'The Hurt Locker' Raises the Bar For Iraq War Movies

Kathryn Bigelow's war thriller eschews politics for visceral experience

If moviegoers are ever going to overcome their apathy for films set against the backdrop of the Iraq war, now would be a good time to do it. Equal parts drama, war movie, and thriller, The Hurt Locker is an outstanding character-driven action film that eschews the politics of the Iraq war in favor of a visceral exploration of a singularly deadly environment—a place where the difference between life and death is measured in millimeters and microseconds. If any movie this summer has earned a "must-see" label, this is it.

We've all seen the T-shirts that say something like, "Bomb squad: If you see me running, try to keep up." The main characters of The Hurt Locker do just the opposite—they're members of a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, and their job is to deal with the things everyone else is trying to get as far away from as possible. After a nerve-jangling opening sequence, the team gets a rowdy new leader: Staff Sgt. William James (a fantastic Jeremy Renner), whose cavalier attitude soon puts him at odds with his colleagues. Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) only want to keep their heads down and survive the final 39 days of their deployment, but James' rodeo approach to the job seems as dangerous as the explosives they're called in to neutralize.

James has disarmed nearly 900 bombs throughout his career, so he's no stranger to donning a bulky "blast suit" and strolling into the most dangerous places on Earth. The problem is, he likes it. A lot. As their tour draws to a close, Sanborn and Eldridge become less concerned with surviving the war than with surviving their new team leader.

We soon begin to realize that The Hurt Locker isn't really about the Iraq war at all. Though it deals in specifics with a relatively new type of warfare, its tale of a soldier addicted to battle could have taken place during any war in recent history. Reduce it to even broader strokes, and its characters could wield swords and shields as easily as M-16s and Kevlar body armor. "War is a drug," the opening title card tells us, and it's apparently a powerful one. James only seems happy when someone is trying to kill him. He thrives on violence, even as he abhors the devastation it leaves in its wake. He's a fascinating character, and difficult to get a handle on.

There's no downtime in The Hurt Locker. Whether its characters are working, playing, or sleeping, the threat of violent death is constant and palpable. Besides the insurgents who routinely engage them in firefights, the environment itself is toxic. Every object is a possible threat; a man with a cellphone is no less deadly than one with a machine gun. It makes for an incredibly tense and sometimes exhausting experience for the viewer. It's ridiculous to say that a movie can convey what it's like to be in combat, but The Hurt Locker might be as close as narrative film can get. Shot documentary-style on Super 16mm with as many as four "discrete" camera crews, the sense of immediacy and immersion is nothing short of remarkable. That's as it should be; journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal conceived the film while he was embedded with a U.S. Army EOD unit in 2004, and the movie was filmed in Jordan, sometimes only miles from an actual war zone. Many of the actors are displaced Iraqi refugees. The cast and crew claims to have been shot at while filming, which might explain why the performances are so very believable.

Let's go ahead and escort the elephant out of the room, shall we? Though it's high time we cease to notice the gender of a film's director regardless of its genre, it's impossible to deny a bit of sisterly pride that the best war movie in years was helmed by a woman. The Hurt Locker is the great film that her fans always suspected Kathryn Bigelow had in her. The director, who became a cult favorite with the bloody 1987 vampire opus Near Dark, has long been known as "that chick who makes cool action movies." This time around, though, she's less interested in the stylized violence that earned her a considerable reputation in the late '80s and early '90s with movies like Blue Steel and Strange Days. Instead, she focuses on the almost unbearably taut moments that lead up to the sort of bloody confrontations that were once her calling card.

With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow has finally come into her own as a filmmaker. There are occasional concessions to her trademark fondness for gimmicky touches like slow motion—spent ammo jackets dance and twirl as they're ejected, the ground ripples beneath soldiers' boots in the blast wave of an IED detonation—but they're used sparingly enough to be effective.

The Hurt Locker is an unqualified success both as a thought-provoking rumination on war and violence and as an exhilarating, breathtaking action movie. Like the best films of its genre, it's tough to watch at times, but it's even tougher to turn away.