War is hell.
We know this, don't we?
Do we fully understand it?
Have we fully integrated into our psyche' the absolute hellishness of war in this country?
Or, perhaps, is war still a stylish, pop-culture news media soundbyte?
If we were to believe the vast majority of Hollywood's offerings thus far portraying the Iraq war, then it would be easy to believe that, perhaps, America truly has no concept about the real ugliness of war.
"The Hurt Locker," directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is about to change all that.
Based upon the firsthand observations of an embedded journalist and screenwriter, Mark Boal, "The Hurt Locker" is a suspenseful, exhausting and traumatizing look at the daily peril faced by an American bomb disposal squad in Iraq.
Bigelow centers the film on Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), two well-trained bomb disposal experts who are joined by a new hotshot, Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner).
To say that "The Hurt Locker" is an intense film would likely be one of the great cinematic understatements of the year. "The Hurt Locker" is a 2+ hour journey through the anxiety, paranoia, suspense and highly charged minute-by-minute life of the members of the Bravo Company Team as they dispose of IED's (Improvised Explosive Devices). Refreshingly, "The Hurt Locker" is also largely devoid of the politicalization of war. Instead, Bigelow and Boal combine to create what is easily the most compelling film based upon the Iraq war with a script that could be best described as exploring the human nature of war and those who fight it.
It has been quite some time since a film accurately, or at least seemingly accurately, captured the absolute, non-stop nature of war. In this war, there's no reprieve. In this war, the action and paranoia are relentless.
This war, at least to a large degree, feels incredibly real.
It's impossible to not watch the renegade Sgt. James, defying virtually every regulation, and the much more by the book Mackie and Eldridge as they go from cars to street corners, storefronts to gathering places. While their task requires every ounce of focus they can muster, they are simultaneously surrounded by Iraqi men and women of all ages.
Every single person is a potential sniper.
Every single scene, it seems, is filled with this nervous rush of energy as we all know that it takes just one sniper, one suicide bomber.
Literally, "The Hurt Locker" is an exhausting yet cinematically exhilarating film.
In ordinary, civilian life a man like Sgt. James would likely be the frightening neighbor next door. In Iraq, despite his renegade tendencies, he's practically the perfect soldier...a fearless, relentless and risk-taking soldier who gets the job done and isn't afraid to piss a few people off along the way. Jeremy Renner, who's been making quite the name for himself on the circuit, gives a career performance as James, who at times seems like a psychotic mix of John Wayne and Patrick Bateman. While we learn that James has a life back home, it's abundantly clear that it's in Iraq where he truly finds life and inspiration.
What Bigelow does beautifully with "The Hurt Locker" is resist the urge to hype it up even further. With a rare directorial confidence, Bigelow seems to trust her material and, indeed, with only mild meandering, it's material worth trusting.
While they are clearly playing second fiddle to Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty shine brightly in their supporting roles and present us with a clear picture of a different kind of soldier, especially given that both of them are playing men just over a month away from the end of their tour of duty.
While their parts aren't nearly as defined, Guy Pearce, David Morse and Ralph Fiennes do a nice job in smaller, yet no less powerful, scenes. Their lack of development, however, is one of the film's lackings as a film that is so clearly centered on the human aspects of war seems a touch too devoid of complex characterizations.
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd lenses the film with an almost documentary feel, an approach that works nicely for much of the film.
A muscular film that literally embeds the audience inside the hell that is war, "The Hurt Locker" is one of 2009's best action flicks and, finally, a powerful and effective film about the war that has, at times, seemed unreal despite our living with it in this country for several years now largely owing to an American media machine that has too often chosen style over substance.
War is hell.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic