Droid defines the Decades best movies – #16 The Hurt Locker (2009)
A few years ago there were a rush of films based around the war in Iraq. Most of these were ineffective, because they came saddled with a heavy handed agenda. It’s become fashionable to criticize American involvement in the war, and whatever your opinion, patronising leftist brow beating from the likes of Paul Haggis is not a message I care about. The payoff of ‘In The Valley of Elah’, with the upside down flag (which I rolled my eyes at the clumsy setup of in the first 15 minutes of the film), is one of the greatest single annoyances of recent cinema. ‘The Hurt Locker’ is a different beast. It’s neither for or against the war. It’s about the nature of the men who fight it. The story it tells is not about pointing fingers or laying blame, it’s about three men in a bomb disposal unit, each with their own approach to survival.
“The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”
– Chris Hedges
Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner) is the replacement team leader of a Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. It’s his one love. It’s what he’s good at. Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Sergeant Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are his unit, providing cover and intelligence for their leader. Sanborn is a by the book soldier, trusting in his training and adherence to procedure to get him home alive. Eldridge is out of his depth, and conflicted about the realities of the war, where it’s often necessary to shoot first and ask questions later. He’s just hoping to stay safe until his rotation. But James loves the thrill of diffusing bombs, and sometimes ignores proper procedure which puts him and his unit in dangerous situations. As they navigate their remaining 38 days before rotation, each man’s nerve is tested.
Kathryn Bigelow is one of the best action directors there is. Here she ramps up the tension, paces the film perfectly and makes a classic modern war film. She’s not interested in taking sides, she’s interested in what makes these guys tick, why they do what they do, putting themselves in harms way every day. Thinking back on the first time I saw it, I remembered it to be action packed. But upon rewatching it, there is actually very little action. The film is punctuated by set pieces, with Bigelow slowly building the tension in each scene. And she takes her time, allowing the scene to unfold, heightening our expectation and the tension in the process.
Written by Mark Boal, based on his experiences as a freelance journalist with a bomb squad in Iraq, the film feels completely authentic. Characters actions seem realistic, even the thrill-seeking James. Why he does it, we can only hypothesise. When asked how he puts himself in harms way when he has a wife and son at home, he replies “I just don’t think about it.” Renner is terrific in the role. The conversation he has with his son towards the end of the film, is a perfect summation of his character. He’s found the one thing he’s good at, the one thing he loves, and that’s all he wants to do. This single talent is emphasised by his failed attempt to find the killer of a young Iraqi boy, who he had befriended on the base, or the scene where he takes his unit into the streets to track down some insurgents.
Bigelow and Boal are combining again on ‘Triple Frontier’, an action film based in the South American region where the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina converge. And that film is up there with my most anticipated. ‘The Hurt Locker’ is an example of the kind of intelligent action film that seems only to be made outside the studio system. It cost $9 million to make this film. By that rationale, we could have one giant, colossal piece of garbage like Transformers 2, or twenty two films like this. Tough choice.