Thursday, June 25, 2009

Movie Review: The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker ****
Directed by:
Kathryn Bigelow.
Written By: Mark Boal.
Starring: Jeremy Renner (Staff Sergeant William James), Anthony Mackie (Sergeant JT Sanborn), Brian Geraghty (Specialist Owen Eldridge), Guy Pearce (Sergeant Matt Thompson), Ralph Fiennes (Contractor Team Leader), David Morse (Colonel Reed).

Iraq war movies have not been all that popular in the last few tears. Bombarded by information on the news everyday, people have decided that they do not want to go see the same things when they go to the movies. It hasn’t helped that many of these movies were not very good, or were mainly political diatribes, offering simplistic (although often correct, at least in my opinion) against the Bush Administration.

I do not know if The Hurt Locker is going to change all of that, but it should. It is easily the best movie made about the war in Iraq so far, and it does so by almost entirely taking politics out of the equation. To the soldiers in this movie, it doesn’t matter why they were sent to Iraq to fight, it just matters that they are there, and have to do their best to get through it.

The movie centers a three soldiers, who job it is to defuse bombs, mainly crudely made bombs hidden in roadways and in cars, meant to surprise and kill American soldiers. The movie opens with a dynamic sequence of these men defusing one such bomb. Things go wrong, as they seem to often do in this line of work, that the team needs a new leader. This is when William James (Jeremy Renner) shows up.

James is a cowboy, a man who doesn’t seem to care about his own personal safety, and more concerning to his teammates, anyone’s else either. He is reckless, he doesn’t listen to his spotters, and barges in headfirst into situations in which they feel require a more delicate touch. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) doesn’t much like James. He has 39 days left in his tour before he gets to go home, and he wants to live to see it. He is all business, good at his job, and doesn’t appreciate James’ recklessness, and it puts him in danger as well. The third member of the team is Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). Eldridge tries to act tough to impress James and Sanborn, but underneath he’s just a scared young man who doesn’t belong in the war.

While in the broad strokes, these characters seem like the war movie clich├ęs, writer Mark Boal uses them to define three different types of soldiers. In James, they have the man who is good at his job, but enjoys it too much. He is an adrenaline junkie, who gets off on the constant danger he is putting himself in. He has a wife and child back home, who he says he loves, but he feels more connection to the bombs he defuses (he keeps parts of the bombs in a box under his bed). He is a good soldier, but perhaps he shouldn’t be there at all. Jeremy Renner, who has been delivering one strong performance after another for a few years now, gives a great performance, which perfectly captures this man. What makes it all the scarier is that although we understand that James is a man who probably should not be Iraq in the first place – because his reckless is likely to get someone killed at some point – we also realize that the Army needs guys like him. Who else but an adrenaline junkie would ever sign up to defuse bombs in the first place? Sanborn is an intelligent man, who is very good at his job, but doesn’t much like it. He is there to do a job, and when he’s done, he’ll go home and deal with what he’s seen. Anthony Mackie gives subtle shades to his line readings, many of which are barking out orders that slowly allows you to see Sanborn, to get under his skin. He is the least transparent of the three men, but perhaps the most complex. Finally Brian Geraghty gives a fine performance as the soldier who is neither very good at his job, nor really enjoys it. He tries hard, and wants to be a good soldier, but he just isn’t cut out for it.

But despite how strong the writing and acting in the movie are (and they are expert level), the real star of the movie is director Kathryn Bigelow. Bigelow has been directing movies about wounded men for her entire career, but I don’t think she has ever directed a movie this good before. It is an almost unbearably intense movie, with multiple action sequences that in a lesser movie would be the centerpiece. But these sequences are not the non-stop action and blood of most war movies, but rather slow, intense build-ups that last for a minutes on end. The style of the movie is expert, but never goes over the top (okay, perhaps she does have one too many slow motion sequences). She also knows how to use celebrity cameos effectively. There are three in the film, but they never distract from the main characters. They throw the audience off track, because she uses them in offbeat ways.

The Hurt Locker is a legitimately great film, the first narrative film about the war in Iraq that could rightly be described as such. Whether anyone goes to see it or not, remains to be seen. But when the book is written on Iraq movies in the future, and trust me there will be a few written about them, The Hurt Locker is going to be remembered.

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