Kathryn Bigelow's latest is the first great film about the war in Iraq, writes Donald Clarke
A NUMBER OF reasons have been put forward to explain the commercial and critical failure of so many films about the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe American viewers, some of whose children are still serving in those conflicts, are too closely involved with the action. Perhaps the objectives of the American forces are too vague. Is there something aesthetically unsatisfying about desert warfare?
The truth is that the films just weren't good enough. Now, finally, with this grindingly tense, deliberately messy film from Kathryn Bigelow, the Iraq miasma gets the picture it deserves. Pointedly free of didacticism, stubbornly anchored to the American perspective, The Hurt Lockeroffers a disarmingly impressive blend of weary horror and guilty excitement. The film is probably quite "important", but that doesn't mean it isn't endlessly riveting.
Bigelow, creator of curious action classics such as Point Breakand Near Dark, has directed her attention towards that section of the US military that deals with the defusing of explosives. In 2004, journalist Mark Boal spent some time with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit in Iraq and his script, though far from perfect, does a good job of collating his experiences into a digestible narrative.
After a superbly tense opening section – which it would be a shame to describe too closely – the film finds one EOD squad cautiously welcoming a new leader. This is Sgt William James, who, as played by the excellent Jeremy Renner, combines cavalier insouciance with a cautiously rationed boyish charm. He is the sort of man who will remove his huge helmet during an operation and say “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die comfortably.” He is also the sort of chap who will look out for the cheeky kids who sell DVDs outside the unit’s base.
Being a loose cannon, James initially annoys the two other members of his team – hardened professional Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and nervy rookie Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) – but, as events progress, a kind of reluctant understanding emerges.
Unlike preachy claptrap such as Lions for Lambs, The Hurt Lockertakes no conspicuous position on the rights and wrongs of the invasion. Shot from the perspective of the US operation, the film views the antagonist (or potential antagonist) as a distant figure lurking suspiciously (or, perhaps, loitering innocently) beneath the shadow of apartment balconies and lofty minarets. Quite correctly, the film rarely distinguishes between paranoia and justifiable suspicion. Its chosen task is to pile on layers of unease and, assisted by Barry Ackroyd's mobile camera, it succeeds admirably.
That is not to say there are no big ideas being pondered. A former film academic, Bigelow has notions about masculinity and, in the sequence where James and Sanborn relax by punching one another in the stomach, we get some sense of her unease about a supposed male addiction to recreational violence.
For all its grimy stock, unfussy editing and overlapping dialogue, The Hurt Lockeris, however, most notable for its ability to make the upper lip sweat. To this point, film-makers addressing the Iraq War have been cautious about allowing action sequences to engage too directly with the adrenal glands.
Casting ideology aside, Bigelow stages seven largely discrete action scenes, each of which stands as a masterclass in the art of cinematic tension. Are the military details all entirely accurate? It is to the film-makers’ credit that, while in the midst of a gunfight or a particularly grim bomb alert, such questions rarely bother the viewer.
The Hurt Lockerdoes have its problems. For all the nods towards verisimilitude, the dialogue very often sounds like the dialogue in any other war film. "We've had our differences in the past," Sanborn says to James before he takes an unnecessary risk. Does anybody use that phrase in real life? That conflict between gritty verité and old-fashioned gung-ho does sometimes stop the viewer short.
For all that, The Hurt Lockeremerges as one of the great contemporary war films. It is certainly the best drama yet about the conflict in Iraq. Mind you, that's not saying very much.