Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Hurt Locker: Explosive drama

The Hurt Locker (2009) • View trailer for The Hurt Locker
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for war violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.23.09
Buy DVD: The Hurt Locker• Buy Blu-Ray: The Hurt Locker [Blu-ray]

Although not quite the heart-stopper that its previews would suggest, The Hurt Locker certainly is the most absorbing Iraq-based drama mounted thus far by an American filmmaker.

I suspect its success derives from the curious quality of independent film production that automatically confers a level of authenticity so frequently absent from big-budget Hollywood projects, which also usually arrive with partisan agendas. The Hurt Locker has no political axes to grind, except perhaps the observation that young men die in war zones; director Kathryn Bigelow's muscular film seems content to be an intense character drama that dissects its central protagonist much the way he disarms bombs, in order to learn what makes them tick.
The laws of physics involved with a detonated bomb are remorseless, and if a
man is caught within the expanding diameter of concussive force -- even a man
wearing a special ordnance disposal suit -- mere flesh and blood with turn into
pulp. Small wonder, then, that the members of Bravo Company describe
experiencing an explosion as being put "in the hurt locker."

Honest films draw viewers, even when limited budgets preclude splashy advertising campaigns. Somehow, people just know; their collective interest becomes viral. And, judging by the unusually large crowd at the Tower Theater Monday evening  always the quietest night at a movie house  The Hurt Locker will build an impressive audience as it gathers momentum all summer.

Certainly Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (United 93) play up writer Mark Boal's documentary-style approach, often employing the grainy film stock and hand-held camera work that simulate events as they unfold. (Fortunately, Bigelow is savvy enough to minimize this technique, using it only when appropriate, to spare us attacks of vertigo.)

The unfamiliar faces heading the cast also draw us into their characters in a manner that rarely occurs with name-brand stars; the illusion is so complete that it's actually distracting when (for example) Ralph Fiennes briefly pops up, or David Morse's distinctive voice is recognized in another scene (his features obscured behind battle gear).

The time is the summer of 2004, the setting the streets of Baghdad, as patrolled by the Army's elite Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squad: the specialized technicians who search for and attempt to disarm the homemade roadside bombs that threaten Americans and Iraqis alike. Obviously, the job is dangerous enough on its face; it becomes exponentially worse  maddeningly suicidal  because these young soldiers are at constant peril from insurgents waiting with rifles or detonators, who hope to blow the bombs at the most inopportune moment.

We meet Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) of Bravo Company during a prologue, which establishes the film's central plotline and demonstrates the armored, spaceman-style suit worn by the man who gets up close and personal with each deadly device.

Some bombs can be defused; others must be detonated under "safe" conditions ... which merely means that everybody in the immediate vicinity gets evacuated. Nearby buildings are chalked off as collateral damage.

Injury and mortality are understandably high, so it's no surprise when Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) rotates into Bravo Company and takes over the team. James' approach to his job is quite unexpected: At first blush, he seems to be an adrenalin-fueled danger junkie who recklessly disregards military protocol and basic safety measures.

Right from the top, Sanborn is convinced that James will get them all killed.

Indeed, this film's only truly irritating element is the degree to which James repeatedly, excessively goes out of his way to behave stupidly. It eventually becomes tiresome, particularly during the late-night aftermath of a particularly savage explosion, when James insists they go haring off in the dark on their own, out of the ill-defined hope that they can catch those responsible for this most recent catastrophe, who probably are close enough to enjoy the results of their handiwork.

I've no doubt that Boal, a journalist who was embedded with a special bomb unit in Iraq, based all the incidents in this screenplay on actual people and events; I also don't doubt that such blindingly idiotic gung-ho soldiers exist (and, frankly, God bless 'em for being on our side). But these more egregious examples of James' lone wolf behavior don't feel dramatically right in the context of this narrative, or in the necessities of chain of command; they're a distraction.

On the other hand...

Thanks in great part to the impressive conviction with which Renner plays this part, we're not long bothered by such plot hiccups. His take on James is fascinating: a guy who simply knows that he's the best at what he does, and therefore feels entitled to tackle each assignment however he sees fit. Really, who's qualified to argue?

As the 38 days remaining in Bravo Company's tour slowly pass, we begin to appreciate the wisdom of James' approach. Checklists and point-by-point radio verification are stupid wastes of time, when a device may have a countdown detonator attached. And we've already seen that the "space suit," for all its armored bulk, offers precious little protection to a man caught within the blast zone.

Small wonder, then, that James routinely shucks his bulky helmet  and we wince every time  so that he can more rapidly and efficiency crawl into (for example) the back of a car, seeking the wires leading to a cluster of bombs in its trunk.

James understands his esoteric craft better than anybody else, and he gets results ... usually quickly. But he's a curious cat; although he'll ignore even direct orders while approaching a bomb, if it suits his purposes, he's no glory hound; he actually gets embarrassed when a passing colonel (Morse) pauses long enough for a lengthy and enthusiastic attaboy.

Renner also reveals the unease with which James views himself: the disquieting concern that, of necessity, his on-the-job focus has become so acute that he's unable to switch it off, even when safely back in his bunk. The usual distractions  too much alcohol, too much loud music, too much brutality while horsing around with his squad mates  can't ground him.

On a much quieter level, the 1985 film adaptation of David Hare's Plenty also demonstrated how its central character  in this case, a British woman played by Meryl Streep  lived life to the fullest only while serving as a member of the WWII underground resistance. Peacetime existence for her, after the war, remained curiously flat and dull: merely an echo of actual life, like a painting whose colors had been leached out.

James, one suspects, would understand and appreciate Hare's play.

Mackie's Sanborn is the intelligent, methodical voice of reason: a believer in protocol  and not simply because it's a set of rules  who initially regards James as a dangerous liability. But to a degree, Sanborn's pose is a front: the means by which he gets through his days, one by one.

James' far more visceral approach to everything eventually penetrates Sanborn's reserve: that, and the undeniable fact that the new guy gets results. We need to believe that Sanborn thaws, unlikely as this sounds, and comes to respect and trust James. Mackie sells the moment.

Geraghty's Eldridge is the familiar kid next door: less experienced, less sure of himself, uncertain of his ability to do the right thing when it matters. Eldridge desperately needs a mentor; he also worries too much, which prompts shrink-style discussions with the concerned base psychologist. As the film progresses, Eldridge bounces between Sanborn and James like a Ping Pong ball, trying to find solace either in the former's stoicism or the latter's indifference to danger.

Whether Eldridge will crack or rise to the occasion is one of this story's big questions, and Geraghty is completely credible as this nervous "every mother's son."

One would expect, given Bigelow's tight close-ups and well-timed pauses, every time James prepares to clip some wires, that this narrative's many bomb encounters would be the stuff of tightly wound suspense. Oddly, it doesn't play out that way, because James is too good at his job. He never gets nervous, ergo we don't.

(In terms of nail-biting tension, this film doesn't have a patch on Danger UXB, the sensational 1979 miniseries that followed the young volunteers who, during the London blitz of World War II, defused the bombs that didn't go off on impact.)

Ironically, Boal's most suspenseful sequence has nothing to do with bombs, occurring instead when James, Sanborn, Eldridge and half a dozen others get pinned down in the outlying desert by long-range snipers. This is a truly taut sequence: Death arrives with an unexpected shock unmatched by anything else in the film.

All told, The Hurt Locker is an absorbing and often deeply moving portrayal of courage under fire: a thoroughly satisfying collaboration by a director and writer who understand the story they wish to tell, and do so  for the most part  with skill, economy and grim verisimilitude.

You'll not soon forget this one.

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