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2009 Catch-Up: Josh Reviews The Hurt Locker

March 4th, 2010
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After months and months of reading praise for Kathryn Bigelow’s film The Hurt Locker, I finally was able to see the film on DVD.  (Once again, thank you Netflix!)  I am extremely pleased to report that, for me, the film lived up to its hype.

In the bravura opening sequence, we meet Delta Company, an elite unit of the U.S. Army serving in Iraq.  Delta Company consists of the men who get called in to disarm and/or detonate I.E.D.s (Improvised Explosive Devices) and all manner of other sorts of explosives before they can kill any U.S. servicemen/woman or others.  The tense, harrowing first few minutes of the film tell us everything we need to know about the incredible bravery and ability of the men of Delta Company who we’ll be following through the film, the excruciatingly difficult task that they are called upon to deal with every single day, and the high fatality rates of their assignments.

The Hurt Locker focuses on three men in Delta Company.  Anthony Mackie plays Sgt. JT Sanborn — a tough, by-the book officer of great professionalism.  Brian Geraghty plays Specialist Owen Eldridge, the youngest member of the team.  Eldridge struggles with the weight of the life-and-death assignments that he must take on every day, but we never see those concerns affect his performance in the field.  Then there is Staff Sgt. William James, played by Jeremy Renner in a phenomenal, star-making performance.  SSG James is assigned to head up Delta Company after the death of their previous field leader.  James is an extraordinarily talented officer, but we quickly learn that he is not one for by-the-book procedures.  This brings him into conflict with Sgt. Sanborn, who judges James to be reckless and dangerous.  Young Eldridge finds himself caught somewhat in the middle.

That could be the plot of a great movie, but The Hurt Locker isn’t really a drama about conflict within a military unit.  Though we see evidence of that conflict that I have just described over the course of the story, The Hurt Locker isn’t concerned with typical Hollywood war-movie character arcs or story-lines.  Rather, director Kathryn Bigelow has created a film whose main purpose, it seems to me, is to put the viewer right in the middle of the intense, every-moment-could-be-your-last job that these men serving in Iraq have been given.  Through careful direction, tight editing, and above all stupendous acting, The Hurt Locker consists of one nail-biting sequence after another.

The film is episodic in nature.  In less capable hands this could be a weakness, undermining the narrative thrust that a successful film needs to achieve.  But under the sure guidance of Ms. Bigelow, the episodic structure of the film becomes something extremely powerful.  In each new sequence, the men of Delta Company are confronted with yet another harrowing encounter, where death seems to be one small wrong move away.  I kept expecting some larger storyline to emerge.  About an hour into the film, Delta Company is traveling through the desert after having completed an assignment when they encounter a broken-down truck of English mercenaries who have captured two members of the insurgency.  One of the mercenaries is played by Ralph Fiennes.  Aha, I thought, this is going to be the story that takes us through the rest of the film.  Maybe Ralph and his guys aren’t what they seem.  Maybe the insurgents are going to get away somehow and our guys are going to have to track them down.  I’ve seen a lot of war movies, and I could begin to guess how this was going to play out.

Thankfully, I was totally wrong.  We spend an intense 10-15 minutes with Ralph Fiennes and his team in that difficult situation (in which the characters find themselves pinned down by snipers).  But then the film moves on to the next day in the life of Delta Company, and we never see those English dudes again.

As I wrote a moment ago, it would be easy for this episodic structure to fall apart by the end of the film.  I have seen similarly structured movies that are interesting for the first half, but after a while one gets bored by the assemblage of short, disparate adventures.  But in The Hurt Locker, not only did I find myself growing only more engaged with the characters and the film with each “episode,” I would argue that this structure is the very point of the film, and the key to its power.  It doesn’t matter how tough one particular day is in the life of the men of Delta Company.  The next day, and the next tough assignment, is just around the corner.  The Hurt Locker isn’t the larger-than-life story of movie super-heroes — it’s the true-to-reality story of the brave, talented, and very human men (and women) who take on this work.  And that makes it all the more compelling.

If it were about a fictionalized conflict, The Hurt Locker would still be a visceral, edge-of-your-seat action film.  That it attempts to capture the experiences of some of the men and women serving our nation in Iraq gives it an increased resonance that only adds to the film’s power.  This is a masterfully assembled piece of work.  It’s difficult to watch at times, but it is well worth your time.

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