Originally shown February 10, 2010. Note: The last paragraph of this review contains a spoiler.
The conventional wisdom goes that America does not want to see films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.* This could be for any number of reasons, and I’m not going to speculate why because the studios likely have a bunch of market research on the topic that I’ll never see. But I’m pretty sure it’s true, because Kathryn Bigelow’s action film about the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker, was the lowest-grossing film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. If you can’t get people people to see a film this good, then they just don’t want to go.
The film is based on Mark Boal’s novel about an EOD** unit in Baghdad during the war; basically, the Army’s equivalent of a police bomb squad. The film opens with a nerve-wracking disposal meant to teach us one lesson: all of that armor and protective gear that EOD troops wear doesn’t do much good. If an IED*** is well-made and has enough explosive attached to it, the EOD tech is more or less guaranteed to be dead if he can’t get the job done. This sets an almost ridiculously high bar for how tense the rest of the movie is going to be, and yet Bigelow leaps over it again and again.
After the failed opening disposal, a new EOD officer (Jeremy Renner) is brought in as a replacement. He seems to be an adrenaline junkie, disregarding official precautions in favor of getting the disposals done as fast and loose as possible. This causes him to clash repeatedly with the leader of his Marine escort (Anthony Mackie), who believes that those precautions exist in order to protect his team in one of the world’s most dangerous places.
That sets up a fairly big difference between The Hurt Locker and many of the films about Iraq. A film like Stop-Loss sets up the issue that it wants to explore first – the “stop-loss” policy that kept National Guard troops in Iraq well beyond when their tours were to have ended – and builds the drama around that. The Hurt Locker starts with the drama first, which comes from Renner and Mackie as mismatched partners. Although the war is an important part of what is going on, it’s still just a backdrop: you could just as easily take these two characters, drop them in L.A., and call the movie a remake/ripoff of Lethal Weapon.
I wasn’t mentioning Lethal Weapon just for the hell of it, either. This is a movie which is very self-aware of the sort of action movies its characters were raised on (As the director of Point Break, Bigelow probably shared in that awareness). Renner clearly plays the character not as a badass action hero, but as a guy who wants to be a badass action hero, and may even need that feeling in order to get through the war with his sanity intact. Mackie plays someone who is aware of his own uptightness and doesn’t give a damn, because being uptight is much more likely to get him home alive.
Also like Lethal Weapon, and not at all like most Iraq War films, The Hurt Locker is an action movie first. The movie jumps from set-piece to set-piece, throwing in a different complication to the bomb disposal each time, emphasizing the various ways that Baghdad can turn dangerous for these men in a moment’s notice. It has no time for teaching or preaching about why the Iraq War might have been a misguided plan, because these characters don’t have time for it. The war is a job for them, the movie’s events another day at a deadly office.
Bigelow’s expert direction helps capture both that on-the-job mentality, and also helps create spectacular tension. Her recent failures (K-19: The Widowmaker and Strange Days) caused some people to forget that her three previous features Point Break, Near Dark, and Blue Steel are some of the best action films of the ’80s.**** Of those three films, The Hurt Locker mostly closely resembles Blue Steel, where the actual action is sparse, but it punctuates scenes so intense that it feels like you watched a much longer scene.
The on-the-job aspect of the movie led a lot of reviews to claim that The Hurt Locker is “apolitical.” I disagree. Politics is not a part of these characters’ lives, so you don’t have to care about them if you don’t want to. However, there’s no question that the movie has some important things to say about the war if you’re paying attention. As Renner feels obligated to investigate the death of a child who collaborated with U.S. troops, he finds himself drawn more and more into the weeds of the local culture, not unlike how the U.S. found itself drawn further and further into Iraq’s local politics and sectarian disputes as the war went on.
Near the end of the movie, Renner sees the boy whom he thought had been killed; he’s alive and well. We are left to realize that he had endangered the lives of himself, his team, and countless civilians, on a mission which was utterly ill-informed. As much as he wants to be the hero who can get the right thing done by his own force of will, he has to realize that he based his would-be heroism was based on the idea that he can’t tell two unrelated Arabs apart. There’s a ton of drama in that scene with the Renner character alone, but if you can’t see some parallels with George W. Bush – who considered himself to be on a holy crusade but discovered that issues were much more complicated on the ground – then you must not have seen too many Iraq War movies.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Here and throughout this review I am speaking about narrative films. Documentaries are obviously a different story, for example Fahrenheit 9/11.
**Explosive Ordnance Disposal.
***Improvised Explosive Device.
****Yes, I know, Point Break was released in 1991, but if you’ve seen it, I think you’ll agree: it is an ’80s movie all the way.