Iraq War movies thus far have largely missed the mark. With the exception of last year's "Body of Lies," most treatments " both fictional and documentary " of the Iraq experience have felt premature and slightly half-baked with the filmmakers groping for clarity of meaning that isn't yet available.
This is because filmmakers naturally recognize the war for an important historical and cultural moment, which any dummy could figure, but there's a problem: Important historical and cultural moments have to play themselves out before they can be consumed and digested and deciphered.
"The Hurt Locker" somehow manages to give this pitfall a miss. It may be that we've been living with the Iraq debacle for so long that it's sufficiently sunk into our bones, but mostly it's because the film avoids any direct discussion or proselytizing about the war's morality, ethical status or even existential quandaries. Like the war it portrays, it's a movie that simply is what it is.
Our touchstone in Baghdad is Bravo Company, a trio of soldiers whose job is defusing bombs when possible, safely detonating them when not. The job is especially dangerous because the explosive devices are usually hidden, sometimes designed to foil disarmament, and always improvised in a way that makes them highly unstable.
Bravo Company's team leader, Staff Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"), is the bomb tech. It's his job to assess the risk and come up with a strategy, which usually ends with him donning the infamous bomb-protection suit and defusing the device by hand. The suit looks even heavier than an astronaut's outfit, and it doesn't have air conditioning. In the desert heat, it smacks more of torture than protection.
James is covered by Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, "Notorious") and Spc. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, "I Know Who Killed Me"). Apart from rickety construction, there's always a danger of the device James is trying to defuse being remotely triggered by a nearby unfriendly person, or sometimes people will simply shoot at him while he tries to figure out how which wires to cut. It's Sanborn and Eldridge's job to scope out potential trigger men and trigger them first.
As a team, Bravo Company is a constant clash of personalities. Sanborn, having recently lost former team leader Sgt. Thompson (Guy Pearce, "Bedtime Stories") to a cell-phone triggered bomb, is extremely paranoid and wants to do everything by the book to ensure safety. Eldridge is the resident coming-unhinged guy who constantly bitches about his chances to be the next death statistic while doubting his ability to decide whom to shoot and whom to leave alone.
When James joins the team, Sanborn and Eldridge are naturally suspicious. They only have 30-odd days left before going home, and James seems too willing to cheerfully risk their lives while fulfilling his own adrenaline-junkie whims. While James is good at what he does, no one's good enough to tempt fate consistently and stay unexploded forever.
Director Kathryn Bigelow ("K-19: The Widowmaker," "Strange Days") has the right idea by focusing on a group taxed with such specific duties. The tension that comes with watching James defuse bombs while Sanborn and Eldridge try to decide what a guy with a video camera or a man making hand signals atop a minaret are really up to is real and truly absorbing.
Spotlighting a military bomb squad also gives Bigelow a much finer lens with which to focus on the psychological progress of each soldier. While Eldridge takes everything personally, Sanborn and James seem, for the most part, to hold the war at arm's length. But the skirmish is sneaky, and creeps into their minds in different ways. James is particularly affected, and begins to doubt his intentions and wonder why he's in Iraq at all. Watching him creep his way through the last 10-or-so days of his tour becomes as tense as watching him defuse a bomb; one starts to wonder if he wants to be blown up.
"The Hurt Locker" carries some subtextual commentary about the war and its effect on the U.S., but it's subtle and only comes at the end. Just as James is addicted to the danger of defusing poorly constructed bombs in highly dangerous circumstances, it seems obvious war itself is addictive and we, as a country, are in danger of becoming hopelessly addicted, too.