of course, is the biggest reason why Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is one of the least watched Best Picture winners in recent memory, grossing less than $17 million worldwide at the box office.
Written by Mark Boal, who also wrote the story for In the Valley of Elah, The Hurt Locker is a (mostly) apolitical movie which eschews the usual look at an average infantry unit and focuses instead on the specialists who have perhaps the most dangerous duty of all: explosive ordnance disposal.
Set in the early stages of the Iraqi insurgency after Saddam Hussein’s fall from power, The Hurt Locker wastes no time in getting the viewer into war-torn Baghdad and a small bomb disposal team led by Staff Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce). Thompson is aided and protected by two other GIs – Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who provide necessary technical support and – with their rifles and other weapons – covering firepower should the insurgents decide to engage in a firefight.
The insurgents know there’s no way they can beat American soldiers in a stand-up fight, so they have turned to bomb makers trained either by Al Qaeda or Palestinian terrorists with decades of experience to create Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) which can be planted in cars or buried in streets or on the sides of Iraq’s desert-spanning road networks.
Thompson, Sanford and Eldridge are obviously masters of their craft, approaching IEDs with all the caution, patience and adherence to protocol the Army and long experience have ingrained in them.
For all that, no matter how careful Thompson is or how well-made his protective armored suit is, the bomb makers have gotten their hands on some of the ammunition the first American invaders failed to secure earlier in the war – in this case, several 155 mm shells hooked up to wires and a remote detonator.
Before our eyes, then, something goes wrong while Thompson tries to defuse this devil’s toy of an IED and the squad leader is killed.
His replacement is Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner), a skilled ordnance disposal technician who is the antithesis of both the man whose job he “inherited” and Sgt. Sanborn, who thinks the “newbie” is a reckless cowboy who’s bound to get himself – and maybe the whole team – killed.
This contrast in personalities – and the film is really great at highlighting characterization without sacrificing suspense or action – is really stark, and it makes for really fascinating dramatic situations no matter where the two men may be.
Of course, as the movie’s protagonist, Renner’s SFC James may tick off the more conservative (technically, not politically) Sanford, but the man is highly skilled and has an unnerving sixth sense of what the bomb makers are up to.
He’s also, like many of the real soldiers who have fought in America’s overseas wars, a man who can find the time and compassion to reach out to the civilians President George W. Bush intended to liberate from Saddam’s despotic rule when he called for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Borrowing the theme of the Caring GI from many movies about World War II and other conflicts, writer Boal and director Bigelow show the viewer James’ attempts to befriend an Iraqi boy he nicknames “Beckham” (Christopher Sayegh) because of his prowess with a soccer ball.
Such thematic material has been used before with varying degrees of dramatic success, including the mawkish scenes between Jim Hutton and Craig Jue in The Green Berets, but here it is done extremely well and becomes one of the film’s most poignant elements.
The Hurt Locker, unlike many films about either the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, is mostly apolitical (there are songs by Ministry, a group known for not supporting former President Bush’s agenda, in the soundtrack) and does not delve into the “rightness” or “wrongness” of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It simply plunks the viewer into those soldiers’ world nose-first and neck-deep, with fleeting but revealing looks at the enemy bomb makers who, in their own minds, are jusr as professional and dedicated to their cause as the Americans.
Admittedly, I missed The Hurt Locker when it was in wide release in 2009 and purchased it only after it earned its five Academy Awards – Best Director, Best Editing, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing and, of course, Best Picture. I had not seen any of the other Iraq War movies (Stop-Loss, The Green Zone), for one thing, and I was really curious to see a movie by Kathryn Bigelow, a woman who has broken the mold by being a director of “thinking viewer’s” action pictures rather than the clichéd romantic comedy or conventional drama films that women are “supposed” to direct.
While it will take some time before this movie earns its premature title of “Operation Iraqi Freedom’s Platoon” and finds a more willing audience, The Hurt Locker is truly one of those Oscar-winners destined to have a sterling reputation as a film which really deserves its awards. It’s extremely well-made, looks authentic as hell ( it was shot in next-door Jordan ) and it is both a riveting character study of smart men under pressure and a suspenseful, heart-pounding action movie.