The most successful films about our modern wars have tended to be overtly political (Fahrenheit 911), the memoiristic (Lone Survivor, American Sniper), or directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker). The problem with the overtly political movies is that they allow their purpose to overwhelm their plot (yes, Fahrenheit 911 has a plot, it’s about how an annoying fat guy spent two hours telling us how he defeated George W. Bush). The problem with the memoiristic films is that memoirists are concerned mostly with themselves and neglect the wider story, which means that the films based on memoirs have uninteresting side characters and uncompelling villains. The problem with the Kathryn Bigelow war movies is that there aren’t enough of them.
The Hurt Locker is quite simply a great movie. Bigelow and her writer, Mark Boal, do not try to recreate the war in Iraq as it is. Instead, they use it as a canvas to tell a story about the nation and the people who fought that war. It's as much about how the war is perceived, as it is about how the war is or was. The Hurt Locker centers on a three-man explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) squad led by Sgt. First Class William James (Jeremy Renner). James is a bomb disposal expert. On the surface, he’s exactly the wrong man for such a job. He isn’t patient. He isn’t careful. He isn’t studious. But he has something far more necessary – the ability – no the desire to constantly stare death in the face. James’ methods don’t sit well with Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) or Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). Sanborn is a disciplined soldier, and Eldridge vacillates between being too frightened of death and too resigned to it for much of the film.
Most of The Hurt Locker’s run time is devoted to these three men crammed together in a Humvee confronting a threat that could kill them at any time. In these passages, Bigelow seems most inspired not by other war films, but by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Each bomb James and his team neutralizes demonstrates their bravery and the bomb makers terrible creativity.
Renner and Mackie are superb. In many ways, it’s a shame that these two men have gone on to become so much more famous than they were at the time. In 2008, they were free to completely disappear into these roles. That said, you see precisely why they’ve both emerged as some of our best modern actors here. They deliver performances that run the emotional gamut, and, I think, accurately depict how men who are strong most frequently betray their vulnerabilities.
However, the most striking aspect of The Hurt Locker is its final few passages. We are jolted out of the Humvee, and sent back to the States. James has a house, cleans his gutters, goes grocery shopping with his wife (Evangeline Lilly), and takes care of his child. He seems able enough here, but never as confident or at home as he seemed disarming bombs in Iraq. I knew it was coming, but I was shocked at how much relief I felt to see Sgt. James strolling down a Baghdadi street in a bomb disposal suit once again.
As with all films, there is a certain necessary unreality to The Hurt Locker. For instance, I don’t think military EOD teams are autonomous three man units wandering around disposing bombs. That said, I do think that for a certain kind of man (and a certain kind of politician) war actually is peace. The Hurt Locker makes me think about that in the context of our modern conflicts. It provokes those thoughts in the context of a compelling story. It makes the political and the geopolitical extremely personal, which is why it is one of the best films of the 2000s.
The Hurt Locker finds itself on this list because 4 of the 37 critics listed it as one of the best films of the decade. No critics surveyed chose it as number one. It shares that distinction with Zodiac, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Incredibles, and my next feature, Ratatouille.
From Out in the Void,