The Hurt Locker
I didn’t see this originally because I’ve seen movies about bomb demolition squads and didn’t like watching people I have been influenced to care about trying to disconnect a wire to a bomb that will blow them to smithereens as the sweat breaks out on their brows and the clock is ticking down. I’ve had enough of those.
However, when this was nominated for Best Picture, I felt I had to see it, and got a pleasant surprise because this is a very entertaining war movie.
Mark Boal was an investigative journalist for Playboy Magazine who, in 2004, was embedded with a unit of the army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad for three weeks. He used that experience to write the screenplay that got the attention of director Katherine Bigelow, with whom he had worked when she developed a TV series around an article he had written.
The result is a riveting film about people who do something most would consider insane, dismantling live bombs. Although there is some of the wire cutting in the film, the movie is really about Sgt. First Class William James (Jeremy Renner), his personality and motivation, and the way he gets along with the other members of his squad, especially Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and they, him.
This isn’t just about defusing bombs. There is a scene where James’ squad is ambushed in the desert that is starkly reminiscent of William Wellman’s brilliant scene in “The Story of G.I. Joe” (1945) where an infantry squad is attacked by a sniper in a tower. There is no dialogue but, for at least five minutes, the squad tries to get the sniper. Wellman, who fought in World War I, produced one of the best war scenes ever filmed. I can’t say for sure that Bigelow was influenced by this scene but it is eerily evocative, realistically capturing what it’s like to be attacked by an almost unseen sniper and how professionals go about getting him.
Renner gives a terrific performance as the cocky bomb-dismantler who risks his life every time he dons the protective suit to approach some unknown ordnance in or on the street. Throughout the movie I kept telling my friend, “This guy’s crazy.” But there are people like that. John Hersey wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about them called “The War Lover” in 1959 which was made into a Steve McQueen movie in 1962. To people like Buzz in “The War Lover” and James in this movie, the thrill of tempting death is the elixir of life. Wellman drew on his experience as a combat veteran to film his scene (which he repeated in his 1958 film, “Darby’s Rangers”). Unlike Wellman, Bigelow hasn’t fought in a war. So the realism of her scene, and the entire film, are all the more remarkable.