Photo courtesy of Summit Films
Review by Ryan Wilson

Perhaps the most critically acclaimed film of last year has finally made it to DVD, just in time for Oscar consideration. The Hurt Locker had a limited release in theaters last July, but was no doubt drowned out by more lightweight summer blockbusters. And certainly, The Hurt Locker is anything but cursory entertainment.

The film is a grueling look at the lives of American Soldiers serving in Iraq. More specifically, the story follows the men on the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Squad, or EOD Squad. These soldiers have the unfortunate duty of disarming various bombs in and around Baghdad.  When we meet them, they have 38 days left on their tour, but we soon understand that, for them, this is a lifetime, especially considering the margin for error and the unstable surroundings.

The film is based on screenwriter Mark Boal’s experience as an embedded journalist with one such bomb unit, and the reporting shines through. The tension of the film basically escalates as the bomb scenarios worsen. We get a detailed look at roadside bombs, car bombs, and suicide bombers—all of which will make you marvel at the intricacy and genius of the weaponry.

Faced with this is Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner, a genius in his own right. James joins the EOD Squad after they’ve lost their former leader in an explosion. The squad is accustomed to displaying caution, especially with 38 days left on its tour, but James plays the cowboy, or as others call him a "rock star," and often charges into the blast zones without protective gear or the help of his teammates. He clearly gets an adrenaline rush from the danger but also garners ire from the squad.

In a way, he’s comparable to Willem Dafoe’s character Sergeant Elias in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Both characters have a preternatural instinct for combat. Both of them disregard protocol in favor of fighting the war their own way. And both of them are meant to symbolize something larger. Sergeant Elias, in Platoon, served as an almost messianic figure for Oliver Stone's take on Vietnam. In The Hurt Locker, Sergeant James is nothing so political, but rather he embodies the soldier and veteran who cannot get enough of the intensity of war. He is an addict, and the war is his drug.

This message is sent clearly near the end of the film when we see James at home with his family, cleaning the gutters of his small ranch house and contemplating the absurdity of the cereal aisle at the grocery. At home he is no one, but at war he is a rock star.

This alone makes for an excellent character, played with great understatement by Renner, but Boal reaches too far with him at times in his script. He doesn't completely trust his audience to understand Sergeant James, so he includes an unnecessary subplot involving his relationship with a soccer-playing Iraqi boy who sells DVDs to the soldiers. James opens himself up to the boy and later becomes emotionally volatile due to his fate. It’s the sort of heavy-handed psycho-drama that doesn't fit well in an intense war film.

Audiences may also feel the tension between James and his squad to be well-worn territory. In the war film genre it seems fellow soldiers are either bands of brothers or at each other’s throats. Here we get shades of both. Thankfully, the film veers away from even worse clichés. And there are some nice touches that are new to soldiering on screen, which feel well researched. This is the first time I’ve seen thrash metal and violent video games occupying a soldier’s down time, and this only enhances the constant adrenaline craved by the characters.

Much credit belongs to the director, Kathryn Bigelow, who before this was better known for bloated action films like Point Break and Strange Days. She seems to have compressed what she learned from those experiences. The pace here is taut, the bomb scenes filled with anxiety, not just from the possibility of an explosion, but from the streets themselves. Bigelow ratchets up the tension by cutting away to the random daily activity occurring around the EOD squad. This feels like everyday life in Baghdad, with guns in the face of citizens and threats in the form of citizens to the soldier.

If nothing else, the film deserves to win an Oscar for best sound editing. Every bit of noise in the film is hostile, from the clink of goat bells on the street to the drone of unseen jets in the air. You truly feel like any of these sounds may be the last these men hear.

Though Sergeant James is an important character, I was most drawn to the film during these intense moments. It's enough to see the EOD Squad’s days tick slowly down, and to watch them attempt to nullify each new threat.

This, of course, is also an old war story cliché: the closer soldiers get to home, the greater the fear that they won't make it.

Only in The Hurt Locker we’re left to contemplate what is left when the fear is gone, when only the moment itself is what a soldier cares about.  War itself here feels like a dare, and a dare worth scrutinizing.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. Produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010