"That was good." Says Staff Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner) as he exhales a freshly lit cigarette in a near post-coital moment, after pulling apart and defusing a car wired with a half-dozen or so artillery shells stuffed in its trunk. This steady rhythm of the build-up and release of tension as well as the drug-like effects of being intimately close to death forms the backbone of director Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, a film that follows the daily grind of an Army "EOD" (explosive ordinance disposal) unit as they squirrel away the last forty days of their rotation in Baghdad at the height of the Iraq War in 2004. The men of the EOD unit don astronaut like bomb-suits, which give the distinct feeling of walking on Mars, rather than down the alleys and streets of Baghdad. Each one filled with more garbage and dead animals than the dumpster behind a veterinarian's office, with every pile of trash possibly concealing a booby-trap and each cell phone call the possible trigger. Admirably free of plot, the movie unfolds as more of collection of five or six vignettes as the bomb squad spends their days negotiating a series of increasingly hair-raising death-traps as they dig up and defuse IEDs buried in garbage, cars, and strapped both in and on human bodies.
The arc of the film concerns the aforementioned Sgt. James, a hotshot bomb-tec, who is brought into the unit after the original, by-the-book leader of the tight-knit squad (Guy Pearce) meets a bit of explosive-ordinance that carries out its intended purpose before he can do his job. Sgt. James is a certified cowboy who loves his job and is good enough at it to get away with a seat of his pants attitude that considering the work is both suicidal and completely rational. After all, when looking at a trunk filled with enough explosives to level a city block, why bother with a cumbersome bomb-suit in 120 degree weather? Much to the dismay of fellow EODers, Sergeant Sanborn and Specialist Eldridge (Anthony Mackie and James Geraghty), Sgt. James is a magnet for danger seeking out his next adrenaline fix with the same grim enthusiasm of a junkie.
The film begins with a quote from journalist Chris Hedges' War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning that compares the experience of combat to an incredibly potent drug. War it seems, doesn't just give us meaning, it also gets us high, really high. Of course with the glorious highs there is the accompanying cycle of jones, come-down, and withdrawal. Sgt. James doesn't like getting closer and closer to death, anymore than a heroin addict enjoys the daily routine of securing their next hit. It is merely the all-consuming need for that next rush, be it the form of a needle or in this case, suicide time bombs and snipers, that drives him. However, for the junkie no high ever lasts long enough, no cut is pure enough, no release intense enough, save for the inevitable and final one.
The Hurt Locker arrives at a time when the Iraq war has mostly drifted off the front page without any definitive cinematic moment, so it comes as no surprise that it would reach a level of critical mass and Oscar-nom inevitability. It separates itself from the pack and nourishes movie critics hungry for the perceived verisimilitude of movie combat mostly with its hand-held camera work and a talented cast free of big names, although Renner is sure to be one soon enough. Eschewing both traditional narrative and for better or worse, a point of view about the conflict it seeks to portray, the film approaches the kind of unaffected, unmediated portrayal of war and the men who live within its strange, parallel reality, but for all its "grittiness" and "realness" it can't help but indulge several Hollywood war movie cliches instantly recognizable to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre. We have the looming date of returning home as a drama-enhancing device, the arrogant hotshot and his friendship with the little Iraqi urchin who sells bootleg DVDs on the base ("You want donkey-movie? I hook you up with the good shit!"), as well as the clueless, rear echelon, Army shrink whose fate is sealed the second we hear that he'll be accompanying the crew "outside the wire." By the end of the film, when we see James return to the requisite, estranged wife (Lost's Evangeline Lilly) and kid, it's not exactly a revelation to find out that the safety of domesticity and a "normal" life of cleaning gutters and shopping for cereal stateside holds no appeal to our protagonist.
The question is whether or not The Hurt Locker engages these tropes to expose them or because through film, they've become so engrained in our perception of war that we can't imagine otherwise. I'm not sure I can answer this question, but in thinking about it, I wondered how much the American war movie has shaped the perceptions of those men and women actually involved in the real thing. I think specifically of Anthony Swofford's memoir of life as Marine sniper in the first Gulf War, Jarhead, in which he relates that many of the hours spent waiting and preparing for combat were filled with repeat viewings of Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Whether The Hurt Locker will eventually be watched by soldiers in the next generation's wars remains to be seen, but what we have now is a meticulously executed and mostly admirable portrait of men at work in America's biggest business. Through film, we may better know ourselves, but as Louis Proyect points out, for a movie about the whos, hows, and whys of the men who locate and diffuse bombs, the second, and arguably much more important half of this equation concerning those who plant them and why--perhaps much of the same primal death-trip addiction--remains almost completely alien and unknown.
PS- In addition to Guy Pearce and Evangeline Lilly, be on the look out for several delicious cameos from David Morse and Bigelow-vet Ralph Fiennes.