...in our seats in a state of compelled fascination

The Hurt Locker

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            Before seeing “The Hurt Locker,” I wondered how anyone who hadn’t been in the war in Iraq could possibly weigh the authenticity of a movie about it. After seeing it, I can only say that director Katherine Bigelow shoves us back in our seats in the early frames and leaves us there in a state of compelled fascination. She has made an engrossing movie about the war without resorting to the sentimental tricks of the trade that tripped up others who tried.

            How did she do this when so many others have failed? Working with a script by Mark Boal who wrote the marvelous “In the Valley of Elah,” she narrows her focus immediately to a three-man team whose assignment is to deactivate roadside bombs planted by insurgents - or by civilians, or by hostages used as human bombs. As the team leader cuts wires, his support men have seconds to decide who is the enemy and who is not. Given the language barrier, they must assume every hand movement of a stranger is a threat. Every time the team goes out, each knows he will probably die that day.

            As Bigelow narrows her focus, we meet team leader Matt Thompson ( Guy Pearce), and the two men who will cover him – JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). In prolonged and horrific early scenes, Sgt. Thompson is killed. We in the audience have learned quickly about IED robots, detonation hazard suits, the culture of the streets of Iraq, and the job of an IED team. We have also watched a blast wave raise the very ground where they stand.

            Thompson is replaced by Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner), a cavalier leader who smokes throughout the action and doffs his hazard suit when it’s too hot. Soon known as “the wild man,” James earns the disapproval of both Sanborn and Eldridge. The movie is the story of the three men building new trust as they keep each other alive.

            When his team unravels, we begin to see another side of the cynical James; we see the vulnerabilities of Eldridge and the by-the-book ways of Sanborn. It's hard to exaggerate the competence and credibility of the three actors who create these characters. Katherine Bigelow allows them to come alive with her extraordinary use of detail in revealing their personalities and the landscape of the war they are fighting in the streets of Baghdad.

            She and scriptwriter Boal, who was an embedded journalist in Iraq, wisely leave the political questions about the war to others and ask us instead to concentrate on a vital and chaotic specialty in this war. We leave the theater with the rhythm of guns in our heads: guns in hands, on tripods, on humvees, on tanks; we remember three thirsty men covered in desert dust risking death by bomb blast every day. Bigelow and Boal and their cast and crew have created a remarkable movie.

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