"War is a drug," the opening quote of The Hurt Locker tells us, and the human species' addiction to it is nearly as old as the ground on which each battle is fought. But like a bad trip, the fever dreams created by every new conflict are unique and ever-adapting. In the colonial wars, the primitive nature of weaponry required a closer range in order to fight, which also meant you knew where the danger could come from and there was no faceless enemy.
The "improved" efficiency of the war machine has accelerated the killing process, as well as distanced military personnel from those they're fighting. War has increasingly become dehumanized, and the toll that this takes on the human psyche is explored in Kathryn Bigelow's new film, in which every bystander could be your enemy and even the ground is deadly.
With 38 days left on their rotation, bomb defusion operatives Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are joined by Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), whose loose-cannon actions and aggressive maverick tendencies threaten to bring their tour of duty to a quicker end.
James has little patience for distractions while he's working, whether it be the cumbersome protective suit or the safety positioning of his lookouts, and frequently chooses to act as a solo operative, taking off his headset or ignoring orders. But he gets the job done. It is only late in the film, when the team becomes embroiled in a desert sniper shootout, that he demonstrates cooperation, actually establishing trust among his crew. Based on the observations of journalist Mark Boal--who also serves as screenwriter and producer--following his entrenchment with a military bomb squad in Iraq, the film is built around a series of "calls" the unit makes to defuse improvised explosive devices in and around Baghdad, every episode requiring different tactics as the men deal with car bombs, suicidal Mujahideen and buried land mines. With each new situation, Boal's script establishes tightly coiled scenes that hold as much tension and heart fluttering as any shoot-em-up conflict. While there are small scenes involving James' wife (Evangeline Lilly) back home, the majority of the film is about the battlefield and how our service personnel cope with this uncertain war.
It's perhaps fortunate that few of The Hurt Locker's crew are veterans of the war film genre, including notable director Bigelow (K-19: The Widowmaker) and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Wind That Shakes the Barley). The film contains no glamour, no rallying speeches, no rapid fox-fire skirmishes. Rather than the breathless panting of some war films (Blackhawk Down), The Hurt Locker uses a carefully measured cadence, its breath and movement as even as the motions required of those handling deadly explosives. But rather than flatlining, this deliberateness creates a wariness in the viewer, as we expect the worst and are always on edge. Much as I hate to think of conflict as entertainment, it's an extremely effective thriller, as well as a fascinating view of life in the field.
The Hurt Locker sits in an uncomfortable category, that of a film depicting a war still in progress. At home, we see the news clips that give glimpses of the conflict and hear the testimonies of friends who have served there, but rarely are we privy to the details of what our servicemen and women experience.
While the film may not be a completely accurate picture of their lives (I seriously doubt James would be commended so highly for such reckless behavior), it does ring true as an image of how war has changed in the last century, and the effect it has on those who serve our country. With fierce performances by a largely unknown cast and restrained and effective direction, The Hurt Locker helps complete a picture the nightly news cannot hope to show.