The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker

the hurt locker
Directed by kathryn bigelow

The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s white-knuckle drama about a U.S. Army bomb squad in Baghdad, will be the first Iraq war movie to open across America since our forces pulled out of the city. Granted, when Bigelow started shooting the movie in Jordan in July 2007, the surge was still going strong, and when The Hurt Locker premiered in September 2008 at the Venice film festival, the word timetable was still politically radioactive. But when the movie finally arrives in flyover country this month, it will be the first combat drama about Iraq to chronicle a past operation instead of one that’s ongoing. Strangely, it will be history.

In fact The Hurt Locker feels like a movie made long after a war, when the politics surrounding it have dissipated and people can look squarely at what happened and how it felt to the men and women on the ground. The great dramas about combat in Vietnam, Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), didn’t arrive for more than a decade after the last helicopter lifted off from the American embassy in Saigon. By then the tragedy of the Vietnam war had begun to merge with the tragedy of all wars, and both movies became classics of their specific conflict because, paradoxically, they made that conflict universal. Such is the extraordinary achievement of The Hurt Locker: it has the perspective of years when those years have yet to pass.

The movie was written by Mark Boal, an embedded journalist in Iraq whose nonfiction story in Playboy inspired Paul Haggis’s wrenching antiwar drama In the Valley of Elah (2007). That movie, in which a father confronts the brutal truth about his late son’s combat experience, stood head and shoulders above any other dramatic feature about Iraq when it was released. But contrasted with The Hurt Locker, it seems firmly rooted in the stateside politics surrounding the U.S. invasion, just as The Deer Hunter and Coming Home (both from 1978) sprang more from domestic feelings about Vietnam than from anything soldiers really experienced. In The Hurt Locker there are no liberals or conservatives, no doves or hawks, no bromides about freedom on the march or trading blood for oil. The soldiers here fall into two groups: those who count the days until they can go home and those who, returned home, count the days until they can go back.

Among the latter is Staff Sergeant William James, a cocky explosives specialist who’s defused more than 800 IEDs in Afghanistan when he arrives in Baghdad to finish out the last six weeks of Bravo Company’s deployment. Played by Jeremy Renner (a fine young actor best known as the title character in the 2002 biopic Dahmer), Sergeant James recalls that line Martin Sheen used in Apocalypse Now to describe Robert Duvall’s crazed cavalry officer: “You just knew he wasn’t gonna get so much as a scratch here.” When James pops open the trunk of a car to find it jam-packed with explosives, his response is to pull off his 80-pound, steel-plated bomb suit and set to work in his T-shirt. “There’s enough bang in there to blow us all to Jesus,” he tells a fellow soldier. “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die comfortable.”

A shameless hotdog, James immediately alienates his two partners on the bomb squad—Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty)—who’ve just seen their last IED expert blown to Jesus and have no interest in joining him. After their first mission with James, when he blindsides them by setting off a diversionary smoke bomb, Eldridge reminds the fuming Sanford that they’ll be rid of James after 39 days. “Thirty-eight if we survive today,” Sanford replies. The tension between him and James escalates with each mission: tired of Sanford nagging him over the radio, James yanks off his headset in the middle of an operation; once he’s neutralized the IED, Sanford punches him out. Sanford even toys with the idea of fragging the new man, suggesting to Eldridge during a desert mission that they detonate a cache of shells on James and pass his death off as an accident.

Despite the war of wills between James and Sanborn, the movie’s philosophical antagonists turn out to be James and Eldridge. The sudden, horrifying death of Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce), the squad’s previous explosives expert, has scared the hell out of Eldridge, a quiet young man who just wants to get out of Iraq alive. Talking about the incident with his commanding officer, an Ivy League man with plenty of smooth advice but no experience in the field, Eldridge pulls the trigger of his unloaded rifle again and again to emphasize how quickly the situation turned fatal: “Here’s Thompson. He’s dead—he’s alive—he’s dead—he’s alive.” The story takes place in 2004, at the height of the insurgency, and during the missions inside the city Bigelow masterfully ratchets up the suspense: one thing specific to this conflict is the soldiers’ gnawing paranoia as Iraqi civilians watch from windows and rooftops. Are they innocent bystanders, or conspirators waiting to see them killed?

Fear and courage are constant themes in the war genre, which makes the uneasy alliance between James and Eldridge the most interesting thing about The Hurt Locker. Out in the desert, the squad is ambushed by insurgent snipers operating from a building in the distance, and Eldridge struggles to keep his cool in this deadly predicament. “I’m gonna keep you safe, buddy,” James tells him, trying to calm him down so he can function; tellingly, James’s tenderest moment comes when they’re closest to getting killed. Back in the barracks Eldridge admits how frightened he was, and James replies, “Well, everyone’s a coward about one thing.” We never learn what that one thing is for him—he appears to be utterly fearless. But as he too begins to crack under the stress, his fearlessness seems less like courage and more like psychosis.

James and Eldridge may have antithetical responses to danger. But in their proximity to it they share more than either does with their commanding officers, whose responses are considerably more detached. After one of James’s more reckless episodes in the field, he’s congratulated by the macho Colonel Reed (David Morse), whose eyes shine as he announces, “You’re a wild man! You know that? I want to shake your hand.” Reed’s opposite number is Colonel Cambridge (Christian Camargo), the impotent college man whose counsel carries so little weight with Eldridge. “This doesn’t have to be a bad time in your life,” he tells Eldridge, though he spends most of his time behind a desk. When Cambridge does come out onto the streets, he’s almost comically ineffectual, trying to schmooze some Iraqi civilians who stonily ignore him.

Bigelow opens the movie with a quotation from the war correspondent Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is often a lethal and potent addiction, for war is a drug.” That observation tells us all we need to know about William James, whose two comrades may not appreciate the drug’s potency but are forced to share in its potential lethality. It also goes a fair way toward explaining the invasion of Iraq, whose political rationales crumbled one after another, leaving nothing but the suspicion that many Americans love war as long as we’re winning. Those who hate it can complain all they want, but if history is any indication, they almost always get dragged along for the ride.