I have no delusions about warfare, ancient or modern. Films often portray it as a heroic battlefield, offer up images of great valor and make it seem a fun place for camaraderie and adventure. I haven’t been in an active war zone, thank goodness, but I have friends who’ve served, and I’m quite clear that it’s dirty, overwhelming and terrifying. I get that.
Nonetheless, I enjoy war films but always measure them against the dual yardstick of how realistically they portray war and whether there’s a story, an interesting narrative, too. That’s why I both really liked and was left surprisingly untouched by Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.
Set in Iraq in 2004, it offers up a collection of interesting — and sporadically quite intense — scenes focused on U.S. Army Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a wild member of an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit on the front lines of the complicated war zone that is Baghdad. But the story line, the narrative progression of the film, was surprisingly weak and many scenes could easily have had their order swapped without the audience even knowing.
The film starts out with a quote that really explains the point Bigelow is making, “war is a drug”, and for James, that’s exactly what it is, even as his two squadmates, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (a nuanced performance by Brian Geraghty), try to figure out what makes him tick. Why? Because James is a fearless and undisciplined daredevil who eschews all safety rules in the interest of just walking in and defusing the bomb.
As the film progresses, we are frequently reminded of the time that they have left on their tour of duty in Iraq with titles “Days Left In Rotation:”. The first we see is when the three men have only 38 days left, and eventually it winds down to 2 days remaining before they’re rotated back to the United States and away from the war zone entirely.
Thanks to the splendid work of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, the visual style of The Hurt Locker was choppy, gritty, out of focus and it often seemed like a documentary rather than a cinematic film. It was very effective and gave us an on-the-ground sense that significantly helped the tone and realism of the film.
In that sense, I was constantly struck by how even as the soldiers were on high alert, guns at the ready, guarding the bomb squad as they disarmed various IEDs (improvised explosive devices), Iraqi civilians continued to wander around as if it were a daily occurrence. And perhaps soldiers on full alert, bombs hidden in the middle of a trash-strewn street are indeed a common sight in Baghdad, perhaps the most frightening aspect of the film.
Of course, as was made clear again and again, a soldier on the ground in a hostile war zone has no way to ascertain if a civilian is a friendly or an insurgent: as a result, they viewed every Iraqi as a potential threat, even children. And sometimes they’re right to be suspicious.
The weak link in the squad is Specialist Eldridge, who is the only character with any depth in the entire movie. He’s doing his duty, he’s part of the team, but he’s assailed by doubts and has a difficult time accepting the risk and danger he faces on a daily basis. We continually hope to get a clue about what makes Sgt James so unaffected by the dangers he faces, but never do.
A surprise ambush shows much of the philosophy of the film too: for almost the entire scene, the enemy is invisible. Without any warning, suddenly the contractors and soldiers are being killed by a long-range sniper. But where are they? How can you regain your safety – and retain your sanity – in a life-and-death situation where there is no visible enemy? In many ways, that’s the difficulty of a war like the situation in Iraq, where the oft-portrayed civilians might be as benign as a boy wanting to sell bootleg DVDs or as dangerous as the old couple who fatally trick a soldier as they plant an IED by his feet.
Don’t get me wrong, The Hurt Locker is an exciting film that offers up an astonishing and gut-wrenching view of life as a soldier in Iraq. It just doesn’t explain anything and doesn’t offer much of a clue about what’s going on within the heads of the soldiers. If you’re curious what modern warfare is like, it’s a good place to start. Just expect a film that lives somewhere in the gray area between a documentary and a fictional movie.