Both The Hurt Locker and HBO’s Generation Kill were written by embedded journalists. So it’s not surprising that they both have an immediacy and heightened sense of verite. The Hurt Locker adds an almost unsustainable tension. The split-second judgements that must be made are enough to send any sane person over the edge. These are matters of life or death. Your own life and the death of persons guilty or innocent. And it is unsustainable for any human being, so we see the release of tension play-out as well. Generation Kill mixed in the boredom with the tension in several extraordinary ways, black humor abounded and ritual inanities were the course of the day. As The Hurt Locker ratchets up the tension, we see the ‘off-duty squad either pound each other senseless or ‘relax’ by playing video war games. Really, time does not allow, nor does the environment lend itself to depressurization. This is almost hard to imagine.
We follow an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team through its daily routine, patrols and bomb neutralization. All this surrounded by a population that cannot be clearly defied as friendly or foe. A man with a cell phone or a video camera may just be making calls or recording events like you or me. Or he may be waiting to trigger a massive explosion. This, right here, is where the film excels. Nerves of steel and unerring instinct are required to avoid mistakes. How do you get these? Experience, experience. How do you get that? Luck.
Director Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days, 1995) keeps away from a political slant, much in the way that Generation Kill did. In THL, there is no time for political statements, or reflection. This is about survival, moment to moment. Both are balanced portrayals of a reality. It’s the reality that is unbalanced and dangerous.
How immediate is this film? In Vietnam, the country was engaged in a filtered way – through the prism of television. In Iraq, the country is disengaged to a level of reportage and statistics only. It’s a far off war. The theater of war (an odd use of the term, I always thought) once played out on our tv screens. Now the theater plays out with the “audience” (the citizen by-standers) including jihadists, black market cd sellers, rubble collectors, all looking on. It’s as if the audience were wandering around the stage amongst the actors in an off-broadway Greek tragedy. It’s a stage where no one or nothing is what it seems.
Jeremy Renner (Staff Sergeant William James, most recently seen as Detective Jason Walsh on “The Unusuals”) plays his role as a cowboy savant. Failure is truly not an option. He forges ahead to keep one-step ahead of death, that hooded bastard with the inexorable gait. Renner’s performance is just great. He’s out on the right edge. His crew consists of excellent and intense portrayals from Anthony Mackie, as Sergeant JT Sanborn and Brian Geraghty, as Specialist Owen Eldridge. Mackie’s character is cautious, professional. He takes the middle ground to survival. Geraghty’s character is a bit of a mess. He wants to disappear, become invisible. He takes the ultra-cautious road to survival. It’s Jeremy Renner’s character that is most out there and complex. Both the script and Renner probe that complexity in several ways, to great effect. Renner deserves recognition for this role, and I hope he gets it.
Ralph Fiennes has a small part as a mercenary Team Leader (called Contractors in the new speak) as does Guy Pearce as Sergeant Matt Thompson.
As Deer Hunter was to Vietnam war movies, The Hurt Locker may be to the Iraqi conflict. THL played at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Having gotten some limited distribution, I’d hope for a wider audience and recognition.