Posted by: chance47 | 01/26/2010

“The Hurt Locker”

On very rare occasions my father would make brief mention of his time in the army.  My brother’s father Steve, my surrogate uncle, would occasionally talk about old friends from his time in Vietnam.  At parties and cookouts and biker rallies, I’d see countless tattoos signifying brotherhood, minor war wounds, and hear mentions of people lost long before I was born.  Sometimes at these gatherings a conversation would stop mid sentence as a room full of factory workers and manual laborers fell silent, took a moment for a reverence or remembrance, and then continued on with their beers, their softball or their general carousing.

That was all I knew of war.

I feel that over recent years I’ve watched the military become over glamorized.  Do not misunderstand me, I highly value the armed forces;  I admire the bravery and courage of soldiers and marines.  But when I am about to sit down in a theater and I watch a five-minute music video, sandwiched between a Julia Roberts trailer and a coke commercial, about how an entire world of opportunity awaits you when you join the army, my eyes roll and truthfully my heart sinks.  A whole new generation of young people are being shown that by joining the army, you will be able to climb mountains while a crunchy 3 Doors down song plays  behind you.  We are wooing future soldiers not with dignity or honesty or sense of duty, but with glamour.

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker should be required viewing for any person looking to enlist in the armed forces.  It’s a gut-wrenching and realistic depiction of everyday life in the field.   It also happens to be the best film of 2009.

Kathryn Bigelow is one of my favorite film directors working today.  She bravely pioneers new filming techniques and utilizes dazzling camera work like all of the great action directors working, but she also employs all of these cinematic techniques in the pursuit of amazing stories full of well-drawn characters.  I wish this wasn’t such a rarity in Hollywood, but sadly it is.

The movie follows a group of three soldiers stationed in Baghdad.  They are on the final leg of their tour of duty and home is in their sights.  They are all members of an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit.  For those unaware, this is pretty much the most dangerous job in the world.  With the prevalence of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device) increasing more and more in the battlefield, these units have become extremely integral to the war on terror.   Their job is to assess and dismantle, if possible, any IED’s  that have been deteced in the war zone (or the occasional suspected device in a green zone).  These aren’t “works on art” explosive devices they are tackling.  These unstable bombs are sometimes crudely put together, wired with remote detonators, filled to the brim with shrapnel, and often hidden amongst every day objects to decrease their visibility.  EOD units commonly employ remote robotics to maximize safety, but often times have to suit up and work on the IED’s with their bare hands.  Nervous yet?

Each of these three soldiers brings a unique perspective to the story.   The film centers on Sergeant First Class William James, played by Jeremy Renner, as he becomes the new team leader of the EOD unit.  He now also has two soldiers in his command, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), and their job is to be the eyes and ears for James as he goes in to dismantle the bombs and clear the areas.   Sergeant Jame’s style doesn’t quite gel with his new teammates and that discord provides the main tension and plot of the movie.   James has his own way of dealing with IED’s.  He doesn’t send out robots to examine the area; preferring to suit up and get in close himself.  He doesn’t communicate as clearly and as close to regulations with his team members as their previous sergeant did.  James has a burning desire to seek the source of any problem, be it an intricate car bomb left out in an open plazav or the terrorists behind an open detonation in a green zone, and dispose of it quickly.  One might call him a thrill seeker.  That wouldn’t be unfair, but this goes beyond ordinary thrill seeking.  Sergeant James, has no regard for his life.  The only times he seems to be truly awake, truly energized is when his hands are wrapped around C-4 or live bomb cases.  He is extremely reckless, but also the best at what he does.

Jeremy Renner’s portrayal is nothing short of mesmerizing.   Sergeant James isn’t prone to big speeches about war or terror or injustice, but through his actions, or rather reactions, to his surroundings you know perfectly well how he feels.  When not on the job, Renner’s James drinks haphazardly, remains distantly guarded and shares as little as humanly possible with his fellow soldiers.  He is the job, and the job is volatile.  Renner is as a younger actor in Hollywood who has been due some major recognition for some time.  This should be the role that propels him forward.   He injects what few lines he has with absolute certainty.  He is able to accomplish with one look what many of today’s neophyte thespians cannot accomplish in an entire movie (Yes Mr. Gyllenhaal I am talking to you).  As played by Renner, Sergeant James is an undetonated explosive, with all of this conflict and hard-wiring lying beneath.

The two other soldiers in his team are perfect foils for him.   As Sergeant J.T Sanborn, Anthony Mackie plays the very definition of “Be All That you Can Be”.   He is the moral center of the movie.  Mackie lends a quiet dignity to the character.  You can seem him teem with anger as James continually bends and breaks rule, endangering Sanborn and his fellow soldiers, and only allows himself to lash out after a mission is over.  But underneath it all, Sanborn has a weariness.  His unwavering, unquestioning soldier mentality is beginning to be chipped away and towards the movie’s end, when he is allowed to be fully vulnerable for a moment, Mackie gives a quiet speech that is extremely moving.

Specialist Owen Eldridge is the youngest of the unit.  The greenest and perhaps the most naive.  It’s through his eyes that we see the true emotional effect of this job.  Brian Geraghty, nails this perfectly.  Watch as his nerves grow increasingly on edge during the stand-off at the movie’s midpoint.   His mind races and for a moment you think he may lose it, but Eldridge deftly carries the audience along with him as he goes from harried to collected in a matter of minutes.  Geraghty plays that line between impressionable and gullible so well, that when his views on Sergeant James as a superior are finally cemented, you see the beginnings of the man that can be carved out of being a soldier.

Rounding out the cast in brief, albeit powerful, supporting performances, are Guy Pearce as the original Team Leader of the EOD unit, Ralph Fiennes as a British Private War Contractor,  and David Morse as a Colonel in the company.  The only female in the film is portrayed by Evangeline Lilly of Television’s “Lost” fame.   It is her first considerable foray into the world of cinema and in her very brief moments makes the most of it.

The script by Mark Boal, who spent time stationed with and EOD unit in Iraq, is a sparse work of beauty.  Not a word or moment is wasted and the escalating events these soldiers find themselves facing are perfectly plotted.

The true genius of this movie, however, is Kathryn Bigelow.   Shot mostly on location in Jordan and oftentimes steps away from the Iraq border, Bigelow makes the most of her surroundings (kudos to cinematographer Barry Ackroyd for capturing the heat and arid desert days and cold and humid nights).  She is a dazzling filmmaker.  There are no tricks or gimmicks in this film.  The suspense is real and earned and all the more effective because you care and know these people.  These explosions aren’t superfluous; they aren’t Michael Bay style “intensity”.  They are spare and devastatingly accurate.  Bigelow knows the key to creating real tension is allowing the camera to linger on a moment for perhaps just a second too long.  It keeps the audience guessing.  From the first scene in the movie, the viewer is holding their breath or covering their ears, cringing from an oncoming detonation.   That is the magic of her filmwork.  Much like my favorite film from last year, Rachel Getting Married, the wonder of this film is how intimate it is and how apart of all the action the viewer is made privy to.  Bigelow puts you in the passenger seat of the Humvees and up close and personal with Sergeant James as he dismantles the bombs.  You hold your breathe when the soldiers do and you sweat right along with them.

The Hurt Locker is a visceral and important film.   It doesn’t ask you to choose sides or make a stance on war, one could argue that the film doesn’t have a stance on war.  What it portrays is the all too often overlooked human element of war.   It examines the types of people who enter into a battlefield and what that does to their humanity.  What is their mettle?  Who do they become?  For Sergeant James, the line between his job and who he is has become irrevocably blurred.  Bigelow suggests that it isn’t just his life that he is putting on the line for his country, but also his humanity.

It makes me wonder, when I was at those cookouts and parties full of all my mother’s veteran friends, if when the room grew silent it was out of reverence for a life lost or for the remembrance of what a life once was?


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