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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Hurt’ so good: Film depicts bomb squad

Published: March 26, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

Films set in Iraq have a difficult time moving beyond the political in order to tell the human story. Recent Academy Award winner “The Hurt Locker,” however, tells an authentic and compelling personal tale, focusing on one man’s love of the adrenaline rush that comes from disabling bombs. Unfortunately, the film, despite winning numerous awards and receiving high critical acclaim, has not done well at the box office. But you should catch this film in theaters while you still can. Moving, powerful and intimate, “The Hurt Locker” is well worth the price of a ticket.

The film’s title, which references the place where soldiers physically injured by a bomb are sent, proves to be fitting for the movie as it centers on individuals who cope with the devastating consequences of day-to-day contact with explosives. The film takes the military location’s meaning one step further to explore the physical, emotional and psychological hurt soldiers in war zones can feel.

Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is sent to Baghdad to head team Bravo, a bomb squad unit whose members are dealing with the traumatic aftermath of an explosion which killed one of their team members. On his first day, James shocks his new team when he approaches and disarms a bomb almost nonchalantly, seemingly not taking into account the dangers involved.

The film establishes the fact that James is a cool customer. In one scene he discovers that a trunk of an abandoned car is weighed down with enough explosives to level the area. He swears but then takes off his heavy bombsuit, saying, “There’s enough bang in there to blow us all to Jesus. If I’m gonna die, I want to die comfortable.” James then disarms the bomb like a mechanic dealing with a particularly difficult engine problem. Renner plays James cool but always within the realm of believability. He sweats, he panics, he fears, but always subtly, you have to watch for the facial tic, a flicker in his eyes.

Yet “The Hurt Locker” is not a stereotypical action movie. As James makes more and more reckless decisions and puts his life and the lives of his team in danger, his cool demeanor becomes troubling to watch. Is he brave or is he motivated by the need to feel the thrill of possibly being moments away from a fiery death? His collection of harmless pieces of the bombs he’s disabled (or, as he calls them “things that could have killed me”), kept in the same place as his wedding ring, reveals that his blasé attitude has a sinister undercurrent.

Anthony Mackie, who plays by-the-book Sergeant JT Sanborn, is also brilliant as James’ foil. Mackie communicates a lot through his calculating stares: his competence, his disgust of James, his concern for his team and his overpowering fear of the situation he finds himself in. His powerful silence makes James’ chattiness all the more disconcerting. In fact, all the actors in the Bravo team give powerful performances. Brian Geraghty’s depiction of Specialist Owen Eldridge is fascinating as he convincingly switches between Eldridge’s vulnerability and his deep rage.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film was the evolution of the team members’ relationships with one another. This was cleverly shown through small moments that, in the end, had great impact on the dynamics of the group. When the team is caught in the cross-hairs of an enemy sniper, a deadly waiting game ensues as James tries to locate their adversary and give Sanborn the coordinates so that he can pick him off with his rifle. James’ cocky attitude shifts to a steady calm as he directs Sanborn, and as a result, Sanborn’s resentment for the team leader transforms into a grudging respect.

Although the film does not have a distinguishable plot, this only contributes to director Kathryn Bigelow’s success at making an honest film. “The Hurt Locker” feels like a documentary, not only for its shaky handheld footage, but for its realistic characters.

The only moments that felt unreal was when the film resorted to extreme slow-motion and close-up shots: dust slowly rising off the roof of a car, a shell casing landing on the dust floor. However, these moments are few and effective. The shots serve the purpose of illustrating that the film itself is a kind of close-up, a intimate study of people fighting a war.

“The Hurt Locker” is propelled by the fact that team Bravo only has a few weeks left before its memberscan leave Baghdad and return home.

Each ‘chapter’ of the film is preceded by a countdown, so the audience, like the team members, is always aware of the upcoming reprieve. As their last day in Iraq approaches, rather than experiencing relief, though, the team members face even higher tension and stakes. It becomes clear that no one will emerge from the war unscathed.

Bigelow’s film is an example of clever and subtle storytelling. Because the characters are so three-dimensional, by the end of “The Hurt Locker” the audience is emotionally invested in the lives of the characters. If you haven’t already, don’t miss out on this ambitious war movie which successfully explores the realm of painful human experience.