Film Review: The Hurt Locker

What makes people want to dismantle bombs in a war zone? Does having what that takes make someone unable to make the rest of his life work? The new film The Hurt Locker gives viewers a gritty, realistic work at the tensions in a bomb unit in Iraq when a new team leader replaces one whose by-the-book approach failed to save him from getting killed by an insurgent. Set in the earlier years of the war, the film bristles with tension as it delivers a gripping character study of young men in a specialized area of combat.

Will James (Jeremy Renner) arrives at Camp Victory to assume leadership of a three-man team, and his reckless style immediately clashes with his two teammates, J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), even while it wins him the admiration of his CO (David Morse).  Even normal male-bonding rituals don’t resolve the conflict between a leader whose adrenalin addiction carries him further into trouble and whose squad clearly has survival more on their minds.  The film doesn’t follow a set narrative, nor does it have much of a story arc other than counting down the days until their unit returns home from its tour.  All that matters to Sanborn and Eldridge is making it to that date, but for James, that may be his worst nightmare.

Like most good war films, The Hurt Locker does not pull punches.  War is not glamorous but instead alternates between terrifying and tedious, and in one excellent scene is both.  The men dread what they may face, although they do not shrink from it, which makes their courage even more apparent.  Unlike all of the other films about Iraq, The Hurt Locker does not take a position on the politics of the war; instead, it focuses on high-tension situations for an occupying force and the populace, and the dangers of fighting an insurgency.  It almost gives a sense of suffocating paranoia, especially in the early sequences of the movie.  In that sense, the audience can appreciate The Hurt Locker without the rancor of the war debate influencing it.

Mark Boal wrote the screenplay based on his experiences as an embed with an Army bomb-disposal unit in Iraq, and his depth of knowledge is very apparent in every scene.  Boal’s dialogue sounds authentic without the overdone military lingo of other war films.  Kathryn Bigelow directed The Hurt Locker in a documentary fashion, lending another level of authenticity to the film.  It never feels false or forced, and unlike other directors these days, Bigelow reserves the use of the shaky hand-held cam effect only for those scenes where it makes sense and where it legitimately heightens the tension.  The film does not manipulate the audience, but instead gives a real insight into the urban occupation in Iraq and its affect on the troops conducting it.  Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie both shine in this film, and will receive well-deserved kudos for their work here.  Brian Geraghty’s Edridge is especially good, an Everyman grunt who feels in over his head — and who has the most to fear from James.

The Hurt Locker opened in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, and will go into wider release over this upcoming holiday weekend (I saw the film from a screener copy).  This is a must-see film, not for any particular message but for anyone interested in an honest presentation of the kind of warfare fought in Iraq.  On Thursday, I’ll interview Mark Boal on The Ed Morrissey Show in greater depth just as it opens on more screens.

Update: Mitch Berg watched it with us last night, and has his review up today.

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