When it comes to movies set amidst the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Middle East, there is almost a prerequisite that they make some sort of political statement. Look at films like Lions for Lambs, Body of Lies, The Lucky Ones, Stop-Loss, Rendition, and even Charlie Wilson's War – all have their say on the current state of affairs. However, no matter how good or bad those movies are, they generally forget that there are people involved. The stories become too involved with the big picture, making grandiose statements, and telling us how we should feel that the trees are lost for the forest. Very few of them strip the message out for the people, and when they do they lose much of the power they could have had, like The Kingdom. Now we have a film that loses the political grandstanding and focuses on the reality of the situation with characters to truly care about.
Helmed by Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker puts us down on the streets with the soldiers on the front line, with the soldiers risking their lives day in and day out. Is this a tale to take as any sort of fact? Probably not. As unbelievable and exciting as reality can be, it can also often be boring and dull, meaning any film you see based on reality has invariably had its drama/action/suspense pumped up a bit in an attempt to make it a bit more watchable in a cinematic setting. That said, Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have crafted a film that goes for a realistic feel rather than absolute reality. The finished product is involving, affecting, and downright thrilling.
The Hurt Locker does not so much have a plot as it does a group of characters that we follow. Do not look at this film as a narrative; it is more like an audience being embedded with a squad as they go about their work, sort of like a reporter going out in the field. It is exciting, thrilling, frightening, and strips everything down to the essence. This is not about the dialogue, it is about people, their hopes, desires, fears, and their ability to act in the face of great stress.
At the center of our story is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). His specialty is defusing bombs, you know, the nasty improvised devices found in bags on the side of roads, packed into cars, and strapped onto people. He is very good at his job, and despite the risks he takes with his own personal safety, when it comes to operating on a bomb, he is as careful as if he were operating on his own flesh and blood — meticulous, skilled, and determined to finish his task. Always at his side is Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). He is the man charged with keeping our bomb-defusing tech safe, always with his eyes out for snipers, suspicious characters, and any other dangers that could impede James' work.
This movie is not really about catching the bomb makers; it is about making sure the bombs don't go off as well as constantly seeking the rush that the job provides. Everything ties into the quote that is used to open the film: "War is a drug." James is always looking to get that next fix. He needs to be on that line, you need him on that line… sorry, wrong movie. Still, it seems rather fitting as we watch James go through the motions, risking life and limb to not only do the job, but get back to that high again.
It is fascinating watching these men go about their business. The tension that is built up is quite palpable, literally putting me on the edge of my seat. What makes this film great is not only the way it puts you on the street with these soldiers, it is the soldiers themselves, how the characters are written and how they are performed.
The characters are written in a very internalized fashion. You need to pay attention to really get the full effect of these characters as they do not verbalize everything. They are written as people, not plot points, and it works out beautifully.
Jeremy Renner is a recognizable face that can't always be placed but this movie will put him on the map. It is an incredible performance; he carries so much behind his eyes in this role. William James is a man who knows his job, knows he is the best at it, and he knows this is where he belongs. He needs to be where the action is, but it comes at a price; it is something he will have to live with as long as he is on the job.
Bottom line. The Hurt Locker is a movie that needs to be seen. It is a first rate movie that delivers on emotional and technical levels. It is thrilling as we watch the bombs being defused, watching James search for answers, watching the difficulty with which the answers come, or don't come.