The Hurt Locker: Wartime Addiction

When it comes to addictions, I’m sure we’ve all heard how horrible and difficult they can be. I’m not here to downplay their seriousness, either. Be it drugs, alcohol or anything else, addictions are real and troubling illness that need to be dealt with.

But what if your addiction is adrenaline? What if it’s only every satisfied through the horrors of war? That’s what happens to Sergeant First Class Will James in Kathryn Bigelow’s astounding Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker.

You’ve probably already picked up on that it’s a war movie. And war is a genre within which there are many, many, films. Some good and some not so good. But standing out among those are such greats as Saving Private Ryan and Dunkirk (my pick for Best Picture this year). I’d like to put The Hurt Locker among those, and other, great ones. If you’ve seen the movie already, then you probably consider it to be in the same category, too.

Throughout this post, I’ll get to how amazing this movie was and what the experience was for me when I watched it. But, know this: if you haven’t seen it, the underlying tone in this movie is not pretty, nor is it light in any way. This is a war epic and war is not fun. IS. NOT.

One quick housekeeping note before I get into the review, though: I usually rent all these movies from Google Play Movies & TV. I have had a contingency of what to do if one isn’t available to be streamed on the service, but, honestly, I never thought I’d have to use it. The Broadway Melody, a very obscure early movie was on there. But, this week’s actual movie, The Last Emperor was not. So I had to buy it and ship it. Due to time limitations, I moved on to The Hurt Locker and I’ll push back The Last Emperor to next week.

Anyway, time for the review.

Plot

The Hurt Locker places you alongside Bravo Company, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit (EOD) during the War on Terror. Their job is to identify and dispose of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). After the unit loses their first bomb disposal person (Staff Sergeant Matthew Thompson), James (Jeremy Renner) is tasked to replace him. James is cocky and reckless in his methods in disposing of the IEDs. This creates tension in the group.

The rest of the movie is the team responding to different horrors of war from a sniper ambush to rogue agents to a man forced to be a suicide bomber. What’s particularly fascinating about this plot is that you don’t actually know who the “bad guy” is. The villain is everywhere, always watching. I felt like I was in the trash compactor in Detention Block AA-23 from Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope (which LOST to Annie Hall, by the way. Still bitter.) The characters are in an impossible situation with the walls closing in around them as the war descended into chaos.

The story meanders around from situation to situation and there’s not one central goal in the plot. While I don’t normally like that, however in this movie it’s not about defeating the bad guy; it’s about how soldiers react to those situations. And it was spot-on. The tension was perfectly paced from the beginning and kept me engaged throughout. 1.

Writing/Dialogue

Mark Boal wrote The Hurt Locker and it earned him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. From the beginning, the script is both mechanical and informal. This is a story about soldiers. And soldiers speak as soldiers speak, meaning their operation are precise and their speech efficient. But when they’re not “on the job,” the dialogue is decidedly raging with testosterone and innuendo. There’s also A LOT of swearing, just so you know.

All this lends to realism and helps to flesh out the characters express their underlying motivations. Each of these major characters has ridiculous depth and a number of motivations from, safety, to doing their job well, to just being able to go home. 1.

Sound

Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders are credited for the music in The Hurt Locker. Interestingly enough, there is exceedingly little music in this movie. Unlike Argo, which used several riffs of Middle Eastern music to set the tone, this movie does not have that. What little music happens to be there is mostly droning sounds, usually composed in a “holy crap something is going to blow up” kind of way.

The most startling thing about The Hurt Locker’s sound is its lack of it. There are many tense exchanges and sequences. And rather than rely on some fancy or grandiose score to set the tone, director Kathryn Bigelow intentionally relies on the actor’s performance and ambient sound to drive the tone. This movie is filled with scenes of utter silence, other than the wind blowing or birds chirping.

The Hurt Locker won two Academy Awards sound (Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing) and grabbed a nomination for Best Original Score. 1.

Set Design

When she set out to direct this movie, Kathryn Bigelow wanted a setting that was as close to Baghdad as possible without actually going there. So, she picked Jordan. It’s worth noting that the high temperatures averaged about 120 degrees during the day.

But the affect worked. The Hurt Locker sold me on it being in Iraq, even if it really wasn’t. The heat, the buildings, the vast landscapes of sand and hills made me think that this was definitely Iraq.

Additionally, much of the story takes place on city streets. Piles of rubble litter the streets; some buildings are half blown to Hell and there are tons of trash on the curbs and streets. There are even shots of mangy or injured stray cats running along the road. The war has taken control of this city and its people. Bigelow drops you right in the middle of the action. 1.

Cinematography

While I was researching this blog, I read that Bigelow and Director of Photography Barry Ackroyd used four different film crews to shoot the same scene. At the end of shooting, there were more than 200 hours of footage to sift through. For the record, that’s more than eight DAYS of footage to edit.

Well, it worked. For as grim a subject as war is, this is one beautiful movie. It has everything from extreme long shots to extreme close ups and everything in between. This is a movie about people and the cinematography gets you up close and personal with those people. One shot that stood out to me was when Bravo Company comes across a band of British bounty hunters in the desert. They get pinned down by a sniper. During the ensuing life and death chess match, there are number of really great and close shots. My favorite was of the insurgent sniper’s eye peering down the scope of his rifle. The camera was able to capture a fly on his EYELASHES. That was incredible. In all, The Hurt Locker grabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. 1.

Acting

There are three principle actors in The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty.

Jeremy Renner (Will James) Renner was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of a bomb disposal tech and it’s a shame he didn’t win. From the outset, Will James seems to be a cocky and reckless soldier and by and large he is. He’s addicted to war and he loves doing what he does because he gets an adrenaline fix. Not even his wife and son can fill the void left by war’s adrenaline. But he’s also an intensely complex character. He is confident in his job and himself. But war gets to every single soldier, regardless of that soldier’s ego. It breaks him down after he unintentionally shoots his teammate in the leg or after he can’t remove a bomb from a man in time. I’ll be honest, I know Renner from playing Hawkeye in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, based on that role, he was perfect for this one.

Anthony Mackie (J.T. Sanborn) Sanborn is the soldier in which James has the most communication during missions. However, Sanborn and James don’t get along. Mackie brings a sense of level-headed seriousness to this role. But he is also compromised by the brutality of war.

Brian Geraghty (Owen Eldridge) Eldridge is the third member of the team. From the beginning, Eldridge is tested mentally and he faces some horrible demons as the movie progresses. His indecision to shoot an insurgent that ultimately kills his former team leader leaves him obsessing over his thoughts and he seeks help for it. He’s constantly on the verge of a breakdown, even after getting some confidence during the sniper standoff.

All three of these performances were great. As things were continually thrown into chaos around them, each of these characters responded excellently. 1.

Directing

Kathryn Bigelow directed The Hurt Locker and she won both Best Picture and Best Director. The only woman director to win either of those awards. Frankly, these are both well-deserved.

When I was thinking about the tone of The Hurt Locker, I made the comparison to a documentary without a narrator. Have you ever watched one of those? The film makers in those features use the interviews and the images to tell the story. While pretty much all fictional works use this same formula, The Hurt Locker feels more like that than others.

But I had a hard time figuring this why I felt this way at first. And then it hit me: this movie feels much more real than anything else in Hollywood. Every single detail was put there to lend realism to the movie. And they were all perfectly placed. Simply put, this is a masterpiece from Bigelow. 1.

Bonus Points

I have to give two bonus points to the cinematography. First, a majority of the shots are from cameras on shoulders. This portrays chaos, pure and simple. The second point is for the opening scene. In this scene, the old Bravo Company is trying to diffuse a bomb on the road. When the bomb goes, everything is suddenly thrown into sharp relief with ultra-sharp, slow-motion shots of the explosion. For me, this literal moment of clarity was a moment of clarity for me, too. It showed me that “holy crap, this is real.”

Finally, I have to give another point to the story. A war movie is not overly original, but a bomb disposal squad with a leader who’s addicted to war and getting rid of bombs is incredibly original, regardless of how messed up that concept is. And Bigelow executes it perfectly.

Final Score: 10/10

Oscar Facts

The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Picture on March 7, 2010 at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. The Hurt Locker beat out Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up and Up in the Air, making this the first year since 1943 that the Academy nominated more than five films for Best Picture. Tom Hanks presented the award. The Hurt Locker was nominated nine times and won six times, the most out of any other movie that year. This movie won Oscars for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.

Other winners include Jeff Bridges winning Best Actor for his role in Crazy Heart, Sandra Bullock won Best Actress for her role in The Blind Side, Christoph Waltz won Best Supporting Actor for Inglourious Basterds, and Mo’Nique won Best Supporting Actress for Precious. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin hosted the ceremony.

Next Week

Next week I get back on track with The Last Emperor. Following that, it’s Slumdog Millionaire, Terms of Endearment, Titanic, It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It with You and The Deer Hunter.

4 Comments

  1. Great review! I have seen other war movies like Saving Private Ryan, Inglorious Bastards, etc., but not this one. Now I want to after reading this!

    Like

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