The Hurt Locker is an historic film, and not because it landed nine Oscar nominations, including one for Kathryn Bigelow, who is poised to become the first female director ever to win an Oscar. That's nice and all, but the bigger theme is that it's the first memorable film about the current Iraq conflict that attempts to entertain us.
This is not meant as an insult. It's just that movies about Iraq and Afghanistan are supposed to have a message. Entertainment is secondary. When this conflict fades—or rather, if it fades—you will see the accompanying movies get glossier. It's evolution. The Vietnam War used to yield somber dramas and principled shoot 'em ups. Now, Vietnam is a sentimental footnote in movies like Forrest Gump and, apparently, ripe for parody. Did anyone think of the Tet Offensive when chuckling at Tropic Thunder?
The master stroke of The Hurt Locker, and why it's not being looked at as just a tense popcorn flick, is that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal present a military man archetype that has become antiquated in recent years. In the process, they show us that being in a war doesn't automatically make you courageous.
William James (Jeremy Renner), the movie's hero, dismantles bombs throughout Baghdad, an absolutely terrifying task that requires wearing a padded suit, having two pairs of eyes watch your every move, and proceeding with extreme caution. James, however, has a different approach. He'll skip the robot assistant, thanks. It's too damned hot for the suit, so he'll go without it. After all, if he's going to die, he might as well be comfortable. And James doesn't need to correspond via the radio—it'll just get in his way.
This seemingly reckless approach has helped James disconnect over 840 bombs. It doesn't build much rapport with his new escorts, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). A lapse in coverage caused the last guy (Guy Pearce) in James's spot to return home draped in an American flag. That blown assignment haunts both men. Eldridge keeps talking to the base psychologist (Christian Camargo), and Sanborn doesn't have the patience to deal with James's cowboy antics. He'd rather kill him than have to deal with the carelessness.
James doesn't carry much personal baggage. There's a girl back home that he knocked up, but he's not pining for her. The only mementos he has are from his bomb work. Eldridge is a slip-up away from cracking like an egg and Sanborn wants to leave, but it's all another day at the office for James. During a break in an endless desert shoot out, he calmly asks Eldridge to fetch him a juice. This isn't macho posturing on James's part; he's truly comfortable out there. In 2004, when the movie's action unfolds, such an uncluttered mindset makes him an outcast. The question is, can James maintain that blank slate?
Bigelow and Boal don't make the movie about these different mental approaches. What makes The Hurt Locker so compelling is that it's an action movie with a brain, which is a rarity these days. James, Sanborn, and Eldridge have a job to do, and Bigelow forces you to watch. The camerawork and editing are kinetic and flashy and tense, but never overindulgent. The movie never feels like a music video about war. You get caught up in the whirl of craziness, and understand how James's mindset makes him important. Eventually, someone has to do something.
The Hurt Locker is good, and forever will be, but it's deemed great for 2009. The reason is timing. It would have flopped if it had been released in 2005 or 2007. The public's vitriol over Iraq and Afghanistan was still too high, and the related movies reflected that. Now, we don't need another movie where America is branded as a bully with an inferiority complex, or one that recites our foreign policy flaws. It's abundantly clear that war is hell. For a lot of people, The Hurt Locker must seem like a glorious reprieve, even innovative. I won't go that far, but it shows that movies about chaotic current events can be made into insightful, even exciting, movies that can be relevant without being overtly political. The Hurt Locker is an impressive achievement under this new approach, but so was the overlooked character study Brothers; The Messenger had its moments. Old heroes can come back in new ways—and new movies—to affect us. A new evolution has begun. [R]