Doctors love to complain about movies that portray their line of work. So do cops, fire fighters, journalists… and soldiers. Many Iraq War vets harbor contempt toward this film’s depiction of life in Baghdad for a United States Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team. The filmmakers seem to have gotten tons of details wrong, which has become a point of contention for many vets who can’t understand why the movie has been praised. They are right of course; many of these minor problems of the film could have been avoided. But on the other hand, these guys are blind to the power of the drama that plays out here. It’s not about the little things, it’s about the big picture.
In 2004, U.S. forces are battling Iraqi insurgents and foreign terrorists in Baghdad who have become quite adept at rigging explosives that target both civilians and soldiers. Bombs are consistently planted as improvised explosive devices or strapped on people for suicide missions. The story follows the Bravo Company in the last days of their tour, as Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) joins the team after the death of Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce). James’s job is to disarm bombs. When he approaches a device in his bombsuit, it is up to Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) to watch his back. James turns out to be somewhat of a wild card, which annoys Sanborn who must trust him in order to guarantee everybody’s safety.
At the same time, Eldridge is finding it difficult to adjust in Baghdad; risking one’s life every day in this dangerous part of the world is wearing on his nerves, not least after a disastrous experience in the desert where most members of a British team are killed. James is not easily shaken, but when he finds the dead body of a boy who’s been implanted with a bomb, a line has been crossed for him.
Jordanian locations look like Baghdad
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron allegedly told her that this film was going to be “the Platoon for the Iraq War”. His faith in her is strong and this is Bigelow’s finest film to date. To be frank, I’m not a fan of her earlier work but after watching this film my eyes have been opened. Maybe a penchant for the technical aspects of the job has been obvious earlier in her career to other critics, but this time she had the good fortune of relying on a good script by Mark Boal, a freelance writer who was embedded with a real EOD team.
The title of the film means roughly “a place of ultimate pain”, referring both to taking the impact of an explosion in a bombsuit as well as trying to cope with the mental agony that follows a tour of duty in Iraq or any other theater of war. Renner is particularly memorable as the seasoned bomb expert who frighteningly loves his job, so much so that the film’s initial quote by New York Times reporter Chris Hedges (“The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug”) seems like it was written with him in mind. It’s an interesting portrait of a disturbed individual who can only find satisfaction when he’s toying with his life.
Bigelow hired cinematographer Barry Ackroyd to lend the film the same kind of realistic hue that helped make United 93 (2006) look almost like a documentary. Even the film’s detractors among veterans have praised the way the Jordanian shooting locations have come to resemble the Baghdad they know from their own tours of duty.
Stars like David Morse, Ralph Fiennes and Pearce make brief appearances. I appreciate Bigelow’s effort to let lesser-known actors hog the spotlight and play fleshed-out characters. They make us care for them in a film that otherwise could easily have been just a thrill-ride (which of course it also is).
The Hurt Locker 2009-U.S. 131 min. Color. Produced by Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Nicolas Chartier, Greg Shapiro. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Screenplay: Mark Boal. Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd. Editing: Bob Murawski, Chris Innis. Cast: Jeremy Renner (William James), Anthony Mackie (JT Sanborn), Brian Geraghty (Owen Eldridge), Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse.
Trivia: The film originally debuted at the Venice film festival in 2008. Colin Farrell, Willem Dafoe and Charlize Theron were allegedly considered for roles.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Effects. BAFTA: Best Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Sound.
Last word: “I was an embedded reporter in Iraq and I came back from having spent some time with the bomb squad and watching them disarm bombs in the heat of combat. And I knew Kathryn Bigelow from before that experience. Anyway, I told her about it, and she said, ‘Hey, that’s a movie.’ Or, ‘That might be a movie.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ And she encouraged me to work on a script, and then we developed a script together that was a fictionalization of what I had seen over there, but still pretty authentic as to what soldiers go through. And that was the beginning of it all.” (Boal, FirstShowing.Net)