Surviving the Iraq War through the eyes of a bomb squad
War is hell. That's why war movies are supposed to be loud and chaotic. From the bombed-out trenches of Paths of Glory to the machine-gun-strafed beaches of Saving Private Ryan, from the helicopter whirs and loudspeaker traffic of MASH to the napalm and the Doors opening of Apocalypse Now, mimetic movie war aims to overwhelm the senses and reinforce how war is seen and heard for the people who have never been in it. Hell, even King Vidor's 1925 silent picture The Big Parade at times feels noisy and chaotic. That kinetic bluster is such a part of how movies recreate war that you don't even notice its overwhelming absence in Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker until about halfway through, although an empty-house quiet pervades the movie. It's there in the opening scene as Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) dons a bomb suit and calmly, slowly approaches an improvised explosive device to defuse. It's there in the countless scenes depicting Locker's three-man Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit working its shifts clearing various bombs and explosives in Iraq. It's there when the unit and a small American mercenary crew draw deadly sniper fire in the desert. And by the time the unit is trying to defuse a coerced suicide bomber's chained-on explosive pack, the near-silence becomes a nearly unbearable source of anxiety.
Bigelow and first-time screenwriter Mark Boal may not have set out to reinvent the war movie with Hurt Locker, but this insistently soldier's eye-view of the Iraq War adamantly avoids conventional war storytelling. Informed by Boal's reportage--he was embedded with a bomb unit in 2003 for Playboy (his reporting also provided the story to 2007's insufferable In the Valley of Elah)--Locker's narrative structure parallels its soldiers' subjects. The movies counts down the days left in the unit's active-duty rotation, just as a bomb's timer ticks toward its entire reason to be. During these days the unit goes about its business, and the movie is very much a story of work--that work just so happens to be one of the most insanely dangerous and stressful jobs in the military.
And Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) is ridiculously good at it. The new man to the unit, James comes across like a gung-ho cowboy to Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spec. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who provide perimeter support to James when he dons the suit and approaches a potential explosive. It's Sanborn and Eldridge's job to keep an eye out for nearby onlookers who might be controlling a detonator, or snipers, or any other potential threat. They're James' eyes, ears, and brain when he's focusing all his energies on not blowing himself up.
James' work demands his entire body and mind, and it defines him whether he wants it to or not. Renner's performance is equally intense, although it's isn't a showy role. James is a complexly internalized soldier, who comes across as being an adrenaline-junkie to his fellow enlisted men at first. But as the movie moves along, his peers, especially Sanborn, get to know him in small measures, and a different kind of man emerges. James is the guy who casually befriends the local kid who sells pirate DVDs on base, whose instincts immediately fuel his responses when under fire, who offers water to his partner before taking a sip himself when dug in. He might also need the war's energy to feel normal and like himself, and Renner's intensely composed portrayal of a man with such a highly technical skill set is a powerhouse display of confidence and nuance.
It's entirely possible that recent years' overwhelmingly didactic movies about the Iraq War have skewed the brain to overestimate a movie that doesn't editorialize or treat its soldiers as convenient symbols for some quasi-political spleen and ideal. And perhaps a few years down the line The Hurt Locker will start to look and feel like a war movie very much of its era. Right now, however, this riveting movie not only feels like a new kind of thinking about war in cinema, but also like one of the most accomplished cinematic experiences of the year.