Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Catching up with "The Hurt Locker"

"The Hurt Locker" is possibly the best-reviewed film of 2009, and it finally opened in Indianapolis last Friday. Alas, no screening was made available to local critics.

I caught it today and it's a fine, fine film, though perhaps some reviewers have overinflated their opinions a bit. It happens all the time -- a few early influential critics in New York and LA rave about a film, it slowly creeps out to the marketplace, and more and more people feel compelled to pile on the bandwagon.

I'll certainly add it to my watch list for Top 10 movies of the year (if you're interested, the others currently on that list are "The Soloist," "Adventureland," "Moon," "Watchmen" and "Up"). But I wouldn't say it's at the top.

Perhaps the reason people are reacting to it with such enthusiasm is that "The Hurt Locker" is the first movie about the war in Iraq that doesn't seem to be playing politics or simply using the conflict as a backdrop to make a larger point. It's the "Platoon" for this generation -- a film about this war, these soldiers, their particular life-and-death challenges.

The story is set in 2004, the height of the insurgency and when sober minds on all sides of the political spectrum thought the whole thing might devolve into chaos. Into this blend of paranoia and fear steps Will James (Jeremy Renner, in a terrific performance), a bomb specialist who lives on the edge of insanity, and thrives on the adrenalin rush of risking his life every day to prevent things from blowing up.

Under his bed at barracks he keeps a large crate of electronic gizmos -- everyday stuff you could buy at Radio Shack, is how a fellow soldier puts it. These are parts of bombs that James has defused, ones that were especially challenging. He hates these contraptions designed to take life, but he also admires cleverly-designed bombs.

James is assigned to a bomb squad after their last specialist was killed in the film's opening sequence. (The dead bomb expert is played by Guy Pearce, one of several prominent actors who appear in small roles, including Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Evangaline Lilly.) Anthony Mackie plays Sanborn, whose job is keep James safe, and is put off by his reckless ways. Some people would call the risks James constantly takes bravery, but Sanborn is the careful, seasoned soldier who knows they're just foolhardy.

The third member of the team is Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), a young soldier who's worried about whether he has the mettle to do what it takes in the field. Eldridge blames himself for his former bomb expert's death -- he saw the bomber waiting to set off the explosion with a cell phone, but failed to act -- and is receiving counseling from an Army psychiatrist. Eldridge challenges the doctor to come out in the field and witness what they have to put up with every day, which leads to tragic results.

The scenes that stick out most in audiences' minds will probably be the sequences that take place with James working in a special suit designed to protect him from a bomb blast. With its layers of Kevlar and helmet, it resembles an astronaut's gear. As James walks alone down dusty streets, checking piles of junk for bombs, it seems like he is traveling through an almost alien landscape. Director Kathryn Bigelow, a master of kinetic action scenes, keeps the audience on edge, expecting an attack or explosion from any angle.

For me, though, the scene that will stay with me is a firefight the bomb team gets into out in the middle of the desert. They meet up with some British intelligence officers and get pinned down by sniper fire. There's a long stretch where James and Sanborn are waiting to see if all the enemies are dead, with Sanborn manning a massive scoped rifle and James acting as his spotter. It's a reversal of their normal roles, where James is the showboat and Sanborn is there to back him up. James, choking on the heat and dust, asks for the last juice pack. Slowly and methodically, he opens it up and punctures the juice with a straw, then leans over and puts it to Sanborn's lips so he can drink without taking his eyes off the scope. These two soldiers have been at odds up till now, even exchanged blows, but it's in this moment that they truly become comrades.

"The Hurt Locker" is a tough, unsparing and brutally honest portrait of the war in Iraq. Let's hope there are more to come.

3.5 stars

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