I wouldn’t have thought that a war movie, much less a contemporary war movie, could be apolitical, but The Hurt Locker comes close. Whatever the personal beliefs of director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal, their film is a relatively open text, focused not on the political implications of the U.S. military presence in Iraq but on the day-to-day experiences of a single three-man team of Army explosives technicians, tasked with dismantling improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the streets of Baghdad.
This is not to say, however, that The Hurt Locker is an morally empty experience, just guns and explosions and flash. For all the well-wrought tension and artfully constructed set pieces, the movie is powerful and thoughtful, an unflinching but compassionate look at the lives of three soldiers. Boal (whose journalistic work has been published in Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and Playboy) spent time embedded in an Army bomb squad stationed in Iraq, and that experience reveals itself in every well-observed scene and every finely drawn character. The movie feels lived-in, populated by real people, not cinematic cannon fodder or propaganda pawns but true human beings, both flawed and heroic. It’s a thrilling, engrossing, almost too intimate film.
The central protagonist is Staff Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner), an explosives expert newly assigned to lead a team for which he is a poor fit. Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) takes a cautious, by-the-book approach to explosives, and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is rattled, perhaps traumatized, desperate just to survive, so James’s rash, improvisational style angers and frightens them both. In a more conventional story, the contrast between the staff sergeant and his two subordinates would be simple and tidy, with James clearly in the right, the braver, better man, but Locker is not so easy. James is undoubtedly courageous and good at his job, so far as that goes, but his recklessness is often hard to justify. He’s a good man to have around when you’re in a dangerous spot, but seeing as how he probably got you into that dangerous spot in the first place through sheer heedlessness, you might be forgiven for being unappreciative.
In any case, the movie follows James, Sanborn, and Eldridge on some half a dozen assignments, the episodic storyline held taut by Bigelow’s masterful command of space and time. No cheap, frenetic camerawork for her and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd: in Locker, we’re always acutely aware of who is within the blast space, who is watching, and where everyone is in relationship to one another, but—crucially—we know as little as the three-man team about the motives of those around them. As James sets to work on the IEDs, Sanborn and Eldridge try to keep track of onlookers. Does that man have a cell phone? What is the man with the camera doing? If the neighboring building was cleared, who is that on the roof? The tension of not knowing—a live wire that can never be disconnected—quickly becomes palpable.
If there is a well-buried political message, it is here, in the deep mutual suspicion between the American soldiers and the Iraqis, but the movie is so observational, so tied to the experiences of three specific men, that any extrapolating is left to the viewers. For James, Sanborn, and Eldridge, the climate of mistrust is just another factor in a generally hostile environment. They don’t question it anymore than they question the harsh sun or the endless ocean of sand outside the city.
That wilderness is the site of the one of the stronger chapters in the film, an agonizing waiting game after the trio, along with a team of British mercenaries, stumbles into an insurgent ambush. One of the mercenaries is played by Ralph Fiennes, always great to watch, but ironically, his cameo, along with appearances from Guy Pearce and David Morse, is overshadowed by the performances of the three virtual unknowns in the central roles.
The lead actors flawlessly portray the volatile relationship between the three men. They subvert our expectations, refusing to be pigeonholed or stereotyped, and each deserves enormous acclaim for his achievement. Renner, though, is truly outstanding as Will James; it’s the kind of riveting work that makes you wonder why the hell you haven’t seen this guy before. Boal has written Renner a great character, certainly, but Renner has brought that character to extraordinary life, hinting quietly at the tumult of hunger and regret and incipient nihilism well hidden beneath a mask of bravado and an undeniable gift for the hazardous job he has chosen.
The movie opens with an epigraph from Chris Hedges’s award-winning book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning: “The rush of battle is a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” The line clearly foreshadows James’s reckless behavior—and the frame of addiction makes a lot of sense—yet it is to Renner’s credit that when another character calls him out on it, explicitly describing James as an adrenaline junkie, we resist the clichéd term. As portrayed by Renner, James is too complicated to be explained or condemned so easily. His is an unforgettable performance in an already unforgettable movie, all the more powerful for trusting us to follow without ideological pointers to guide our way.