dir: Kathryn Bigelow
There hasn’t really yet been an overwhelmingly great film set during and about the current Iraqi adventure. The ones I recall that at least have war footage of brave marines and army grunts fighting the cowardly Iraqi civilian menace, being Home of the Brave, Stop-Loss, um, the Transformers flicks, In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom (yes, I know it’s set in Saudi Arabia) um, and that’s about it. None of these really worked. If you’re a war booster, or chickenhawk, they failed because they weren’t gung-ho enough, and were all focussed on issues like post-traumatic-stress disorders and feeling bad about killing civilians, instead of being all rah-rah patriotic, manly and superheroically heroic. You know, like Rambo.
The documentaries have fared a bit better, but until now, Iraq War II has been poorly represented in the feature film category. The Hurt Locker, by one of America’s only well known mainstream female directors, corrects the imbalance, and is both a good film and a good war film. It’s not great, because it has a quarter of the flick that doesn’t really cohere (I would say being the third quarter of a two hour flick), and the very end is at odds with the beginning and the end, but it's still pretty damn good.
Despite the mixed opinions regarding the other flicks, and the reasons for their failures, what this gets right is the focus on the actual day to day activities of a bomb disposal unit that’s recently lost its main guy (played briefly by Australia’s Own Guy Pearce). Their new guy is very different in both manner and attitude from their recently departed one, and this leads to confusion, yelling, hurt feelings, and an explosive shitload of tension. These guys, after all, are tasked with defusing unexploded ordinance and the far more pernicious and deadly IEDs that insurgents resourcefully cobble together with the intention of killing their occupying overlords and masters.
The Iraq depicted is more the current sullen, brooding and only occasionally explosive war theatre of the last couple of years, as opposed to the insurgents fighting in the streets and mosques of Fallujah pre-Surge and pre- the Mahdi Army melting back into the shadows to bide their time era. As the film opens, a three man team is going out to deal with a bomb. Actually, they send a robot out first, which just goes to show that all those sci-fi films where the robots rise up against the humans are perfectly justified, since they’re treated as lower than immigrants. It’s a well-oiled machine of a team, with a very tight set of procedures and protocols, all focussed on both getting the job done and on maximising the safety of the team’s members.
Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) acts as the eyes and ears, oversees and provides cover, watches for shooters or guys holding awfully suspicious looking electronics in their hands whilst the main guy does his thing. Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), specialist rank meaning that he’s a private, looks and acts like the scared hayseed every American war film requires, and listens intently to every word Sanborn says, terrified that something’s going to go wrong, or that he won’t be able to make a decision.
Staff Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce) is the guy who puts on the huge padded suit, and whose job it is to actually disarm the bombs. Despite the precautions taken, the tightness of their routine and their adaptability in the face of eventualities, Thompson isn’t around for long. Very clearly the forces at play with these kinds of explosives is represented to us, in a basic physics sense, so that we can understand just how easily these poor bastards can and will lose their lives while every bone in their body is pulverised, puffy suits or no puffy suits, protocols or no protocols.
Staff Sergeant Thompson is replaced with Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner), who, right off the bat, gets Sanborn’s back up because he does things his own way. He doesn’t gratefully accept every nervous piece of advice Sanborn gives out to him, he doesn’t follow their procedures, and he mostly just wants to do his own thing regardless of the risk, or perhaps because of the risks involved.
In perhaps the only bit of political commentary in the flick, he gets the immortal line just after an aggressive Iraqi citizen he’s stared down is slapped around by some grunts: “Well, if he wasn’t an insurgent before, he’s an insurgent now.”
He attacks each bomb, each life-threatening situation with relish, with mustard, with anything he can in order to spice things up. It doesn’t seem so much that he has a death wish, because finding a cheap and easy way to die in Iraq would seem to be pretty basic. The effort comes in finding ways to avoid myriad forms of death, one would think.
There is real tension between James, Sanborn and Eldridge, but that’s because they’re all coming from different places. Eldridge, having seen his former section leader die in front of him, sees the possibility of death in every second, in every moment, and it, understandably, terrifies him. Sanborn is more chilled, but he draws comfort from the procedures and protocols they used to have in place prior to James coming along, and he draws none from watching James act like a nonchalant cowboy.
James routinely takes the protective gear off, switches off comms to shut up the voices in his head (his two other section members, not schizophrenia), and makes it his personal mission to disarm the bombs even when they don’t have to, working and worrying at bombs, detonators and everything else as if they’re challenging but harmless puzzles instead of monstrously destructive explosive devices intended to rend and obliterate Sunni, Shiite and American flesh.
It’s never made too explicit, but it’s implied that James has seen too much carnage, and that he’s a danger addict, requiring an adrenalin thrill on a regular basis in order to feel normal. Personally I figure they’re representing him as the romanticised ideal of the US military type who’s got the thousand yard stare because of all the action he’s seen on multiple rotations in Afghanistan and Iraq but who isn’t obviously disturbed by what he’s seen. If it wasn’t insulting to bring up aspects of the Japanese Bushido code, especially in an American war flick, I’d mention that James is kind of like the samurai ideal of a warrior who has accepted death and therefore can no longer be made afraid by it. But that would be insulting to all the American GIs who contracted lethal venereal diseases from geishas and choked on infected sushi back in the day after Japan was conquered back in the 1940s, so I won’t. Honest.
The tensions keep rising, but, like all war flicks, the boys become buddies through a combination of coming under fire, killing some hajis, drinking booze and punching each other in the stomach. As each day passes, though, we see how much closer Baker Company gets towards the end of its rotation, and how much closer guys like Sanborn and Eldridge are to getting home in one piece. Of course, anyone who’s ever seen any war flick knows the closer a film gets to the end of a tour of duty, or rotation, the more likely the people we’re watching are to die in horrible and painful ways.
The scenes where the three guys get involved in set pieces or actions are superbly filmed, with palpable tension, claustrophobia and a tremendous feeling of both the danger involved with what they’re trying to disarm, and the multitude of threats available in the local populace, many of whom sullenly look on hoping perversely that the US soldiers will fuck things up and die, even if such explosions would probably kill the Iraqi spectators as well.
And then there’s the ever-present fear of sniper fire. The team accidentally get waylaid when interacting with some British mercenaries (led, curiously, by Ralph Fiennes in a tiny cameo), and spend a long, tension-filled day dreading a bullet from a distance sufficient for the bullet to hit before they’ve even heard the shot.
There are so many great elements to that sequence, down to the difficulties they face due to the heat haze, the distance, the dust, the cunning of their adversary who tries to flank them using a goat herd as cover, to the need to wash the blood off an ammunition clip prior to using in their own sniper rifle due to the fact that the bullets inside it are drenched in blood.
All the action scenes are well constructed and edited together. Thankfully, there’s no excess of shaky handheld obscuring the action and causing seizures in the viewer. The level of detail and the appreciation for the complexity of the situation on the ground put this film far ahead of the other Iraqi Adventure II movies that have attempted and failed to do something similar. Even if it was filmed in Jordan, it feels as real as we’re ever likely to see in a film of its nature.
The other scene that provides a tremendous visual image as well as a classic “oh fuck” moment for the audience involves James working to diffuse one bomb, only to discover that it’s attached to about a dozen others.
Less successful is a diversion the film takes into the Iraqi night, as James gets involved in something involving a local kid who sells pirate DVDs who calls himself Beckham, which didn’t really make a lot of sense to me in the end. Though the horrible detail of a “corpse” bomb is confronting enough, James’s plunge into the Iraqi night for answers seems less like the actions of a righteous adrenalin junkie, and more like the actions of a vengeful drunk who probably ends up slumped in the gutter in front of his ex-girlfriend’s apartment at 3 in the morning, sobbing as he tries and fails to send her a text message begging to be let in.
Not that I’m talking from bitter personal experience, or anything.
It’s all filmed just as well as the rest of the flick, but I don’t know how well that bit connects with what precedes and follows it. In the end I guess it doesn’t really matter that much. What happens on the ground matters, and the lack of perspective, the lack of political commentary, the lack of forest for the trees actually ends up helping the flick and making it more dynamic.
The final image of the film, the way it is filmed, the soundtrack and such, I would argue is at profound odds with the rest of the flick, because it changes from being a compelling war flick to being an ad for army recruitment, but that’s where Kathryn Bigelow wanted it to go, and that’s where they went with it. Personally I can see that such an ending would have a very different impact upon myself than it would for an American male my age or younger, but that’s okay. I’m not sure if it was meant to be energising or depressing (it depressed me, at least), but it works both ways, and it still caps off what is a tense, intense action flick.
Let’s just not think about all those dead innocent Iraqi civilians, shall we?
8 times this is Bigelow’s best film since Near Dark out of 10
“There's enough bang in there to blow us all to Jesus. If I'm gonna die, I want to die comfortable.” – The Hurt Locker.