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Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009 10:22 pm

The Hurt Locker puts the viewer on the front lines

Jeremy Renner plays a member of an elite Army bomb squad unit serving in Iraq in The Hurt Locker.
Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker does what no other Iraqi war film has, namely put the viewer on the front lines of this ground war that seemingly has no winners or losers, merely survivors who chance has sought to smile upon. Politics are immaterial here, survival is paramount and everyone is a victim of circumstance whether they be the Baghdad civilians whose lives are lived in a crossfire, the insurgents acting to take their country back or the U.S. forces who simply want to return home. The mission is murky for these soldiers but the objective is simple — do not purposely put yourself in harm’s way and make it to the end of your tour of duty.

Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) seems to have forgotten this rule. Put in charge of a three-man bomb squad after its leader is killed, he purposely flaunts the safety guidelines he’s supposed to adhere to, putting his comrades, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) in danger every time they’re called out to diffuse an explosive. With 38 days left before these three can go stateside, this is not the protocol the junior members of the team want to deal with. While these three are always in peril whenever they leave their base of operations, James’ John Wayne heroics only increase their risk.

The script by Mark Boal is as simplistic as it gets. But what separates it from other recent war films is its degree of authenticity. Boal is an Iraqi war veteran who worked closely with Bigelow to recreate the sense of camaraderie that exists between fellow soldiers as well as the danger that lurks around every corner. This is never more obvious than in a sequence in which the team stops to help fix a flat tire, only to find themselves in a life-or-death situation they could not anticipate.

Bigelow is masterful here, slowly building the tension in the film’s numerous set pieces, putting us in the soldier’s boots through the use of hand-held cameras and small digital recorders. Each bomb removal starts off as seemingly routine only to get complicated in a heartbeat, rushing the team and the viewer to the edge of death. Watch as James goes in to defuse a car bomb only to find that there’s nothing simple about the device and the term “bomb” winds up being a misnomer. The suspense Bigelow creates is unbearable at times, yet it serves better than any other film to date as a stark reminder of the danger our armed forces and those who live in this occupied area deal with on a daily basis.

While these nail-biting sequences are gripping, the movie would be a failure without the fine work of the central three actors. Geraghty movingly gives us a man barely able to keep it together in the pressure cooker he finds himself in. Mackie avoids the many inherent pitfalls in bringing Sanborn to life as we see a man who’s able to be cool under pressure without ever questioning that luck plays a role in his survival. However, Renner carries the film as the adrenaline junkie James. Having defused over 100 bombs, his feeling of invincibility overshadows his common sense. He never feels more alive than in the face of death and will never be able to fully function in a civilian setting. When he says, “Going to war doesn’t have to be a bad experience. It can be fun,” you know he means it. That he and others who have served there believe this, is the film’s tragedy. That Bigelow is able to deliver this message in such a bracing and meaningful way makes The Hurt Locker one of the best films of the year.
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