By Michele Leight
"The Hurt Locker" is a film about an elite group of American soldiers in a US Army Explosives Ordnance Disposal team that have what most people would consider an insane job requirement as bomb disposal experts in Iraq. They do their deadly work as a matter of routine, as if they are fixing a car or re-wiring a sound system. They are not paid much, local kids throw stones at their humvees as they patrol neighborhoods they try to safeguard, and all locals are the potential enemy. Their bravery is not glorified in any way and they receive no accolades after repeated assignments that save many lives. Only their "brothers in arms" know how much they risk.
The film honors extraordinary service and exceptional, even superhuman men. However, from beginning to end of this movie it is a hell on earth, a festering cauldron of man-made insanity from which there is no escape for soldiers and for the civilians they are charged to protect that have seen every vestige of normal community life destroyed by war. It is a landscape out of control, fueled by indiscriminate killing by an invisibilie enemy in a new kind of warfare.
"The Hurt Locker" shows the cowardice of those that use their own people as human bombs, including children, killing dozens of their own people in each attack without any remorse, as they attempt to target US soldiers. Gone are the days when platoons faced off against each other in plain sight, when there was some code of honor. This enemy will kill any way they can, typically with an IED - a hidden bomb - that can be planted anywhere.
IEDs are improvised explosive devices or homemade bombs that are very hard to detect and target randomly. The idea is to instil fear and panic by killing innocent people, the message being "you and your loved ones could be next." The bomb disposal experts do wear flame retardant helmets and Kevlar suits and boots, but when it comes right down to the nitty gritty, they have to diffuse deadly bombs with their bare hands.
It is hard to watch young men - elite soldiers - negotiate slim wires with exposed fingers that are attached to explosives that could blow up my neighborhood. They cannot do this with the protective gloves they are given because they are too cumbersome. In one situation, there are many bombs attached to one device, and one man is charged to diffuse it. Terrorists, insurgents, our enemies - whatever one chooses to call them - also deploy their own people as human bombs, which is the most harrowing of all bomb disposal assignments. These are "body bombs." It is an image from this film I cannot eradicate. It is impossible to believe any group would use their own people like this.
I have watched great war movies like "The Best Years of Our Lives,"and recent blockbusters like "Saving Private Ryan," where the fall-out of war, and the terrible things that go on because of war are laid bare. I have also read famous war books and poems, and some military history, and I cannot help wondering after seeing this film what the formidable warriors of the past - the gladiators, knights in armor mounted on armored horses, Samurai warriors, and tough veterans of World War II - would have thought about an assignment that requireds soldiers to walk up to a bomb (actually often several bombs) and diffuse it with their bare hands.This is a bomb versus a guy.
Yet, like Staff Sargeant James, who is the hero of "The Hurt Locker," today's bomb disposal experts do it because that is their job. Even if their limbs are not blown off - which some are - or if they do not die, or lose their hands or become blind, the impact of the explosions is huge and deeply traumatic. To put someone in a "hurt locker" is to physically mess someone up badly, causing that someone "a world of pain." The movie's official web site explains: "In Iraq it is soldier vernacular to speak of explosions as sending you to "the hurt locker."
It seems the bomb disposal experts have it the worst even by military standards - which makes the hero of this film unusual. Staff Sargeant James likes his job, and even gets an adrenaline rush from it, which only adds to the viewer's sense of disbelief of what war has come down to. Every mission is potentially the last, yet this hero has a defiant swagger about him: "If I am going to die, I'm going to die comfortable" says Staff Sargeant James, as he peels off layers of bomb disposal equipment he must wear as protection on one especially hot day. Besides the danger, destruction, and mayhem in Iraq's desert war zone, the heat is oppressive. It is a constant "in-your-face enemy", while the insurgents, guerillas, and terrorists stalk clandestinely, invisible. It is like fighting against ghosts in a boiling hot oven.
The film gives a powerful sense of what it must feel like to wear a kevlar suit and helmet in 120 degree heat. The director Kathryn Bigelow says in the commentary included with the DVD that she wanted an authentic setting - similar to Iraqi terrain where soldiers serve now - to make the film realistic. "The Hurt Locker" was filmed in nearby Jordan with extras played by real locals, including winsome children who bring home the pathos of a situation that is out of their control. Their destiny is a crap shoot, a deadly game of roulette. Walking home or playing, their small legs might accidentally step on and detonate an IED. Throughout the film it is hard to accept that their own people are doing this to them.
The hero of "The Hurt Locker" exudes fearlessness. No matter what seemingly reckless acts Staff Sargeant James commits, he defies death, staring it down like a murderous dog. He is the leader of a small three-man squad, but his bravery unnerves his team mates who work with him that just do not share his confidence. They are shaken by the insanity of a desert war against an invisible enemy, understandably jumpy and suspicious of all locals, and keenly miss everthing they have left behind. Sargeant James seems at home with it all, befriending local people, interacting with them without condescension or forcefullness.
Reading comments about "The Hurt Locker" by real soldiers reveals their skepticism about the invincibility of the hero in this film; and they say there are no teams as small as three men sent out on dangerous missions in Iraq or Afghanistan, the real army would never deploy small teams in this risky way - but they admit to really enjoying the film. It is easy to see why. It honors them and their service.
There is an immediacy and urgency to "The Hurt Locker," an unnerving engangement with the audience that takes you right into the thick of a bizarre, disorienting kind of warfare. There is no roadmap here, nothing to compare it with. We are forced to make eye-contact with soldiers, feel the blood rushing through their veins, steam building up inside over-heated helmets, and the adrenaline rush of combat. Many war movies place soldiers at a distance in panoramic stretches of paddy fields, on bomb-blasted beaches or flying around in planes and helicopters in big skies. That rarely happens in "The Hurt Locker." The soldiers are on top of you. We cannot escape them or the merciless terrain. The film brilliantly conveys that this is a claustrophobic war. The soldiers are enclosed at all times. There isn't a blade of grass anywhere, barely a tree, nothing even vaguely familiar that reminds them of home.
That is pretty intimidating, even in a movie theatre. The relentlessnes of their reality is brutal. It never lets up
There are many great reviews of this film that outline the plot and describe the performances of the actors, so I will not re-hash them. "The Hurt Locker" reasserts the holy hell that war is and how adept we are at never learning from our mistakes. But the film also shows that there are some people that are born to fight these wars, men who become invigorated, and come into their own in a mysterious way, like Staff Sargeant James. Without a war to fight, he would be a fish out of water.
For the record there are no women in this film except the hero's wife - the mother of their baby - back home.
Staff Sargeant James is played exceptionally well by Jeremy Renner, who manages to convey (wihout over-acting) what kind of person it takes to withstand constant stress and pressure, and proximity to deadly explosions. We know what can happen to him, because the bomb disposal expert he replaced - acted by wonderful Guy Pearce - was blown to bits at the beginning of the film. Soldiers look tougher on screen in other war movies than they do in "The Hurt Locker." When the enemy is not a guy with a gun but a hidden bomb, the soldiers seem as vulnerable as the civilians they are required to protect. Seriously, who can defend themselves against a bomb?
After one impossibly risky bomb disposal mission, the big bang does finally seem to have snuffed out our hero (as it most certainly would in real life). A surreal cloud invades the screen, there are muffled screams. We see what he sees through his helmet, an inferno of particulate matter thrown up by a powerful bomb that he was unable to diffuse in time, this time attached to a suicide bomber who realizes too late that he wants to opt out of the deal he has made. Sadly, and understandably, now that the moment has arrived, he does not want to die: "I have a wife and family, I love my family" he yells, pleading with Staff Sargeant James to release him from bombs that encircle his chest like lights on a Christmas tree. His team tell Sargeant James to let it go, there is no way to diffuse the bombs in time, there are too many. Amazingly, James stands there and gives it one more try, but backs away because the timer tells him it really is too late. Most of us would haveI would have bolted like a roadrunner in a Warner Brothers cartoon to get away from him - but not James.
As he retreats, boom, the man-bomb explodes.It is totally horrific, an inconceivable deployment of human life.
The dust cloud parts, and there he is, risen once again like the phoenix out of the ashes. Staff Sargeant James' fearlessness, it seems, is the necessary antidote in a purgatory most soldiers do not question or try to make sense of. It is very clear after viewing this film why so many return home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, deaf or blind. These are gigantic explosions at very close range, but as all the great war films show us, reason and logic are obsolete in war zones. Acceptance of whatever insanity presents itself is as inevitable as it is non-negotiable for soldiers that have signed "choice" away. I have spoken with soldiers that made it very clear they signed on to "do or die" and to follow orders, no matter how insane they may seem. .
There really is no other job like this, which is why it is done by the most exceptional men and women. Their entrapment breathes through the screen, as does their heroism. Soldiers do not get to choose when they go home, a reality that is reinforced by the number of days completed in their tour of duty that is posted at regular intervals on screen in the film. As it gets near the end of their tour of duty, the chance of survival gets slimmer and slimmer - especially if a soldier is a bomb disposal expert.
The new, stealth warfare highlights rifles fitted with sophisticated scopes that can target an enemy a great distance away. The bad news is the enemy uses the same rifles against our soldiers in this film. The IED explosions are sufficiently deadly and realistic without enlisting extraneous special effects, and this film does not use them. Instead, the eerie silence that follows an explosion is skilfully prolonged, suspending that precious time between life and death for those that may have lost this round of war's insane roulette.
The cause of destruction is an impersonal device buried in the sand that symbolizes how we invent horrible ways to kill each other. We in the so-called developed world spend billions of dollars researching more and more sophisticated ways to kill; we can destroy the planet with the push of a button. Yet primitive IEDs are now deployed against innocent civilians and our soldiers that wreak horrible destruction at close range. However, while I was watching this film I was reminded forcefully that no matter how many suicide bombers there are, we have never yet sent a suicide bomber back to harm anyone - because we value human life. That is awesome.
This is the last resort of an enemy that does not show itself. What could be worse than sending body bombs or bombs attached to children? Mercifully, we have not sunk that low. That would be losing the war.
In the beginning of the "The Hurt Locker" a poem is cited, and the final lines proclaim "war is a drug."
If war is a drug for some soldiers, then it is an ideal match. It takes an exceptional person to choose to get near that, although one wonders how many young soldiers have any idea how deadly it is till they go off to war. In sharp contrast to Staff Sargeant James, constant doubts exist in the soldiers that surround him, who share none of his fearlessness about survival. They can't wait to go home to a normal life. The film conveys their courage in sticking it out for as long as they have to, while suggesting that war is a "fix" for other soldiers. It is unlikely we could fight wars without the soldiers that need that fix.
Incredible as it may seem, the hero chooses to go back for more when he does not have to. He has fulfilled his obligations to the military, his contract is over. He has the option never to return to the desert hell-hole again. But the quiet, suburban life with his wife and baby seems too tame, too sane, for Staff Sargeant James.It could never contain or satisfy him. After surviving 873 bomb "disposal" missions he volunteers to return to Iraq because bomb disposal experts are urgently needed. We do not know where that takes him.
If war is a drug, history shows us we are hopelessly addicted to it. War seems to be the way we solve our biggest problems.
After seeing this movie and what these soldiers are required to do I hope our scientists invent cyborg-robots that can diffuse IEDs and bombs, even if human soldiers volunteer to diffuse them. "The Terminator" was a cyborg, capable of re-constructing himself even after he was consumed by fire and explosions.
There may come a day when military bomb disposal experts gain the stature of the great heroes of ancient myths and legends that still fire our imagination because of their superhuman courage - or did they need that fix? Some day children may read about real men that walked up to hidden bombs and diffused them with their bare hands to save the lives of people they did not even know.
On November 10, 2010, The Museum of Modern Art's Film Benefit in New York honored writer-director Kathryn Bigelow, winner of an Academy Award for Best Director for "The Hurt Locker," a film about military bomb disposal experts that garnered 6 Academy Awards in 2010, including Best Motion Picture (Drama). This event raises funds each year to ensure that great works of cinema continue to join the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
The event was co-chaired by Ralph Fiennes, Harrison Ford, Jodi Foster, Hilary and Wilbur Ross, and Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch. Honorary Co-chairs were Marie-Jose Kravis and Jerry I. Speyer. Guests included Mayor Bloomberg, Martha Raddatz, and Rupert and Wendi Murdoch. Also in attendance was Rajendra Roy, The Museum of Modern Art Chief Curator, Film.
The evening began with a cocktail reception in the Agnes Gund Garden Lobby, followed by a presentation of Kathryn Bigelow's directorial work in MoMA's Titus Theatre. A formal dinner followed in the Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium, illustrated above, one of the highest "ceilings" - and among the most spectacular - to dine under in New York. The after-party featured music by the Canadian indie rock band Metric, followed by DJ sets by Nick Zimmer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Nate Lowman.
Four films by Kathryn Bigelow are currently represented in MoMA's collection: "Point Break," (1991), "Blue Steel," (1989), "Near Dark, the Loveless," (1982), and "Set-Up, (1978). In June 2011, MoMA will present a retrospective of Bigelow's entire career, with screenings of all her feature films, including the Academy Award winning film "The Hurt Locker," (2008), "K-19, The Widowmaker," (2002), "The Weight of Water," (2000), and "Strange Days," (1995)
In conjunction with the retrospective MoMA has acquired Bigelow's paper archive, including documentation for all her film projects, from pre-production research through production notes to post-release publicity and press materials. This archive contains both process and creative documentation, such as storyboards, scripts, filming schedules, location scouting reports, and casting notes. The collection also includes unrealized scripts and other projects.
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