Like every war before it, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has generated its share of movies. But The Hurt Locker is the first of them that can properly be called a masterpiece.
Working from a screenplay by Mark Boal (who based the movie on his experiences as an embedded journalist with U.S. troops), director Kathryn Bigelow accomplishes two seemingly obvious but formidably difficult things: She crafts a taut and harrowing thriller in which the suspense level rarely dips below excruciating, and she delivers an exceptionally detailed, first-hand account of the day-to-day existence of U.S. soldiers,in Iraq, the way Platoon did for Vietnam or Saving Private Ryan did for World War II.
The Hurt Locker is good enough to stand alongside those two hallowed classics, although it might initially seem too small and specific to merit such comparisons. Platoon and Ryan were intended to be broad summations of their respective wars, writ large, with the benefit of years of hindsight and reflection.
The Hurt Locker, which was shot on grainy 16mm film with handheld cameras and often looks not much different from a report you might see on CNN, is more urgent and of the moment. The movie does not concern itself with grand, sweeping statements or panoramic views of the Iraq conflict - does not concern itself with anything, really, beyond its three protagonists, soldiers with one of the most dangerous jobs the Army has to offer.
They are the members of Delta Company, a bomb-defusing squad led by Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who dons protective gear that makes him look like a visiting alien and figures out, patiently and curiously, how to disarm (or safely detonate) explosive devices meant to kill Americans. He is backed by Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who look out for sniper fire and approaching enemies while James dismantles the bombs.
Sanborn, who is counting the days until he gets to go home, and Eldridge, who still displays the jangled nerves and eager earnestness of a rookie, are far different soldiers from James, who takes to his job with a recklessness many would interpret as suicidal and who performs it with surgical precision.
The plot, such as it is, details the ups and downs of the bond among the soldiers as they carry out their tour of duty in 2004 Baghdad. But the movie is mainly comprised of one large set piece after another, each presenting a new challenge for the combined skills of the unit: A booby-trapped car; a bomb hidden in a pile of trash; a man with explosives strapped to his waist, begging for someone to help remove them before they go off.
Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days, Near Dark), an expert at large-scale kinetic filmmaking and the exploration of the psyches of men under duress, has never had a script so tailor-made to her strengths. Every one of the big sequences in The Hurt Locker - and some of them stretch for more than 15 minutes - is a sensational, nerve-racking exercise in suspense and action. Bigelow knows exactly where to place her cameras and how to edit her shots so the viewer always understands where the threat to the characters is coming from and where they stand in relation to each other.
Her style is the antithesis of the sugary rush the incomprehensible eye candy in Transformers delivers. The spatiality is so clearly defined that some sequences - such as the one in which the soldiers are pinned down by snipers on both sides of a sand dune, and Sanborn's gun jams because the ammo casing is coated with sticky blood - build up an almost intolerable level of anxiety.
That is the point of The Hurt Locker, which eschews spoken commentary on the politics of the Iraq war in favor of acts and deeds of insane heroism and bravery. The movie opens with journalist Chris Hedges' statement that "War is a drug," and The Hurt Locker makes you feel how some soldiers, like the bomb dismantler James, become addicted while others remain repulsed. This is not just a great war film -- it's a great action movie, period.
The fact that the subject matter happens to be grave and timely is a bonus. That Bigelow, previously relegated primarily to fantasy and sci-fi genres, achieves her greatest triumph with her most realistic film is a happy coincidence