The Hurt Locker is the best Iraq war film ever made.
I don’t know how else to open the review. The film is wonderful, not for what it does, but for what it avoids doing. Far too many war films, about Iraq especially, become too focused on their own political agenda. Nothing really wrong with having an agenda, but it usually prevents the characters from being humans. They serve the purpose of a person in a political cartoon-a two dimensional caricature that only serves to demonstrate the point. These are not cartoons. The troops serving Iraq are human beings. Why has that been ignored?
At the start of the film, William James goes to Iraq to replace the downed Staff Sgt Thompson. He works in an EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) Unit, dealing with the the defusing of IEDs and other potential roadside bombs. He is obsessed with the traditional battlefield cliches-dying, glory, and the like. Instead, he does not find that. He befriends many Iraqi citizens, including one young boy named Beckham who sells bootleg DVDs. Of course Beckham is turned into a bomb and James has his friend “Doc,” whom he has been confiding in killed in an explosion. James finds himself, not with glory or with a sense of heroism, but as an adrenaline junkie who can only continue serving his tour of duty in order to make the pain growing inside of him subside.
How does one truly make a film that perfectly reflects what the war truly is? Well, the triumph is in the characterization of William James. We understand why he is there, we never see him have a nervous breakdown or question is rationale as so many other cinematic soldiers have. No, he does his duty with little complaint. Indeed, the only complaints he gives are when he is told to quit a job. James honestly does want to help the Iraqi people.
Of course the ultimate theme is who really wants his help. These are not professional soldiers he is fighting. They are civilians who have decided to inject themselves into the war the only way they know how. Sometimes they target the innocents that are friends with the soldiers. Sometimes, even the soldiers target James. One telling scene involves James trying to gain access to a military base, only to be treated as if he were a suicide bomber himself.
I felt for James. I could understand how he felt war was only a game (another great scene involved a soldier playing the video game Gears of War-no matter the anachronism). War has been prepackaged for the masses. The reality of the war has no longer been considered. It is on the same level as a best seller on the Xbox.
James knows this. So does the cinematographer. The film is deliberately shot to resemble a documentary. The typical finesse of the war film is gone. What we are staring at may as well have originally been broadcast on CNN. The explosions and the deaths of some major characters come quickly and come with no build up. Again, it is all about the reality of the war. These characters exist in our reality-they just go under different names.
Now, one last thing-what of the opening quote? The one equating war to dangerous drug use? Actually, here it is in its entirety: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”This implies some sort of great destruction from which their is no return-one that only leads to people being empty shells. How bizarre that director Bigelow shows such a quote and then shows characters who are the exact inverse of shells. Again, that’s the point. How can you show a great loss without building it up first. James definitely becomes an adrenaline junkie-when he returns home in the last act, he can no longer face the world around him and almost immediately goes back to Iraq. The quote is the great opening bookend-for once, such a technique does not seem pretentious.
The film is a masterpiece and deserves to do well at this years Academy Awards. It was already ignored at the Golden Globes; it was decided that James Cameron’s overproduced, underwritten Avatar was the better film to reflect the times. I respectfully disagree. Cameron works on an impossibly large scale; his ex wife Kathryn Bigelow on a far smaller scale. And she is better off for it.