The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break), is far and away the best film about our current war in Iraq. And it’s easily also one of the best films of the year. If you’re looking for nonstop action, white-knuckled suspense, and emotionally draining human drama this summer, I doubt you will find any film more satisfying than this.
The film is set in and around Baghdad in 2004, at a time when the war was devolving into a hellish quagmire of roadside bombs and unexpectedly forceful insurgent resistance. Locker follows a trio of highly apt American army specialists who are part of Delta Company, whose harrowing task it is locate and defuse bombs and I.E.D.s before they blow up and kill bunches of citizens and soldiers.
The film’s three main characters are the levelheaded Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), the chronically unnerved Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), and “wild man” Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who is sort of like Macgyver-meets-Mad Max. The three men have vastly different temperaments, psychological hang-ups, and personalities, and yet thrown together in the high-stress hell of war, they are as close and brother-like as a band of soldiers could be. Of course, this also means that they fight and sometimes want to kill each other as much as they want to kill the enemy. Indeed, one of the sources of this film’s uncommon intensity is that Bigelow and her three main actors (each of which is deserving of Oscar accolades, in my view) recognize that the “always-on-the-edge” melee of war has as much to do with psychological, spiritual and interpersonal strain as it does with the tangible ubiquity of carnage and death.
Where countless other Iraq war films have only superficially attempted to truly understand the psychological experience of soldiers, Locker puts us right there, in the midst of the throbbing realization that this war—beyond politics and PR and ideological clashes—is a life and death thing for the people actually on the ground fighting it. Largely ambivalent of anything political, Bigelow and her impressive teams of set designers and technical craftsmen instead focus the film around the experiences of the soldiers who are forced to perform at high levels of no-errors-allowed competency even amidst unthinkably stressful circumstances.
Structured episodically, the film immerses us in one nightmarish bomb-defusing scenario or sniper gun standoff after another, where the odds of survival are almost nill in each and every instance. Each heartpounding sequence of near-death is accompanied by a timeline reminder of how many days left our heroes have before they can safely leave Iraq (e.g. “60 days left in Delta Company’s Rotation”). It’s a countdown to their survival, and yet with each passing day and with each new I.E.D. the odds become slimmer that all three of these men will make it out alive. Part of the reason why the film works so well is that we desperately want these characters to survive. We care about them and feel existential solidarity with them. We feel the cold horror of death and the numbing tension of life on the brink—embodied in everything from a buzzing fly to a Capri Sun juicebox—and we sweat and flinch and grimace right along with them.
The Hurt Locker is not as grandiose as Saving Private Ryan or as philosophical and luxuriant as The Thin Red Line, but I do think it is one of the best war films I’ve seen in recent years. It's a visceral, affecting action film about contemporary urban warfare (perhaps most akin to something like Blackhawk Down) and it will leave you utterly drained and yet thoroughly satisfied, with a newfound appreciation for the complex and frightening experiences of our servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan.