It’s no real surprise that we’ve rejected Iraq and Middle East war films almost entirely as a society over these last few years. The war is still an ongoing one, and we’ve been through too many news cycles to sit through the same thing again in narrative form. After all, it wasn’t until after the war was over that the ball got rolling on Vietnam films and we were given great pieces of art like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Full Metal Jacket. But as major troop withdrawal in Iraq quickly becomes a reality, The Hurt Locker could not have better timing.
Sgt. Sandborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are the two consistent crew members of a three-man explosive ordinance disposal unit. After their team leader (Guy Pearce) dies during a detonation, they are saddled with Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), a wild man who constantly skirts around standard procedure in his attempts to dismantle the explosives. Straddling the thin line between functioning head case and brilliant technician, he keeps a piece of every bomb setup in a box under his bed to remind him of the “things that tried to kill him.”
It’s a relatively simple film, based on the writings of an embedded journalist, that follows a few episodes in the daily lives of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq counting down the days left in their rotation. There are no hexagonal conspiracy plots or deep cover black ops missions infringing on their everyday operations. There are no redacted papers or codes to crack. The whole ballgame is the tension that rises within the unit in the barracks and out on patrol as they sniff out, and try to defuse, IEDs buried in the streets or hidden in car trunks or worse – much worse.
Unlike Vietnam, thick plotting does not hang gracefully onto the war in Iraq, and director Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t try to do that here. She allows the film to grow organically until you realize you’ve been hanging onto the edge of your seat in acute panic. It rises exquisitely above the soldiers’ stock characters, giving us a thriller by virtue of the extraordinary stress of their situation, not by the machinations of the military machine surrounding them. She gets the point that no one cares about the politics or paranoia of old-guard war films anymore, only the drastic life-or-death scenarios. We have better and more ubiquitous outlets for the political side of war, now more than ever before, and while that paradigm shift has not fully rendered politics irrelevant in films, it’s taken a giant, toothy bite out of it.
Bigelow’s camera is impartial and dispassionate, but explosively powerful and unflinching. There is no commentary or judgment, just war and fatigue.