Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Hurt Locker


At Metacritic, where the pros rated this 94 and the viewers 8.4, there were some dissenting voices that gave it a 1 or a 0. Some of these were soldiers serving in Iraq, and some even served in the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit depicted here. They said the movie is bullshit, doesn’t show real life, and some felt it was insulting to the troops. In particular, they noted, the EOD hardly ever defuses an IED, they almost always blow it up in place. Safer that way. And you know what? I don’t give a shit. This movie felt as real to me as any war movie since Saving Private Ryan. Sometimes there is a higher reality that may not jibe with the sometimes actually rather prosaic reality on the ground. As I’ve heard many ex-soldiers say, war is a matter of a hell of a lot of boredom and bullshit, and then periods of action. I’m sure it’s that way in Iraq, even at the height of the tensions (this takes place in 2004). And I’ve even seen some documentaries that show how most soldiers spend most of their time back at the base, doing nothing much. And in fact, the movie opens with a team doing precisely what those dissenters pointed out: they are trying to place an explosive package on a buried artillery shell, using a remote-controlled robot. Naturally, this being drama, something goes wrong, and he has to place the charge by hand.

The movie also makes it clear that it takes place over a space of around 40 days. The EOD was called out pretty much every day. What, are you going to show them routinely disposing of IEDs by robot? Of course you aren’t. You’re going to show the tense moments, when some poor schmuck has to actually get up-close and personal with a ton of TNT or plastique or whatever the fuck the bomb-making bastards are using. And all that time you’re surrounded by Iraqis who may be just looking on, or who may have a cell phone that will blow the charge up in your face.

Some of the nay-sayers pointed out that the main character is pretty much an out-of-control cowboy, and that he does things that no soldier would ever do. I can’t express an informed opinion on that, never having been in combat, and I damn sure would not have wanted to serve with the idiot, but I saw him as something like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. Not the gung-ho aspect, but the … the invulnerable aspect. Soldiers talk of guys who just have no fear, and who seem immune to getting shot. Like they are charmed or something. Remember Duvall standing there on the beach, impatient because everybody else has hit the ground when a mortar round lands nearby? Duvall knows he won’t get hurt, it never even enters his mind. He may be wrong, but he’s not uncertain. Now, that may be entirely mythical, but it’s an interesting myth if it is, and it is the sort of character that gets written about in fictional books and movies. It’s damn hard to make an exciting movie about a dull, by-the-book soldier.

I realized something early on, in a scene where a lone Iraqi taxi driver speeds into a restricted zone and the bomb guy (Jeremy Renner, who most people expect will be getting an Oscar nomination any day now) confronts him with a pistol. (A scene that may actually have been over the top; it dragged out longer than I believed it would have in real life.) What I realized was that I would have made a terrible soldier. If I had been in Vietnam, I’m pretty sure I would have been trigger-happy. What would I prefer, would be my thinking, mistakenly shooting an innocent villager, or having my parents collect me in a body bag when that villager turned out to be Viet Cong? I’d shoot on suspicion. And there in Iraq, do I really want to wait and see if that guy with the cell phone is about to blow me to bits, or should I “accidentally” shoot him? Better to face a court martial—which, let’s be real, would never happen unless I was involved in something as big as My Lai, and probably not even then. I’m sure a lot of innocent people died in Southeast Asia, shot by soldiers as nervous and incompetent and terrified as I would have been. I don’t doubt a lot of Iraqis have died that way, too.

This is a hell of a good movie, made by the only female director I know of who makes action pictures, Kathryn Bigelow. It was written by Mark Boal, who spent some time embedded with the EOD. But it’s not for the faint of heart. The tension becomes almost unbearable at times.

Bigelow does something very unusual here, too. The three leads are all relative unknowns, but there are some more recognizable names in the cast, including Ralph Fiennes, in small parts. I heard an interview with her, and she said that was done deliberately, to throw us off balance. You see a “star,” you unconsciously assume that he will live until the last reel. That’s just the way it is in Hollywood. People like Fiennes and Guy Pearce seldom take a role that can be finished in a day or two. But fair warning: Just because you recognize the face, don’t assume he’s going to be around, alive, for long.