The Hurt Locker, yet another movie depicting the horrors and tribulations which American soldiers face in the Iraq war; or so it seems on the surface. Surely the cliché, prosaic and now rather tedious nature of such movies would not even be considered a nominee for the Best Film Oscar. Why then did The Hurt Locker walk away from the Oscars with this award and five more? The only way to figure this out is to watch it and after years of wondering, that’s exactly what I did.
Kathryn Bigelow’s movie follows a team of elite soldiers as they patrol the streets of Bagdad prepared to disarm any IED (aka roadside bomb) they encounter. The elite team consists of the rule abiding Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), the highly insecure and rather troubled Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), and their adrenaline junkie leader, Sergeant William “wild man” James (Jeremy Renner).
As the story of the team’s endeavours progresses it becomes clear that James is much more interested in the thrill of danger than ensuring the safety of both his comrades’ and the many innocent Iraqi civilians at risk from the bombs he must disarm. He jumps at every opportunity to don his safety armour and enter the ‘kill zone’, risking his life and others (much to his team’s dismay). We also see his collection of pieces of explosive devices which he collects as keepsakes of bombs he has disarmed; and it becomes clear to the viewer that the movie’s most infamous quote highlighted in the opening credits, “war is a drug” is exemplified most potently within Renner’s character. It is Renner’s character alone therefore, which ensures that this is movie is not ‘locked’ in the cliché of politically driven war movies.
The story itself is not politically driven; Bigelow’s film is merely a vector for presenting the typical everyday activities carried out by soldiers in Iraq and most significantly the feelings and emotions they experience while performing their mandatory daily duties. This focus in and of itself , despite the lack of a politically driven plot, results in perhaps the most forceful anti war message of any politically driven film about the war in Iraq. There is nothing more compelling than witnessing and experiencing the emotions these soldiers endure everyday, and whether this was Bigelow’s intention or not, the viewer, let’s face it, is not going to be pleased with the suffering they witness; the suffering soldiers live though everyday in reality.
This placing the audience into the action of the film and allowing them to live through the soldier’s toil alongside Bigelow’s characters is achieved using various effective devices. Most notably the deafening silence present throughout the movie and the lack of a lavish, theatrical score creates an intense atmosphere, drawing the audience into the action and surrounding them in the setting. This, teamed with the regularly shifting POV and shaky camera shots successfully places the viewer on the barren, dilapidated streets of Bagdad, where they watch alongside the Iraqi civilians as Sergeant James and his team attempt to disarm the ever present deadly IED’s. The audience experience the activities of war as the characters do and this allows for an intense emotive response; so intense in fact that this movie was deemed the Best Film 2009.
And I have to agree. Ignoring the cunning political stand point Bigelow illustrates, this film was well deserving of its title and well deserving of overthrowing Avatar. Although Avatar offers the viewer the same experience of being placed into the action of the movie, Bigelow’s film does this unaided by 3D Imax technology; it is simply a brilliantly constructed film in which one is injected into the ‘Hurt Locker’ of war and comes out the other side having undergone an enlightening experience. The experience of a drug. The experience of war.