A tough-as-nails picture about an elite American bomb squad stationed in Iraq - this is an almost flawless movie. The movie follows a three man bomb team, led by an impressive performance by Jeremy Renner, who portrays Sergeant William James. James is a risk-taking bomb defuser who is addicted to the adrenaline rush he gets from risking his life time and time again. He is a talented show-off and cowboy/boy scout hick, an all-american who defuses bombs like Patton eliminates opposing armies. However, his heroics are checked by the disgruntlement of the two other members of the bomb squad, whose job it is to keep him safe. It becomes clear that James is addicted to the adrenaline rush of living so close to death and his addiction eclipses everything else in his life.
The Hurt Locker captures something of the strangeness of modern warfare, in the vein of how Apoclypse Now articulated the stoned estrangement of soldiers in Vietnam. The foreign landscape of Iraq and with the huge armored suit James is helped into before each mission reminded me of the moon landing footage a la ‘For All Mankind’. The audio, which is for the most part complete silence other than James’ foot steps and breathing for stretches of time, also lends to the alien depiction of Iraq. Taking place in and around Baghdad, we witness half a dozen missions by the bomb team. In most scenes, the immediate area around the bomb has been evacuated, but dozens of people remain on their balconies looking over the three American soldiers - any of which can detonate the bomb via cellphone or other remote device. Each act is slow-burning and highly suspenseful - it doesn’t have the same satisfaction of a balls-out gunfight, but the anonymity of the bomb and the performances by the soldiers ratchets up the intensity. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, never takes the bait and associates an individual or group to the planted explosives - it is guerilla warfare at its most uncontrollable and vicious. The detonators or potential detonators of the live bombs remain invisible and despite attempts by James, they remain invisible. He seems to both thrive on the rush of not knowing, but also hates their anonymity because he can never gain substantial closure after the threat is neutralized. In the perp’s place, James has an assortment of ‘souvenirs’ from his closest shaves in a box under his bed - basically bits and parts of the deadliest bombs he has defused (this box being the inspiration for the title of the film ). Impressive as well, is how the political is rarely, if ever, directly addressed. There are no comments by the soldiers about foreign policy or rallys for or against the government - the focus remains on the three men in the bomb unit and what effect living under constant threat of death has on their psychology. All the same, it remains politically charged cinema and is potently clear that there is no ‘winning’ to be done in Iraq. The soldiers are isolated from their homes and only their guns are treated with callous respect by the Iraqi population.
My highest recommendation and worth seeing a couple times through.