Actionscifi's Blog


Spoilers in orange.

If you set your war movie amid the most controversial conflict for a generation, do you have to put it in context? To lay the war bare and allow your viewers to draw some conclusions? According to Kathryn Bigelow, director of the multi-Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.

Instead, Bigelow crafts an intense but narrow war movie in the mould of Black Hawk Down.  It’s really a three-hander about a renegade bomb-disposal expert, William James (Jeremy Renner) and the other two members of his unit, Owen Aldridge (Brian Geraghty) and JT Sanborne (Anthony Mackie).  As you would expect from the director of Point Break and Blue Steel, there’s plenty of action and loads of suspense, but the camera remains inexorably focused on our three heroes, resisting the temptation to look further afield for more than a few minutes.

Renner is fantastic as the loose cannon who joins his unit when his predecessor Matt Thomspon (Guy Pearce) gets blown up by a roadside bomb.  Thompson’s death in the first scene sets the tone for the movie.  The explosion is magnificent as the earth buckles in slow motion, and the guilt Aldridge feels for not shooting the trigger man seeps through every subsequent scene.

From the moment he arrives, James seems blithely ambivalent about whether he and his two colleagues will survive their year-long tour of duty. He loves taking the piss out of army protocol and those who adhere to it and, oddly, his detachment about the plight of Iraqis is somehow more humane than the suspicion of his fellow soldiers.  Nevertheless, the unit’s operation seems more than a little ridiculous.  They appear to report to no one, and James’ flagrant disregard for his life and the lives of his colleagues goes unreported and unpunished, with the exception of a sucker-punch from Sanborne.

During the film I found myself lamenting that so much time had been devoted to the character of James without revealing what makes him tick.  Even his emotional response to seeing the mutilated body of a small boy he thinks he knows tells us little about him.  But this all changes in the understated final few scenes, which make us understand in a few short minutes why a man may prefer the terror of war to the mundane day-to-day rituals of home. It is a brilliant way to give meaning to all we know about James, and it is clearly the highlight of the film.

James aside, The Hurt Locker is about the insane situations that soldiers find themselves in during an urban conflict.  About halfway through, it seems like every situation is the same.  Get called to street, deactivate the bomb, argue about what procedures were ignored.  Do it all again tomorrow.  However, the film then effectively changes tack when our three stars find themselves and a British unit pinned down by a sniper out in the desert. The Brits get picked off (natch) and Sanborne and James team up to play a game of chicken with the Iraqi assassins, each trading shots to see who’s hit first.   As they’re doing that, Aldridge sees another Iraqi masquerading as a shepherd and sneaking up behind them with an AK47.  This time he takes the shot, and finally learns the ultimate lesson of this movie – anyone could be an insurgent, so when in doubt, shoot them dead.

It’s riveting stuff, seemingly unfolding in real time and masterfully building up the suspense, but it also leaves a few unanswered questions.  Why do snipers happen to be located in the middle of the desert, just a mile upwind from where the Brits stop for a piss?  And why is a shepherd firing at them? It’s not every day you hear of an insurgent crossing open ground to fire on soldiers with his herd in tow. It’s fairly typical of this movie, which seems to be short on the sort of detail you’d expect from a big-budget film which can afford to hire an army of consultants to make sure they get their facts right.  Why is a bomb-disposal expert not disciplined for continually failing to adhere to protocol? Why can’t any of these Iraqis who are setting up the roadside bombs manage to detonate them in time when James is moving at the speed of treacle in that big bomb suit?

These little lapses in detail are not what really bothers me, however.  It’s the lack of context.  In my opinion, The Hurt Locker is a war film, but it’s not an Iraq War film, and the difference is not merely one of semantics.  If you want to set a film amid the most controversial, most publicized and most criticized American war since Vietnam, ignoring what’s going on in the background seems willfully misleading.  This was a war justified on clearly bogus grounds, where even the notoriously conservative Iraq Body Count website estimates that about 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died; billions of dollars have been poured into redeveloping the country, but the gains have been slight; US companies have gouged profits and, in some cases, embezzled funds; Sunni and Shia Iraqis remain in an uneasy stand-off, with the ever-present threat of all-out civil war; post-invasion Iraq has been the scene of the most brutal and successful Al Qaeda franchise yet; and bombs continue to explode in urban centres to this day.

All of this seems irrelevant to Kathryn Bigelow.  It is jettisoned in pursuit of a psychological drama about the effects of war on a small group of men.  Sometimes reality invades – James’ quip that if an Iraqi taxi driver they harassed wasn’t an insurgent, “he sure is now” is golden – but for the most part Iraqis have no role to play in this film. The brilliant Three Kings proved that it’s possible to make a tight film focusing on the struggles of a small band of soldiers while also putting the film in context.  Sadly, so few American war movies bother to try.


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