Friday, June 26, 2009

The Hurt Locker

“The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” This opening quote from New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges’ novel “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” is the perfect summation for this movie. People throughout the ages have faced the front-lines of the battlefield and endured the sacrifice of themselves for a greater cause. This is not that kind of war story. In fact, to classify this as an Iraqi War movie is a hasty assumption. The Hurt Locker is really more of a story about three men, three soldiers, and the emotional duress they endure while having to defuse bombs in Baghdad. There isn’t some greater cause that will serve some exorbitant conclave, or some revolutionary mission for the betterment of man, or some lofty discernment of some geopolitical purpose. The film simply, yet brilliantly, focuses on the characters themselves and not the superseding circumstances of the war at hand. It separates itself from this A-typical scenario that so many preceding films of this kind have fallen accustom to. Which is precisely why this particular war film is so much better than all its predecessors.

Director Kathryn Bigelow has created a movie that is both intimate and invigorating without being trite. Up until now, Bigelow’s work has revolved primarily around action-thrillers, such as the surfer-heist movie Point Break, that have been fiscally successful but lacking in substance. Her films typically have some major Hollywood star attached to it, like Sean Penn in The Weight of Water or Harrison Ford in K-19: The Widowmaker, and clearly enabled eager cameo performances from such names as Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes, who has worked under Bigelow before. Having been active in the industry for almost three decades now has fostered her sensibility for stylized suspense set against “heightened emotional states,” as she put it. There are no false gimmicks, no nerve-racking sound effects, nothing that isn’t “real”. Bigelow’s approach here is reminiscent of a documentary film that focuses on the people or incident at some particular moment. Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock once said, “When there’s a bomb under a table, and it explodes, that’s action. When we know the bomb is there, and the people at the table play cards, and it doesn’t explode, that’s suspense.”

Esteemed journalist Mark Boal has concocted a script that is both concise and compelling. He earned much recognition from his involvement with Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah which was based on the article “Death and Dishonor” that Boal wrote for Playboy magazine about an Iraq War veteran who was murdered in 2003. While doing investigative reporting in Iraq, he got to spend actual time amidst an active Army bomb squad, of which was his primary inspiration for The Hurt Locker. Boal’s script will certainly attract much critical acclaim in the coming year. The story centers on the Bravo Company Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Unit who is deployed in Baghdad for the sole purpose of disarming IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. The story does not focus on one mission or one enemy to defeat, rather it observes the routine of these three soldiers whose everyday job it is to defuse bombs. Each scene seemingly presents a sub-narrative to the story on the whole, tied together by the protagonists.

Guy Pearce as Staff Sgt. Matt Thompson
The movie begins with an encapsulating sequence of the three EOD soldiers responding to an alert of a bomb hidden in an unusual pile of rubble on a random street. The scenario unfolds as they perpetrate from a safe distance through the eyes of a remote controlled Talon Robot, that itself is probably a quarter million dollars worth of military-grade bomb squad electronics. Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Pearce), leader of the EOD Unit, assumes control of the robot from Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). Using a vise grip, the Talon pokes around and unveils the bomb under a burlap sack. They retrieve the robot and send it back dragging four blocks of C4 plastic explosives in a mini-wagon that they intend to abandon and detonate amidst the IED, minimizing the damage. While the Talon may have tactical tank-like agility, the wagon it is pulling does not. On its way back to the bomb, the robot hits a pile of rocks causing its trailer full of explosives to loose a wheel and ultimately become stranded. Someone now has to go in and handle the threat manually.

Thompson puts on a blast suit that looks like an astronaut crossed with the Michelin Man. Instead of just defusing the bomb, Thompson “Want(s) them to know that if they’re gonna leave a bomb on the side of the road for us, we’re just gonna blow up their little fuckin’ road.” As he waddles towards the bomb in this eighty-pound suit, the soldiers exchange friendly banter over the radio as means to lighten the mood and ease Thompson’s nerves. He rescues the wagon and transports the C4 charge to the bomb by hand. Once in place, he turns around and heads back. But he only makes it twenty-five meters before Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) notices a man in a butcher shop in the distance with a cell phone. Knowing that the phone can act as a detonator, he races towards the butcher yelling at him to put down his phone, but it is too late. The bomb explodes and we see blood douse the inside of Thompson’s helmet visor. This rapturous opening scene sets the tone for the entire film and prepares the audience for a verisimilitude of unnerving footage to come.

Jeremy Renner as Sgt. First Class William James
After Thompson’s death, Sergeant First Class William James, played by Jeremy Renner, is reassigned to Camp Victory from Afghanistan to their EOD Unit as his replacement. James is an audaciously brash, yet highly efficient, bomb technician. While his comrades count the days down until their tour is over, James revels in just about every aspect of his job from the reverent mementos he collects from each successful bomb disposal to his buoyant approach toward each new mission. He thrives on the adrenaline of what he does because he knows he is extremely good at it. Each scene reveals a new facet of James’ character and slowly exposes a complexity that remains hidden behind his freewheeling persona. When asked how many bombs he has disarmed in his career by his commanding officer Colonel Reed (David Morse), he modestly says that he doesn’t quite know. Reed insists, “Sergeant, I asked you a question”...
Renner with David Morse
...“Eight hundred seventy-three, sir.” Renner radiates on screen as Sergeant James with an inner strength and unpredictability. He does have a number of respectable performances under his belt, including his turn as notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in David Jacobson’s Dahmer and as Charlize Theron’s sexually harassing supervisor in Niki Caro’s North Country. But his talent has never been on display as ardently as it is here. Renner can likely expect an Oscar Nomination for his visceral portrayal of this soldier who says very little, while still projecting such an intrinsic multitude of emotions.

Anthony Mackie as Sgt. J.T. Sanborn
Anthony Mackie, from such acclaimed films as Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby and Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson, plays Sergeant J.T. Sanborn who by all accounts is the careful calculated professional of the squad. He clearly harbors remorse for Thompson and tries to assume the role of the congenial leader when James arrives. He quickly realizes that the two of them are not of the same school of thought. He sees James as insanely reckless and more of a liability than anything else. There is an intense resentment towards James to the point that Sanborn hypothetically presents an idea of an accidental bomb detonation that would surely kill him, “You know these detonators misfire all the time.” And although James may be unruly, it seems that Sanborn is actually the dangerous one of the unit. Mackie delivers well enough as this somewhat arrogant veteran of the unit who abides by protocol and regulation as a cheap substitute for instinct and gall.

Geraghty as Specialist Owen Eldridge
Brian Geraghty depicts the third soldier in the EOD Unit, Specialist Owen Eldridge. Geraghty has portrayed an Iraq War soldier before in Sam Mendes’s Jarhead which recounts U.S. Marine Anthony Swofford's Gulf War memoirs. As the youngest among them, Eldridge is clearly the one with the most vulnerability. He is nervous almost every time he’s out in the field. He doubts himself and fears death, despite a continuous attempt to convince himself otherwise. His inner-company counselor Colonel John Cambridge (Christian Camargo) tries to relate to him that, “this doesn’t have to be a bad time in your life. Going to war is a once in a lifetime experience. It could be fun.” Eldridge challenges him “to come out from behind the wire and see what we do.” When the good doctor actually does, it raises his respect level for him by setting a credible foundation for everything that he advocates. Eldridge needs that kind of constant guidance and soon learns to trust his fellow squad members for just that.

Filming was primarily shot in Amman, Jordan and in parts of Kuwait. Some of the locations were less than three miles from the Iraqi border. Despite the obvious security concerns, Bigelow wanted the setting to be as accurate as possible. Renner recalls the filming as being so authentic that they were thrown rocks and two-by-fours with protruding nails, and even shot at a few times by local Arabs. “When you see it, you're gonna feel like you’ve been in war.” The behind the scenes aspects of The Hurt Locker are some of the best of any film I have seen this year. Much of the overall fervor of the story derives from how Bigelow and her crew have crafted it on screen. Their filming techniques perfectly ascend the storyline and intuitively compliment each individual scene. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd employed the use of multiple Super 16mm cameras simultaneously to capture various frames of reference for each scene.
“That’s how we experience reality,” Bigelow states, “with multiple focal lengths and a muscular editorial style, the lens can give you that microcosm perspective, and that contributes to the feeling of total immersion.” This method creates documentary-like imagery, right down to the glaring sun angles and silent moments of darkness. The camera stays close to the characters, as we catch quick glimpses of their surroundings: the signs, the streets, the terrain, the people, everything as they themselves witness it. As the perspectives of the camera adjust and alternate, suspicions are raised that the bomb makers themselves are watching from some overhead balcony or some side street. Through this stylized approach, it feels as if we are right there with the EOD Bomb Squad, experiencing each moment, sharing the tension and the living the fear.

Mackie and Renner
This film does not get into the surrounding issues of the US Military presence in Iraq. Boal steers clear of even addressing any sort of political motives with his script and Bigelow doesn’t needlessly play up the subculture of the Arabs. Some have criticized the story as being “unclear where the drama really lies” and cited the filming techniques as being “evasive and insistent” of the aspects. This is the wrong approach to take towards The Hurt Locker. The general public, perhaps sufficiently enervated and confused by reality, has not been receptive towards films set against the situation in Iraq or anywhere in the Middle East. While the subject matter itself may have been the issue, the real failing point of such prior films was simply the lack of a dynamic and personable story. Not every movie sets out to make a statement; this is not a Michael Moore documentary or an Oliver Stone political piece. Because this war is still being fought (as of today), such a graphic screen depiction can understandably be a sensitive subject among the masses. It's easy to turn a blind eye to things that we frankly don't want to see, that we don't want to hear of, or even know about. Nonetheless, this movie brings audiences closer to this war and, more importantly, the people in this war by offering an insight into the dangers faced by these soldiers. Who really could be anyone, that any of us know, who might have been or still is fighting on the front-lines themselves.

The Hurt Locker does not waste a single minute of on-screen time. The three main characters are much too preoccupied and too focused on their own survival to dwell on the issues of why they are even there in the first place; so neither do the filmmakers. Bigelow’s insistence upon keeping the attention close and focused on the characters resonates her brilliance as a director. The film’s tagline “War is a Drug” can directly be associated with Sergeant James; Renner’s performance as this thrill seeking, danger-junkie, war-addict is unparalleled and unprecedented. And the very title is a colloquialism that means “to cause someone physical or mental suffering.” Sanborn, Eldridge and especially James are challenged and threatened by each bomb they ensue and so find themselves living in the “hurt locker”.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Bottom Line: An emotionally volatile and resilient modern war drama that isn’t cliché. A commanding film that focuses on the characters and not the politics.

"Khyber Pass" performed by Ministry

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