Although Brian De Palma lost his artistic bearings on the anti–Iraq War bandwagon, director Kathryn Bigelow found her perfect subject. That’s the difference between De Palma’s confused, preachy Redacted and Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Bigelow (working from a script by Mark Boal) stays focused on the personalities of soldiers during Bravo company’s last 39 days of rotation in 2004 Baghdad. An early reconnaissance jest (“It’s my dick.”) between Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Sgt. Thompson (Guy Pearce) recalls De Palma’s ribaldry, but it also indicates Bigelow’s erotic view of masculine endeavor—here defining the propensity for violence and bravery during war.
Bigelow’s focus on male psychology won’t satisfy anti-war protestors, who have been curiously becalmed during the Obama administration. The Hurt Locker’s prologue, “War is a drug,” suggests it could be about any war. This is a breakthrough in the pop-war genre that, since Vietnam, has accustomed us to sentimental agit-prop.
Bigelow conscientiously streamlines her filmmaking. Avoiding portentous Kubrickian camera dynamics—which are only about self—she’s evocative and focused, unlike the showy, undisciplined Apocalypse Now.
Having already done poetic symbolism in the underrated K-19: The Widowmaker, Bigelow tells a Billy Budd–type story of Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), expert at defusing Improvised Explosive Devices, but, actually, constantly testing his mortality. James outrages and mystifies his comrades—especially Sanborn. Their white/black cultural differences are subtly highlighted by military equality. Their missions reveal suspicion, determination and inquisitiveness—authentically modern American traits as one would also find in westerns and urban noirs.
Bigelow shrewdly distills several genres, yet it’s all metaphor for personal involvement in policy. (The “hurt locker” is where James keeps souvenir detonators: “It’s fascinating to hold something that almost kills you.”)
So far, the best fiction films about the Iraq War are Nick Bloomfield’s Battle for Haditha, Irwin Winkler’s Home of the Brave and John Moore’s allegorical Flight of the Phoenix remake, which Bigelow evokes in a stand-off scene between Bravo company, a group of British contractors and distant insurgent snipers. It’s sufficient praise to say The Hurt Locker joins that short list.
The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Runtime: 131 min.
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