The Vietnam War played out in people’s homes on their television screens as the news brought the conflict half a world away into America’s living rooms. The acclaimed films about it: “Coming Home,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon” began arriving well after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, dealing primarily with the war’s physical, mental and political ramifications.
In contrast, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars receive so little airtime that Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert hosted a week of his “Colbert Report” from Baghdad to remind Americans we were still fighting multiple fronts eight years into the fighting. Films about these wars, such as “Jarhead,” “Stop Loss” and “Extraordinary Rendition,” disappeared from theaters with little notice.
Hollywood has been of the opinion that Americans were not interested in seeing a film about a war in progress.
Director Kathryn Bigelow disagreed, and adapted Mark Boal’s screenplay about the Bravo Company’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit. Bigelow was right to disagree. She has created a film that reminds us that wars are fought by real people who bleed. They are violent, messy, uncomfortable and sometimes unclear; yet, we should never avert our eyes.
The film picks up with the OED in Baghdad a year into the Iraq War as the new team leader, Sergeant First Class Will James (Jeremy Renner), replaces Staff Sergeant Thompson. Portrayed in a brief cameo by Guy Pearce, Thompson is killed by a remotely detonated improvised explosive device (IED). His company had only 38 days remaining in their tour of duty.
When James arrives he thinks he is at Camp Liberty.
“No, Camp Victory,” says his colleague. “They changed it last week. It sounds better.”
James quickly establishes he is all instinct when it comes to his job, and does not rely on the robots or protective suits to dismantle bombs. His two teammates, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge, played by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, do not know whether James is rowdy or reckless. Either way, the three do not bond until they are hunkered down in a standoff with a sniper in the desert.
The audience does not learn their individual stories until an hour into the film, and, even then, their backgrounds remain incomplete. These soldiers don’t get too close for good reason, and one wonders how they grieve and how quickly they must recover.
Renner gives a nuanced performance that is both intense and compassionate. In the chaos of war, where the enemy wears no uniform and could be the butcher or a child, Renner’s James keeps his cool until he pushes too far and almost costs Eldridge his life.
He goes against his own advice to “be smart and make a good decision.”
That is justifiably hard when a pile of rocks, trash on the side of the road or an illegally parked car can be and probably is a weapon.
“The Hurt Locker” offers some commentary on the military, though it is not heavy-handed and slightly amusing. An Army psychiatrist keeps showing up to help Eldridge cope with the loss of Thompson. He encourages Eldridge to change the recording in his mind that is focused on death and instead see his service in the Army as a “once in a lifetime experience.” Truer words were never spoken.
Ralph Fiennes and David Morse also show up in memorable cameos.
The film’s soundtrack is comprised of the sounds of war: the rat-a-tat of automatic weapons, the Humvee tires crunching over hard earth, the blast of a suicide bomber’s vest. There is little music to detract from the film’s unsentimental reality.
Boal served as a reporter embedded with a U.S. Army bomb squad. His script reflects that insider knowledge. It takes no particular political stance, and avoids crossing over into melodrama or self-pity.
The film’s reportorial gaze was part of Bigelow’s vision for the film.
“She was a warrior,” said Renner, who answered questions with the movie’s producers after the screening.
Bigelow shot the film in 2007 in 100-plus-degree heat in Jordan, just across from the Iraq border, which required a delicate walk with local people who have sought to maintain neutrality among the Middle East’s many conflicts. Tensions were highest near refugee camps.
Jeremy Shapiro, one of the film’s producers, said fellow producer Tony Mark “had to take lots of cups of tea with tribal elders and government officials But it’s an area with a long tradition of hospitality.”
Renner trained during the year prior to filming in the art of how to build and dismantle explosive devices. He became so adept at his craft that he knew more than the military advisors hired for the film.
The Savannah Film Festival marked the final screening of “The Hurt Locker,” which enjoyed a successful American release in June 2009 after winning several awards at the Venice Film Festival, where it debuted in August 2008.
Contact Amy Paige Condon