The Hurt Locker (First Run Features, NR)

film_hurt-locker_sm.jpgGenre conventions can free up a director to tell a meaningful story without having to reinvent the wheels of narrative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are the bane of the Iraq War. Some estimate that they are responsible for over 60 percent of U.S. deaths in the war, and as countless serious injuries as well as unknown numbers of deaths and injuries among Iraqis. They’re a classic method of guerilla warfare which can neutralize the advantages of a stronger opponent; though they have been used in conflicts from Vietnam to Northern Ireland, they seem to have been perfected by the Iraqi insurgents.

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which is the best feature film yet to focus on the experience of U.S. servicemen in the Iraq War, focuses on a trio of soldiers whose job is to detect and disable or detonate IEDs. The film is basically a series of set pieces, most of which involve the disarming of an explosive device or similarly adrenalin-drenched experiences featuring snipers or shootouts or chases down dark alleyways, with a few scenes in the barracks for the purpose of developing the characters’ stories. Bigelow has taken the truism that "movies are life with the boring bits cut out" to the extreme: All these soldiers seem to do is fight or have intense conversations and confrontations with each other.

The Hurt Locker draws on many clichés of war movies, but that’s not altogether a bad thing; genre conventions can free up a director to tell a meaningful story without having to reinvent the wheels of narrative. The script by journalist Mark Boal (who spent time as an embedded reporter with a bomb squad in Iraq) generally rings true, and Bigelow demonstrates once again that she’s one of the best directors of action scenes around. You can feel the alternating fear and exasperation of the soldiers as they try to disarm an explosive device in the midst of a crowded street and spot a man with a cell phone who could be about to set off the device or could be an ordinary shopkeeper making a phone call. This is not a war with clearly defined boundaries, and constantly living on the edge means they have to react to every potential threat whether real or imagined.

The three central characters are Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), an arrogant cowboy and detonation expert whose gift for leadership as well as his delight in solving the puzzles of IEDs brings him into almost immediately conflict with the by-the-book Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who hopes that following the rules will allow him to complete his tour of duty safely. The third member of the crew is Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who feels the weight of impending doom as he seems unable to get synchronized emotionally with the demands of his job or with his fellow soldiers. James is first among equals and the film takes a bizarre twist in the last 20 minutes which seems to be an attempt to turn the film into his story and also to justify the epigraph from Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug."

Iraqi civilians are often present in scenes but only as background elements, and the American soldiers seem to regard the Iraqis primarily as nuisances who make their job more difficult rather than as the very people for whose benefit this war is presumably being fought. You have to wonder if they ever contemplate the absurdity of shouting instructions at people in a language they can’t understand while simultaneously threatening them with machine guns. How often do you think you would guess right in such a situation? Of course, concentrating on their jobs as narrowly defined and observing the boundaries of perception which are coordinated with that of official U.S. policy are survival strategies for the soldiers, and the few attempts the film makes to show James stepping outside those boundaries do not work well with the action and buddy orientation of the rest of the film. | Sarah Boslaugh

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