THE HURT LOCKER A-
USA (131 mi) 2008 d: Kathryn Bigelow
The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.
—Chris Hedges, war correspondent
As the former wife of James Cameron (THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS, TITANIC), we’ll try not to hold that against her, but it’s hard not to be influenced by the maker of such monumentally huge Hollywood blockbusters, probably all were the most expensive movies ever made in their time. As the director of POINT BREAK (1991), however, one is reminded that its notoriety in film history is not as the best surfer-heist movie (Is there another one?), but for what has been voted as the all time dumbest scene in the history of cinema, ranked #1 here: Amazing Planet: 49 dumbest movie moments . However, it’s clear that whoever wrote this movie (Mark Boal) has an intimate knowledge of the subject at hand, as he’s a freelance writer who spent time in Iraq embedded with a real bomb squad that with each and every assignment was given the most dangerous, life-threatening missions. It’s a meticulously detailed portrait of a 3-member special Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit in Iraq in 2004 that attempts to de-activate explosives. One man is the Intelligence Officer, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), another covers the perimeter with his weapon, Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), while the third, Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), attempts to dismantle the explosive device while communicating with the Intelligence officer, almost always under a hostile environment, as anyone nearby, we soon discover, could be responsible for the explosive and may have a remote to detonate it at any moment. In the tense opening scene, as Thompson can be heard breathing heavy under his miserably suffocating special suit in a country where the temperature routinely soars above 120 degrees, a man with a cell phone is identified out of the corner of his eye at the last minute, too late for Thompson, the leader of the unit who runs for his life but ends up making the ultimate sacrifice. Enter his replacement, Staff Sgt. William James (the uncommonly good Jeremy Renner), fresh from a tour in Afghanistan, one of the most unlikely of men, as he wins no popularity contests, an older, independent guy who sets aside all the guidelines which are designed to protect him and works in his own aloof way, usually at odds with his team who invariably lose contact with him, yet he’s driven to do the job right, which means staying alive.
It's a confoundingly different, but no less accurate, portrait of war that focuses on the unthinkable violence as seen through the minds of the men that are expected to carry out the most dangerous missions. Without any pop songs to amp up the mood, or other heavy handed Hollywood trappings designed to manipulate the audience, one becomes entranced with the narrow focus of the film, which follows this unit on a series of assignments, much of it near wordless or with long quiet pauses, as we soon discover James is extraordinarily good at what he does. He works with extreme calmness under duress, but the zone of his concentration is so narrow at times that he may put others at risk simply by ignoring them, which he does frequently, but he’s helpful as a soldier in ways one needs to be, offering guidance and support to those less experienced or on the verge of freaking out from all the stress. At one point, we see Eldridge intensely concentrating at a war video game, where lurking behind various structures is the enemy, where the object is to immediately recognize friend or foe, placing the brain on instant alert, a similar state of mind when in the field. He visits a doctor regularly to help him sort out these “issues,” as sometimes it’s hard to tell life from death. This film is as much about psychological interiors, as this unit constantly sweeps unknown areas that have been determined too dangerous for regular foot soldiers, so the camera becomes the visceral eye of the unit, never knowing what lies behind each door or wall or window. The audience is mesmerized by the immediacy of the action, which is continually perceived here as the unseen danger, filmed entirely in expectation mode, wondering who and where the enemy (or hidden explosive devise) may be and what will happen next. One of the more intense scenes in the movie is filmed in near stillness, where the unit gets caught under intense sniper fire and after an initial state of panic has to recompose themselves and figure a way out with military precision and skill. Another is filmed in near blackness, as they attempt a night search mission in a nearby neighborhood after a suicide bomber blast attacks the base, where after a round of shots, two men can be seen carrying Eldridge down some back alleys. In rescuing him, James shoots at all three, killing both kidnappers but also shooting Eldridge in the leg, which pisses him off to no end, reminding James that sometimes he pushes too far, calling him an adrenaline junkie, as they’re a bomb unit, so why were they doing a door to door search, which is the job of a foot soldier?
There’s two other interesting scenes of note, one where a commander recognizes James’s bomb expertise, calling him a wild man, and commends him in front of all the men, forcing him to admit that to date, he has successfully de-activated 873 bombs. This hardly fits the idea of noble and selfless combat, sometimes embraced as “the myth of war,” where we enshrine war in words of glory instead of the mindnumbing reality of death, and instead veers awfully close to a profession that embraces death first hand, as that’s an astronomical number of times for one man to tempt death. He becomes so comfortable with that feeling, with death as his constant companion, that everyone else in his life becomes meaningless, as they are completely outside his mindset during that moment of truth. Another, of course, is when his tour of duty is over and he returns home, and despite constant stories of death and bloodshed, it’s only a matter of time before he’s back over there again, as someone of this expertise is like a prisoner who’s more comfortable locked up, in a world that he’s used to, where being on the outside makes him feel uncomfortable, which is how James feels about being home. It’s like the Myth of Sisyphus, where he constantly has to push that rock up the mountainside, only to do it again and again, always having to tempt death in order to feel alive. War is hell, and here it becomes synonymous with the intensity that comes with the meticulous precision of his profession, which may be the only thing in his life that he’s that good at, but he’s playing russian roulette. Interesting that in a movie theater, this same death wish becomes part of the viewer’s fascination, as we can’t take our eyes off this lurid war game, much like the Knight in Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957), a man who lives in the shadow of death that follows him around relentlessly, where one is both attracted and repulsed by a force that taunts and toys with him to eventually succumb, eventually deciding that resistance is futile, as they are forever joined in a terrible dance of death, playing musical chairs, until eventually a chair won’t be there waiting for him.