DVD Release Date:  January 12, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  July 10, 2009 (wide)
Rating:  R (for war violence and language)
Genre:  War, Drama
Run Time:  131 min.
Director:  Kathryn Bigelow
Actors:  Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Hasan Darwish, Christopher Sayegh, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo

The list of Iraq War dramas that have failed at the box office is long, and the critical assessment of those films has sometimes been as apathetic as the general public's level of interest.

In the Valley of Elah was well reviewed and pulled a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Tommy Lee Jones, but couldn't break $7 million at the gate. Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss stopped short of $11 million. Brian de Palma's Redacted, the director's unapologetic attack on U.S. troops, may represent the nadir of Iraq War movies. The hostility that greeted the film's release generated plenty of publicity, but the film's box-office take of $65,000 (the film's estimated budget was $5 million) disproved the adage that "all press is good press." Critics mostly rejected the film.

The negative tone of these Iraq War dramas matched the mood of the opinion leaders leading up to the 2004 election, when so many of the films were in production or in release. Only Michael Moore's anti-George W. Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 struck a chord with the public—especially 2004-era blue-state voters, who drove Moore's documentary to record grosses of $119 million.

The broader U.S. public, however, wasn't as ready to throw in the towel on the Iraq War as were the men and women behind these films, which, whatever their merits (Stop-Loss and Fahrenheit 9/11 were effective in stretches, if not wholly satisfying), are already badly dated—focusing on a Donald Rumsfeld-led strategy that has since been discarded in favor of a troop "surge" that helped shift the war's momentum in a positive direction.

Key to the success of the The Hurt Locker is that its agenda is neither pro-war nor anti-war. Instead, the film is a look at the psychology of the men who go to war, and especially of those who willingly take part in the most dangerous aspects of conflict. Yet in The Hurt Locker, even the psychological aspect takes a back seat to the sheer adrenaline of battle—the way tension can mount quickly in a foreign setting, where the enemy can emerge, armed, from behind a building, or appear as an innocent-looking civilian with a cell phone in hand.

The film focuses on the insurgents' most effective lethal weapon—the improvised explosive device, or IED—and the men whose task it is to defuse the bombs. The destructive power of IEDs is displayed early in the film, taking the life of one of the men in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad. He's replaced by Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who, along with Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), will be the focus of the film for much of its two hour-plus running time.

The trio has fewer than 40 days left in its rotation, but each day brings ample opportunity for a bad ending—from the IEDs or from armed enemy fighters. While James wrestles with the IEDs, Sanborn and Eldridge keep watch, radioing James with updates on suspicious individuals and the level of hostility among the townspeople.

One the great strengths of The Hurt Locker—beyond the tension of the bomb-defusing sequences—is its soldiers'-view perspective of the faces of the men and women who watch the Americans as they cut bomb wires and cheat death. Many are as war-weary as the Americans, but it's hard to know if one will suddenly pull out a gun or detonate a bomb with a cell phone. (In one memorable sequence, the mood quickly shifts from peaceful to unsettling and dangerous.)

The most notable missing element from The Hurt Locker is discussion of the source of the men's fighting and bomb-defusing skills (Psalms 144:1), but questions of family life become increasingly relevant as James' unflappable battlefield manner cracks under the strain of daily death all around him. The film elevates these questions above the skirmishes and gunfights that dominate the early part of the film. What kind of life do these men lead back in the States? What kind of family life do they hope for?

The film provides no final answers on the subject of spousal and paternal responsibilities, nor does it glorify James' fearless attitude in fighting the enemy abroad. Rather, it shows how James' behavior not only saves lives but puts his men at risk, even as he prevents damage on a greater scale.

Well-known names like Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes and David Morse are underused, but Renner and Mackie compensate with breakout performances. More than the actors, however, the star of The Hurt Locker is director Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Strange Days, Point Break), who, along with editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, give the film a riveting immediacy and tension. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who shot Paul Greengrass' United 93, adds to the excellent tech credits.

The Hurt Locker is taut and provocative. What it's not is judgmental. Those looking for a harsh critique of the Iraq conflict won't find much here, nor will those looking for an endorsement of the ongoing war. The Hurt Locker will appeal most to those in search of a satisfying film.


Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@verizon.net.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  Lord's name taken in vain; racial epithets; foul language, including several uses of the "f" word; a soldier extends his middle finger.
  • Smoking/Drinking:  Soldiers smoke and drink several times; an opening quote compares war to a drug.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A boy selling DVDs tells a soldier he has everything on video, including gay-sex material; a man is seen from behind urinating; soldiers are shown shirtless; a soldier says he was off-base at a whorehouse, and another soldier demands to know the location.
  • Violence/Crime:  Insurgent attacks and roadside bombs in several scenes; bombs detonate and kill/wound soldiers and others; guns are pointed at Iraqis who may or may not be threats; one soldier punches another in the face; a soldier threatens to chop off a man's head with a dull knife, but then says he was just kidding; multiple gunfights; a man is shot in the back; the men allow themselves to be punched while drunk, just to see how hard their fellow soldiers can hit; a soldier puts a knife to another soldier's neck; men reach into wounded areas of bodies; a young boy's corpse holds a bomb, which is extracted from his abdominal area; an Iraqi fighter is shot in the head, and blood is seen spurting from afar; a soldier forces an Iraqi at gunpoint to drive him somewhere, and he invades a couple's home, pointing his gun at them; a soldier is hit by friendly fire; a suicide bomber.
  • Marriage/Divorce:  A solider says he thinks he's divorced, but his wife still lives in his house, making their status uncertain.