The Hurt Locker

5.00

Bomb alley

There will be other challengers in time, but so far The Hurt Locker is easily the best film to come out of the Iraq war.

That's not necessarily the same thing as a film "about" the Iraq war. Kathryn Bigelow's intense, jittery drama doesn't deeply consider the whys and hows of the conflict, and good job, too, if the ones that do are anything like Lions for Lambs. This is less about the War on Terror than the terror of war, a ground-level investigation of the way three different soldiers respond to the everyday peril of keeping the peace in occupied Baghdad. What's more, the soldiers of Bravo Company are engaged in the scariest arena – bomb disposal.

That much is made sickeningly clear in a set-piece prologue where the company's chief bomb "tech" is killed by an IED (improvised explosive device) on a deserted roadside. The dead man's colleagues, Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) and Sgt J T Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), don't know what to make of his replacement, because Staff Sgt William James (Jeremy Renner) isn't like any soldier they've met. James is both expert and maverick, a cool-headed fatalist who takes risks in a field already primed with risks. He discards the protective suit of techs who go into the kill zone – "If I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die comfortable" – and he disregards procedure. He has ridden his luck, with nearly 900 bombs successfully defused. Sanborn is far more cautious, and bitterly rebukes James for putting his life, and by extension their lives, on the line. Eldridge, the youngest of them, is a heartbreaking bundle of nerves and twitches, longing for the day he comes out of the line.

What sane person would not? Sanborn and Eldridge both realise the near-hopelessness of the army's situation, being in a country they don't understand among a people whose language they don't speak. Bigelow conveys their disquiet quite brilliantly; nearly every scene in which they patrol the streets crackles with tension and foreboding. She mixes long shots with sudden close-ups to tremendous effect. Whose faces lurk at those open windows above them? Why is that man training a videocam on their movements? How to distinguish between hostility and simple curiosity? Her technique, the opposite of rubbish like Tony Scott's The Taking of Pelham 123, is to build a scene over long minutes, probing and exploiting our doubts instead of clouting us over the head with whippy, rock-video edits. At times we are right there in the middle of the madness, listening to the breathing of a tech beneath his huge protective helmet (which will be no protection at all in the event of a blast), or watching the dusty, dead-tired face of Sanborn as he lines up a rifle-shot down the crosshairs.

The movie represents a personal triumph for Bigelow. Having proven her hotshot action credentials nearly 20 years ago in Point Break, she has never really delivered since, crashing between the millennial hysteria of Strange Days (1995) and the dour submarine heroics of K-19: The Widowmaker (2002). This time she has assembled an elite team of her own, starting with screenwriter Mark Boal, a journalist who was embedded with a US bomb squad in Baghdad. Boal's script is notable for making character the priority; everything these soldiers say derives from individual sensibility rather than the manual of tough-guy dialogue. The director of photography, Barry Ackroyd (United 93), shoots with multiple cameras to create a sense of menace from all sides; no recent action movie has better expressed the critical importance of space.

Unusually, the most famous contributors here – Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce – are granted shockingly brief screentime, almost as if Bigelow were trying to invert the star system and lift the minor actors to prominence. Jeremy Renner seems vaguely familiar, though his blunt, froggy countenance is not that of a hero, or a leading man. Perhaps that's the point: coolheadedness and courage, pace Hollywood, can reside within quite ordinary-looking types. The screenplay suggests a pathological strain to his heroism: whereas for most men war is a drag, for the likes of James it's a drug. This bomb specialist gets his kicks from being as close to obliteration as humanly possible. James's tragedy is his inability to live "normally"; back at base he enjoys violent horseplay with his buddies, while at home with the wife and kid he looks quietly wretched as he trails up and down the supermarket aisles.

Some might criticise the film for not taking an overview of the Iraq intervention, though the implications of the soldiers' presence is hardly ambiguous. Their government has put them in this mess; all they can do is try to survive it as best they can. Bigelow is animated by a more universal impulse: she wants to convey how men manage to cope under the intolerable pressures of conflict. In that sense it could be about any war. The Hurt Locker is really a study in fear, and how certain individuals go beyond that fear to a kind of grace. That's the feeling behind Bigelow's haunting final shot of a bomb technician, walking away from camera down another dust-blown Baghdad street. In his cumbersome suit and helmet he looks like a spaceman, heading for who on Earth knows what.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'