Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, with Ralph Fiennes and David Morse

Kathryn Bigelow’s movie, The Hurt Locker, is a fictional account, set in 2004, post-invasion Iraq, of the day-to-day activities — both inside and outside the wire — of a three-man team of Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technicians as they go about dealing with the harrowing business of disarming various types of unexploded IEDs. The arc of the story is a simple one: the team’s original leader and ‘point man’ is killed in the first few minutes of the film, and a replacement, played by Jeremy Renner, is assigned to fill his place during the last couple of weeks of the team’s tour of duty. Obviously, this set-up is a little contrived, but so far, so good. The first few scenes of the film tell the viewer exactly what they should expect from here on out: a grittily realistic story about a thankless, nerve-racking, and paranoia-inducing mission in a very nasty, dangerous place. In short, the viewer is led to expect a contemporary war story, but with an unusual, psychological, and emotional twist. Unfortunately, that is not quite what the film delivers.

On its face, the basic premise of the movie would not seem to require a great deal of embellishment. The highly dangerous task of disarming IEDs is, in and of itself, probably about as good a narrative vehicle for creating dramatic tension in front of the camera as a movie director is ever going to find. Of course, real life is one thing and movies are something else. And it is clear very early on that 'The Hurt Locker' was never intended to be a pseudo-documentary about the uniquely-challenging mission of American Explosive Ordinance Disposal units in Iraq. Instead, the script sticks to a conventional and fairly predictable Hollywood formula wherein the arrival of the dead team leader’s replacement, nick-named ‘cowboy’, immediately creates both a physical and a psychological crisis for the two surviving members of the team. The new ‘bomb tech’, it turns out, is a bit of a loon. He may be very good at what he does, but he is also an 'adrenaline junkie': for him, disarming IEDs is not a job; it is the only thing that gives his life any meaning. Moreover, he is also utterly self-centered: pitting both his skill and his life against the cunning of an invisible bomb-maker is such a powerful rush that he barely even notices that, for his teammates, his constant craving for the next adrenaline rush is an existential threat. The message of 'The Hurt Locker' is clear: real heroes may be laudable for what they do, but they are also dangerous to be around.

This theme, of course, is a very old one: western ambivalence towards heroic characters goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Achilles and Ajax may have been impressive as warriors and great guys to have on your side in a fight, but who would want to have them spend the week as house guests? So the idea of a heroic, but deeply-flawed protagonist is not the central defect in this film; the main problem is that the script writer and the director just get too many of the little ‘nitty-gritty’ details of military life wrong. And, just to add to the viewer’s confusion, they also can’t quite make up their minds as to how emotionally isolated the Renner character actually should be.

The most obvious problem, at least for those of us who have actually served in a war zone, is that the three-man bomb disposal team in the film spends an awful lot of its time wandering around Iraq all by itself. Not to put too fine a point on it but, in the military, there is a chain of command. At no time in the film, does a commissioned or warrant officer ever even show up to see if these guys are still alive. Purely from a dramatic standpoint, of course, it is probably much more interesting if the story places the main characters in one vulnerable, highly-exposed situation, after another. However, in real life, the US Army just doesn’t operate that way. Highly trained, hard-to-replace technicians like these would virtually always have a platoon-sized or larger escort whenever they went outside of the wire. Moreover, ‘bomb techs’ don’t clear large multi-story buildings on their own, no matter how exciting it may be for a film-maker to stage such a scene; that’s why we have infantrymen: to do the initial ‘door-knocking’ and site clearing, before these guys actually go in to do their own very specialized jobs.

And then there is the very long scene, mid-way through the movie, during which our intrepid three-man team — on their own, as usual — runs into a group of five ‘civilian contractors’, led by Ralph Fiennes. This situation is so contrived and unrealistic on so many different levels that it is hard to know where to begin. For starters, the Army team happens upon the ‘civilian contractors’ in the middle of the Iraqi desert. Fiennes’ band of mercenaries is stuck because of a flat tire; it also turns out that they have two ‘high value’ Iraqi prisoners and lots of sophisticated armament, including a .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifle; what they don’t have is a tire iron. Something else that they apparently don’t have — given that they have already called Bagdad for assistance — is a friend with the CIA or in Special Ops that is willing to get off his butt and help bring in these two Iraqi ‘persons of interest’. But not to worry, a boring get-together in the middle of the desert quickly gets more interesting. Almost as soon as the two groups have had an opportunity to exchange pleasantries, it becomes clear that both the ‘contractors’ and the bomb techs have stumbled into the midst of a local group of, quite possibly, the most optimistic, ‘can do’ insurgents in all of Iraq. Putting aside the question of why an outnumbered band of Jihadis, with no possible route of escape, would pick a fight with a larger, better-armed group of adversaries in the first place; the bigger question, left unanswered throughout the entire scene, is: why is it that the Americans never receive either reinforcements or even manage to persuade their superiors to authorize an airstrike against the single isolated building from which the insurgents are firing? Clearly, if there is a plausible reason for this curious lapse, neither the scriptwriter nor the director is disposed to share that information with the viewer.

Two minor characters, both of whom briefly pop in and out of the story, also warrant a few comments. Interestingly, neither character moves the narrative forward in any significant way. Both characters in fact, contribute so little to the storyline that they seem to have been included mainly as props for short bits of cinematic audience manipulation, and nothing more. The first is a painfully sincere, well-meaning Army psychiatrist; the other is a hard-charging, unsentimental colonel, played by David Morse. The empathetic ‘shrink’, in an effort to help one of the team members who has been suffering from bouts of depression, finally goes outside the wire with the team on a mission and, not surprisingly, ends up having a very bad day. The David Morse character, on the other hand, immediately after his men come out of a firefight, instructs a medic to leave a badly-wounded insurgent untreated. “He’s not,” says the colonel matter-of-factly, “going to make it.” It is made very clear that sympathy for the people who were trying, minutes before, to kill his men is not at the top of the colonel’s list of priorities. However, when he later meets the Renner character, the same colonel is as excited as if he had just bumped into a long-absent brother. Courage, even of the ‘wild man’ variety displayed by the risk-loving bomb tech is something that the colonel both appreciates and admires.

Perhaps, the most cringe-worthy scenes in the movie, however, involve the Renner character’s friendship with a teenage Iraqi street hustler. Somehow, the viewer is expected to believe that an emotionally isolated man, who is incapable of forming bonds with his fellow soldiers or even with his own wife and baby, would — on the spur of the moment — choose to risk his life on an illegal, pointless, and exceedingly dangerous errand to find the Iraqi boy’s family. The message of this part of the film, if there actually is one, seems to be that the only way to penetrate the protagonist’s emotional armor is to peddle him poor-quality DVDs.

Not everything about this film, however, is disappointing. The scenes dealing specifically with the actual disarming of IEDs are all wonderfully-staged, tautly paced, and harrowing. And the cast, without exception does an excellent job; there are no weak or unconvincing performances. Moreover, the exteriors are all very good; and the director, when she turns her attention to it, conveys a very real sense of the menace and paranoia that shadows our troops on a daily basis when they serve in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This is probably why, when everything is said and done, I am so disappointed in this movie. Certainly, it is both a serious and a well-intentioned look at one facet of the war in Iraq. And there are moments when every thing that appears on the screen works perfectly; unfortunately, there also moments when the grit of Iraq gets overshadowed by the civilian myths and tired conventions of theatrical filmmaking. In the end then, we are left with a simple question: Is 'The Hurt Locker' a bad film? No. Would I recommend it to others? I would, even with its serial defects. However, I must also note that when it comes to a realistic and detailed theatrical treatment of the topic of bomb disposal, the 1981 British series, DANGER UXB, is still probably second to none.


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