Hurt Locker Decent, But Not Oscar-Worthy

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Voltage Pictures
131 minutes, Rated R

* * *

The Hurt Locker and its director, Kathryn Bigelow, are odds-on favorites to win Oscars in March. It wouldn’t be a travesty if either or both won, but it would be a triumph of politics over art. This is the sort of film Hollywood loves to honor because it gives the industry the opportunity to show how “important” and “relevant” it is. The Hurt Locker is a decent film, but it’s neither a masterpiece nor the best film of 2009.

The movie follows the bomb disposal unit of Bravo Company through a year’s rotation in Iraq. As so many war films do, it centers on a trio of soldiers: a tough black sergeant, J. T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie); specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), a white kid coming slowly unglued; and bomb tech extraordinaire Will James (Jeremy Remer), the proverbial ‘new guy’ who joins the team to replace a team member seen only in the film’s opening sequence. James is the film’s focal point. He’s a fearless but reckless cowboy-type who refuses to play by the rules and is perceived as endangering his comrades-in-arms through his impulsive actions. Is Will a sociopath, or an intuitive genius? We are supposed to realize that the “hurt locker” is Will himself, and that the mementos he keeps of the bombs he defuses are metaphors for the things that trigger his own damaged psyche. This never quite works as it’s intended—Will is really just James T. Kirk in a flak suit and without a beautiful babe hanging off his arm.

There are compelling moments in the film. Bigelow captures well both the intensity of a desert firefight and the minute-by-minute terror of life inside “liberated” Baghdad. The latter is shown as Dante’s Inferno raised to the surface, a trash-strewn post-apocalyptic nightmare in which instant death is a trip wire away, or peering through the chinks of a crumbled concrete wall. Lose your focus for one moment and you’re gone. Bigelow also subtly defuses the video game aspects of modern war by showing how often high tech gear goes wrong and by juxtaposing the cleanliness of Xbox death with the grisliness of combat reality.

The Hurt Locker has been labeled an antiwar film, mostly because it relentlessly shoves into our faces the reality that the United States has destroyed Iraq, that any sense of “mission accomplished” is a cruel lie, and that nobody—including the soldiers stationed there—gives a damn what happens to it. The Iraqis themselves appear less as victims than as little Saddams as devoid of feeling as Will James, the sort who think nothing of using human beings as bombs. Let’s just say that this film is unlikely to win any endorsements from U.S. policymakers or Arab civil rights groups.

It is a hard film to watch and therein is another tale. Almost no one has watched it. It took in a paltry $12.7 million at the box office and isn’t keeping anybody in business with DVD sales either. If World War II was the “good war” and Vietnam the “living room war,” Iraq is quickly becoming another kind of war. There used to be posters that asked, “What if they gave a war and nobody came:” Iraq is rewriting this as “What if they gave a war and nobody noticed?” This is a subject that Bigelow touches upon in a brief stateside sequence, but in a way that was too brief to drive home the point, and with an ending that undermines it. In the end, The Hurt Locker becomes a middle-of-the-road war movie. As a portrait of war's madness it lacks the wallop of Apocalypse Now, as a probe of damaged souls it’s not a patch on The Deer Hunter, and as an insider's look at a bomb squad it’s inferior to the BBC series Danger UXB. It’s not even as good a film about Iraq as Three Kings (1999). But that probably won’t prevent it from winning Best Picture next month. As we said, it’s the sort of film Hollywood loves to honor.

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