I would dare to say that I’ve reviewed close to a hundred war movies on this blog. Most of those deal with WWII, usually with a sense of pride and valor. Coming in second would be Vietnam, with a more jaded and anti-war agenda. Then there were some dealing with WWI, the Civil War and other wars spread throughout the history of the world. Until The Hurt Locker, there was not one good movie made about the war going on in Iraq.
In a way, it seems that a typical war film has gone out of style at the Oscars. Since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, the only other nominated film focusing on soldiers in action was Letters From Iwo Jima, and that took on the Japanese perspective of WWII. More often, we find war just to be the background and setting for twenty-first century films, like The Pianist or Atonement.
What I’m trying to say is that it takes a leap of faith and some real balls to make gritty modern war film these days. Those balls belong to Kathryn Bigelow, who fearlessly brings us a story of men on an army bomb squad in an Iraqi city. There, everyone is a possible enemy and nearly anything could be a possible bomb. We quickly sense how nerve-wracking this life is.
It may look like fun at first, playing with the cool little robot to get a look at the possible explosive from a safe distance, but we quickly realize how things can go dangerously wrong in a flash. The term kill-zone is used in the most accurate sense. It’s scary to think of that as just part of a normal on-the-job vocabulary.
The Hurt Locker does some of the best moments of suspense in recent film history. Paraphrasing Hitchcock, it is not the sound of the bang that brings suspense, it’s the anticipation. Over and over throughout the film, we’re watching men defuse bombs. That in itself screams suspense, but add in a reckless character, and his crew scouting out onlookers on balconies and rooftops wondering if any of them hold the detonator. You won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen and won’t even realize that you’re holding your breath.
Men like Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) realize the constant danger far too well and becomes obsessed with the fact that he could be dead at any moment. It’s not healthy to dwell on the risks of this job too much. On the other hand, it doesn’t help that Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) puts himself in unnecessary danger.
James focuses on being on the brink of demise in a different way. He thrives on it. Like an artist in the zone, he is at his finest when he is trying to figure out how to defuse a bomb. Simply put, he is a real expert about things that are meant to blow up and kill him. There’s a feeling of swagger and power about him and he loves wearing the padded suit. Besides taking rough chances, he is an excellent soldier. Though it’s what he is best at, James isn’t the kind of guy who cares about medals or rank. Under his bed, he keeps bits of bombs he’s defused, “things that nearly killed me” he calls them. Back home he has baby son and ex-wife, those are the things he doesn’t know how to handle, so he keeps coming back to Iraq for more.
“The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”