“The Hurt Locker” – 2.5 stars
Chances are you’ve heard a bit of hype about The Hurt Locker by now. Time Magazine said it’s a “near perfect movie”. The New York Times calls it “visceral visual poetry”. Rolling Stone thinks that Mark Boal, the writer, “nails every telling detail”. Access Hollywood states that this film is “the year’s first front-runner for Best Picture and Best Director!” With this amount of hype, it’s fairly certain that The Hurt Locker will be nominated for multiple Academy Awards this year. It is this column’s opinion that the rumors of this film’s exceptionalism “have been greatly exaggerated”. Make no mistake, this film is action-packed and taut. If viewed as simply an action film, a case could be made for a successful endeavor. The problem is this film tries to transcend beyond the action-flick label into a meaningful commentary on war and the horrors contained within. And here is where it fails.
The story is set in Baghdad 2004. The three main characters are all specialists in the U.S. Army’s Delta Company who deal with I.E.D.s (improvised explosive devices). From the opening scene, this film is exciting and very tense. Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, K-19) really does a great job of creating and maintaining the level of tension throughout most of the film. The audience quickly understands that these soldiers live on edge and most of their time is spent making snap decisions with highly charged consequences. So far, so good. The group’s previous C.O. is killed in the line of duty and Staff Sgt. William James is assigned to take over the unit. James is played by Jeremy Renner (The Assassination of Jesse James, 28 Weeks Later) as a loose cannon with some serious problems. And this highlights one of the main shortcomings with this film. Everyone, from the main character to the day-players, is a flawed and unsympathetic character. Staff Sgt. James is the protagonist and the majority of the film is spent with him and the other two soldier in the unit: Specialist Eldridge played by Brian Geraghty (We Are Marshall, Jarhead) and Sgt. J.T. Sanborn played by Anthony Mackie (Eagle Eye, We Are Marshall).
None of these three characters present the audience with a sympathetic viewpoint through which to view this film. James is an alcoholic who makes snap decisions that endangers his crew and cares more for his adrenaline fix than his family back home. Eldridge is a whiny guy who is perpetually afraid and needs to be hand-held throughout the film. Sanborn is a rage-aholic who has a chip on his shoulder for everyone and everything. I understand the point of these portrayals: No one is perfect and even heroic soldiers have faults. The problem is that Boal and Bigelow carry this convention past the point of usefulness and reality. American soldiers come in 5 different varieties in The Hurt Locker: crazy, pervert, alcoholic, rage-aholic, wimp. There is some cross-pollenation between the categories but no deviation. This brings me to the other side of this coin: the film’s portrayal of Iraqis. Boal’s script has an even harsher treatment for the citizens of Baghdad. The soldiers are perverted, drunks, and cowardly but at least they are somewhat capable. Portrayals of Iraqi citizens range from the pre-teen “base rat” kid who uses the “N-“ word and tries to sell the soldiers porn, to various insurgents who are trying to kill American soldiers, to civilians who are portrayed nearly as dumb as camels. There is an Iraqi professor in the film, but he has approximately 45 seconds of screen-time. That’s it. The film is populated with flawed, reprehensible soldiers alternately protecting/attacking a dumb/evil population of Iraqis.
Given the amount of hype and praise already heaped on this film, it will undoubtedly win at least one Academy Award. Renner does turn in a fine performance, but his script is lacking. A comment overhead on the way out of the theatre encapsulates this film pretty well, “This certainly isn’t your father’s war movie”. To some, that might be a good thing. Unfortunately in this case, it does not translate into a very good film. The Hurt Locker helped me to appreciate more traditional war films. Films that don’t flinch from depicting war’s inhumanity, but also don’t remain bogged down in the imperfections of individual men. Thank you for taking the time to read this review.