Many Iraq war veterans bashed “The Hurt Locker” last year, upset by its inaccuracies and “fantasies” about combat operations as well as bomb ordnance disposal protocol and, more seriously, a wrong notion of the military chain of command (check out iMDB user reviews). At the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, some commentators said that by depicting war as a testosterone-led, adrenaline-charged macho thing, the movie became an unwitting propaganda for army recruitment.
The film’s catch tag, “war is a drug,” was culled from a sentence written by journalist Chris Hedges, but the idea first found eloquent expression in William Broyles Jr.’s 1984 piece about the Vietnam War in Esquire magazine, “Why Men Love War.”
Do those valid arguments about the film detract from its merits as a film? Could it hold on to its status as an instant classic and join the list of all-time greats? Judging by my recent trip to the multiplex, the answers are, respectively, no and possibly.
Watching “The Hurt Locker” can be as troubling as the thud of a bullet piercing through the skull or as pulsating as blood running through the veins of a male in danger, in heat, or on a high. Whether to react with fear and loathing or rate it (to quote the story’s commanding officer) as “hot sh*t” is entirely up to the viewer. But few would walk away unmoved or underwhelmed.
I finally saw the movie seven months after it won the Oscar Best Picture award of 2009 and a year of critical acclaim. Being embedded among a few hundred young adults was a bonus because it placed me among a highly responsive audience, people whom I imagined to be only beginning to ask questions about peace, war and death, in between mall trips, video games and the next college exam. This is a post-Cold War generation who has nevertheless witnessed war, conflict and terrorism on some vicarious, media-sustained level.
It’s easy to accept director Kathryn Bigelow’s and war witness/screenwriter Mark Boal’s claim of not having any political agenda, since the entire film is the hard evidence of it. It bears no trace of sermonizing or polemic on the war in Iraq. They simply set out to capture the reality of the lives of bomb disarmament experts. And capture it they did in scene after gritty scene. But in doing so, they also managed to shed light on the bigger picture, of the war’s raw brutality and the zones of hell it has engendered. In some subversive way, that’s a statement in itself.
Their success hinges on that of Sgt. 1st Class William James and his two partners in the bomb disposal squad. Bigelow found a perfect James in actor Jeremy Renner, his face still with a layer of baby fat, half-innocent, half-neurotic and all stoic. His eyes twinkle with childish glee as he jokes about male sperm and his dream of setting up a grass business (lawn grass, not the type that creates a high) in Iraq. Those same eyes stare with glints of excitement and fascination on the tangles of wiring and ignition contact points that he must cut off if he is to cheat death, for the 871st time. They convey exactly the “lust of the eye” that Broyles cites in his essay (he also uses an X-rated word).
The bomb suit is James’s defining look, like an astronaut’s gear on the lunar landscape of the war zone, and akin to a decontamination worker fighting toxic blight or a virus that has mutated from some fanatical political and religious ideology.
Bigelow and editor Chris Innis may not have had the frame-by-frame blueprint of a Hitchcock or a Kurosawa film, yet the editing in “The Hurt Locker” has the exact same effect. Choosing from the raw footage generated by four cameras simultaneously filming any scene must have been intimidating. But the result is thrilling in its pacing, orchestral in its mix of quick cuts, slow pans, shifting points of view and slow motion.
To these, the audience of Generation Y-ners reacts with surprising honesty. The single sequence in the movie that is set in a desert — where the bomb removal techs encounter a Western mercenary group followed by an ambush by local insurgents — is a virtuoso performance in direction, camera work and editing, producing one of the finest examples of fusion between audience and film that I have seen. The simple close-up of a fly alighting on an eyelid at a nail-biting moment drew gasps. Every bulls-eye gunshot elicited either a groan (for the allies) or gleeful applause (against the terrorists). Rather than being a sign of taking sides, the applause was really more an expression of relief and wonder.
The enemy is clear, ever present and even more dangerous and he unhinges viewers precisely because he’s shadowy and shown only in paranoid glimpses, and even then no one is ever sure who the bad guys are. We never get close enough to a single bomber, only to the victims and the bomb removers who stand between them. The closest contact with the enemy is through their obscene instruments of mass destruction, metallic, bathed in granite black and often phallic in form.
Surprisingly good with the Mideast cast, Bigelow has less success in her patchy handling of James’s colleagues, the doctrinaire Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie in a solid performance) and emotionally fragile Specialist Owen Olridge (the promising Brian Geraghty). Sanborn’s sudden urge to kill James during one operation strains the psychological profile of his character. But the muscular trio shares several perfect ensemble moments, especially in that crazy, drunken rite of male bonding near the end.
Motivation is never explicit in this movie, but it rears its timid head now and then. What propels this movie to the status of an instant classic is the same impulse that gives James’ steps extra swagger as he walked, cowboy-like, in his new bomb suit at the close of the movie, the lust to stare at death squarely in the eye.