Hollywood’s Iraq, that is to say, how Hollywood has imagined and presented America’s conflict in Iraq, has thus far produced some less than compelling results. Too often, it seems filmmakers have used the war to stage a battleground of their own ideologies, launching left-leaning tirades on anti-terrorism tactics, decrying US foreign policy, or relying on an index of negative Arab stereotypes instead of trying to get to the heart of the issue.
The United States is now six years divorced from the inception of our military operations. We have witnessed violent setbacks and steps forward, and experienced a regime change at home while trying to establish a legitimate government overseas.
Perhaps only now is the cinema ready to deal with one of the defining issues of this decade. Where others have failed, director Kathryn Bigelow’s relentlessly tense thriller/drama “The Hurt Locker” sends shockwaves to the core.
The film follows several months in the tour of a US bomb squad stationed in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant William James, played with immense power by Jeremy Renner, propels them headlong into dangerous situations while remaining seemingly indifferent to death. He is committed to disarming bombs at all costs, causing more than one confrontation with the more orthodox Sergeant Sanborn (an equally impressive Anthony Mackie).
In writer Mark Boal’s screenplay, the loose and largely episodic narrative is held together by the constant threat of violence in the dense, clustered urban streets.
As the team is called on to disarm bombs lurking in car trunks, under rubble, and buried in mere inches of sand, Bigelow goes through great lengths to capture an almost overbearing sense of verisimilitude.
Director of photography Barry Ackroyd does great work setting up handheld shots that gracefully swerve in and out of the action, while film editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski find a perfect rhythm in crosscutting close-ups against longer shots, allowing many sequences to unfold in near-real time.
“The Hurt Locker” ratchets up a devastating amount of suspense. At times, it feels charged with loose electricity, as if the screen itself could explode from a single misstep.
Even if it is a film fueled by its realism, Bigelow dramatizes certain moments through extreme slow motion. The triggering of a bomb, the drop of a shell casing, and sand blowing in the wind all take on poetic quality through their distended movement.
Beyond its immense technical accomplishments as a well-crafted thriller, the film remains respectfully apolitical; it searches more for the core of its soldiers than it does any form of redundant political statement.
It is a drama of observation, where the camera is allowed to capture extremely complex moments of internal strife in all the leads. Bigelow and her actors never overplay their hands, but each actor (Renner and Mackie in particular) embodies tormented souls stirred to life only by the drug of war.
“The Hurt Locker” is an impressive step forward in re-thinking how the Iraq War and guerrilla warfare can be presented on film. It paints an uncompromising, mature, and very exacting portrait of chaotic violence.
Not only is it the best dramatic film about the Iraq War to date, but “The Hurt Locker” is perhaps the first important American film of 2009.