The Hurt Locker

There’s no romance in The Hurt Locker. No long ecstatic shots of rugged desert landscapes. No timeless Babylonian ruins or breathtaking Islamic architecture.

There’s no politics and no patriotism either. The war in this film is focused on a small group of American soldiers, one of whom is addicted to his job. Is he an adrenaline junkie, a techie perfectionist, or an idealist who risks his life in order to keep others alive? Yes.

It’s Baghdad, 2004, the height of the Iraq war. Only 39 days to go in the rotation of Bravo Unit. Everyone is, and has been, in the “hurt locker,” that slang phrase for a miserable place of mental and physical pain. If you’re lucky, the “locker” will only be the excruciating heat and non-stop vigilance of urban warfare. If you’re not lucky, it will be your flag-draped coffin.

The three-man Explosive Ordinance Detail, the bomb disposal unit, is on another mission in the trash-strewn, treeless streets of the ravaged city. Even though the EOD can do 10 to 15 missions every 24 hours, it’s never routine–any mission can blow any one of the men, or all of them, sky-high at any moment. They’re all volunteers and their mortality rate is five times higher than any other unit in the war. They take immense pride in their work and they also can’t wait until it’s over.

The Hurt Locker is femme action director Katherine Bigelow’s (K-19: The Widowmaker) first film in seven years and displays her unique no-holds-barred take-it-to-the-limit style. Ace British cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (Unit 93), wields his jerky hand-held 16mm cameras as if they are extensions of the soldiers’ brain waves. Locker looks like the way soldiers under fire see themselves–in quick jerks, confined in the Humvee, constantly looking for threats, look here, look there, catch the details, no time for the larger picture, no time to think, just keep looking out for the next flicker of distraction that means you’re going to get shot to pieces.

A small robot clunks its way to a pile of trash suspected of hiding bombs. Sure enough, full of explosives. Now it’s time for the humans to take over. Team leader bomb tech Sgt. Matt Thomson (Guy Pearce, Traitor), suits up in the 120-degree heat in his steel-plated, 100-some pound protective gear that makes him look like a moon-walking astronaut. Meanwhile by-the-book Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, We Are Marshall), and scared-to-numbness Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, We Are Marshall) keep their eyes peeled and rifles pointed, searching for snipers. Look out—there’s a butcher in a street-side stall waving a cell phone. Is he innocently calling his nephew on the other side of town or keying in the code to remotely detonate the bomb? No time to ask questions. And none of the soldiers speak Arabic anyway. All hell breaks loose. The bomb explodes in a geyser of smoke and soot. Sgt. Thompson flees, but his face mask is spattered in blood. He’s arrived at his hurt locker, another unsung hero of the EOD.

There’s no time for Sanborn or Eldridge to grieve. The new bomb tech arrives almost immediately in the person of SSgt. William James (Jeremy Renner, TV’s The Unusuals). Unlike their former unit leader, the new guy is a hot-shot maverick, who charges to his own drummer. He throws caution to the wind, even going so far as to work on the bombs without his protective gear. “If I’m going to die,” he says, “I might as well die comfortable.”

The bombs are the staff sergeant’s fire-eating dragons, but he doesn’t battle them with brute strength. He respects the wired-up monsters, and he disarms them as if he’s a surgeon delving into their delicate parts. Fascinated by their lethal ingenuity, James takes souvenirs as tokens of his admiration for the skill of the men trying to kill him. To date he’s disposed of 893 bombs. “Wild man,” Colonel Reed (David Morse, TV’s John Adams) calls him, baring his admiration for all the other men to see. “Wild man!”

But James’ teammates aren’t so admiring. They fear that his refusal to abide by the rules might get them all killed. As the rotation nears its end, the animosity between Sanborn and James escalates and Sanborn seriously considers blowing his boss up when there are no witnesses. Meanwhile specialist Eldridge is convinced he’s going home in a body bag. He tries to confide his anxiety to Col. John Cambridge (Christian Camargo, TV’s Dexter) and challenges the gentle counselor to join him in the field to see first hand what the unit goes through.

James befriends a “base brat,” a young Iraqi boy nicknamed Beckham (Christopher Sayegh). When the team finds a boy’s bomb-laden body in an empty warehouse, James assumes it’s Beckham and that the boy was chosen for sacrifice because of their friendship. He digs the bomb out of the boy’s chest and carries out his mutilated body for proper burial. Crazed with anguish, he tries to track down the boy’s murderers, mistakenly charging into the homes of homes of innocent Iraqi citizens.

Out on patrol in the desert, the trio runs into British contractors, led by Ralph Fiennes (In Bruges), who have captured Iraqi insurgents for the rewards they’ll bring. Without warning, all of the men are attacked by snipers in a nearby ruin. Not yet used to the fact that men are killed all the time in this movie, no matter what their military rank or celebrity rating is, the audience is totally shocked to see what happens during this attack. The Hurt Locker makes its point. War is no respecter of position. Death comes without preamble. Get used to it.

Just two days until the men can go home. There’s a huge detonation in the city center that the men must investigate. They don’t have to do anything more, just look at the damage. But SSgt. James is convinced he can tell exactly where the bombers hid while directing the detonation, and he insists the team accompany him to find the enemy. Their protests fall on deaf ears. He orders them to set off into the darkened streets, following the trail of men who are sworn to kill them on sight. For SSgt. James, the closer he comes to going home, the more involved in the war he becomes. He is ruled now only by adrenaline and the need to balance the score. There’s no national agenda to the war now. It’s totally personal.

The characters in The Hurt Locker are so real and the tension is so high that the images of the war are seared onto your brain. I saw the movie two weeks ago and can’t stop thinking about it. Part of the film’s power is due to the contribution of young writer Marc Boal, who was a journalist embedded with a bomb unit in Iraq. His real experiences give the movie the ring of authenticity that no amount of desk-bound imagination could match. (He also wrote the story on which the excellent 2007 film, In the Valley of Elah was based.)

Rightly so, this low-budget film, shot on location in Jordan and without cooperation of the U.S. military, has already won numerous awards and is slowly gaining the accolades of audiences worldwide. Don’t miss it.

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