The Hurt Locker

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Posted June 25, 2009 in Film

Just when you’d given up on an interesting take from Hollywood on the Iraq War, Kathryn Bigelow brings a three-man bomb squad where Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) debates shooting his Commanding Officer William James (Jeremy Renner) for being too committed to defusing explosives. Sanborn and specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) have just lost one C.O. (Guy Pearce) to a hidden bomb. Now, with only a month before their safe stateside return, their new leader seems determined to lead them all on suicide missions. Their mornings begin with a countdown of how many days they have left and the introduction of their next challenge—bombs strapped to a man, bombs hidden in a car, bombs hidden under dirt, bombs hidden in a corpse—all of which James insists on dismantling without body protection and without letting his team get a comfortable distance away. (“If I’m going to die, I want to die comfortable,” he grunts.) Bigelow can sure shoot a crackerjack scene that makes you ball up your fists and suck in your breath, and screenwriter Mark Boal (who helped create one of the Gulf’s other solid scripts, In the Valley of Elah) knows our American love for mavericks is bound to get tied in knots watching James’ cavalier approach to everyone’s death. He’s a hero and a menace. In an early nailbiter, James insists on defusing a car bomb they’re content to explode; he swaggers back to the car and gets a punch in the face. There’s racial tension between Sanborn and James, and for that matter between everyone in the U.S. military and every citizen of Iraq, both of which Bigelow deals with flatly as facts of cultural barriers and suspicion. Like many modern Iraq war films, The Hurt Locker captures the suffocating paranoia of a civilian enemy. It also captures the tedium. The film’s best shootout sequence ends with the team staring for hours at a distant desert hideout, too afraid there might be one last living sniper to kneel down and grab a juice from their backpack. Whenever the squad is off duty, the flick collapses into cliché, particularly due to the timorous and unstable Eldridge whose every line feels ripped from a simpler, flatter propaganda piece. Bigelow ends with a flashback or flash-forward where we visit James back in the states and see the man who wades into the danger of the desert as casually as a cruise ship swimming pool stand bewildered in a cereal aisle. And suddenly, in what looks like weakness, we get his bravado. This “a-ha!” moment feels so good we half wish it’d come early enough to watch his character through this new lens. But we also sense that what we’re meant to take away is that civilians will never deserve to claim we understand. (Amy Nicholson)

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