Of the many dramatic movies that have been made about Iraq, "The Hurt Locker," which is about Army bomb-squad technicians in Baghdad, is the only one that conveys with the utmost vividness a documentarylike immediacy. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, shot with four lightweight cameras, and the imagery is rarely still. The jitteriness is appropriate for a world where everything can suddenly blow to smithereens.
The script is by Mark Boal, whose journalism was the basis for the story behind Paul Haggis's "In the Valley of Elah," about a father trying to discover how his soldier son died after returning from Iraq. Boal was embedded in Iraq with an explosive ordnance disposal squad, and this helps give "The Hurt Locker," set in presurge 2004, its core of verity. The drills, the vernacular, the missions all seem freshly observed. Bigelow's gift for orchestrating violence works especially well in this context because so much of the violence in the movie erupts with such stunning irregularity. She keeps us on edge throughout.
Unlike most war movies, "The Hurt Locker" focuses on just a few soldiers. By-the-book Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are closing out their 38 remaining days in Baghdad as Bravo Company bomb disposal experts when their team is taken over by the cowboyish Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who is anything but by-the-book.
Blithely waving aside the standard precautionary measures, James strides into each bomb site as if he were invincible. He's reckless, and possibly dangerous to his men, who at one point contemplate fragging him, but even they have to admit he's a whiz at dismantling explosives – 873 to date, by his count. (He keeps as souvenirs the cleverest of the insurgents' wiring mechanisms.)
Taken purely as a combat movie, "The Hurt Locker" is impeccably done. Bigelow captures the sudden-death reality of the Baghdad streets (shot in Jordan) as well as anybody ever has. Boal's taut script, with its pitch-perfect ear for military lingo, almost never lapses into Hollywoodese.
Renner gives a full-bore performance of great individuality and industriousness, but essentially his character is as glamorized as any classic Westerner. (He's not called a cowboy for nothing.) He's the guy that, like him or not, gets the dirty job done. For the most part, Sanborn and Eldridge serve as his foils.
At its most dramatically complex, "The Hurt Locker" is about an adrenaline junkie whose double-edged heroism threatens those he has pledged to protect. But Bigelow doesn't push it. James is not a "dark" character. There is nothing specific to Iraq about his deathly fixations. We never really hear him (or the other soldiers, for that matter) talk politics. What Bigelow is saying is that, ultimately, all wars, regardless of the reasons they are fought, boil down to one mantra – survive.
James, who may have a king-size death wish, is constantly testing his invulnerability. He lusts for another go-round in the killing fields. Is Bigelow saying that Iraq created a man like James, who can't abide the normalcy of noncombat life? If so, she hasn't give us enough of him to judge. For all we can tell, James was recklessly gung-ho long before he encased himself in body armor. The sanctification of macho in "The Hurt Locker" is a bit much. It takes pot shots, for example, at the company psychiatrist (Christian Camargo) who counsels the men without having the guts to join them in the field. Although James at one point says that "everybody's a coward about something," the only thing he seems afraid of is settling down with his wife and kid. (A standard Westerner trope.) In one of the film's rare hackneyed moments, he calls them from Baghdad but hangs up rather than speak to them.
By placing such a premium on docu-realism, Bigelow limits herself. If the convolutions of James's character had truly been measured, she would have had to radically alter her in-your-face stylistics and risk the land mines of in-depth psychological dramaturgy. But then she might have made a great film instead of a really good one. Grade: A- (Rated R for war violence and language.)