Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker, which follows a U.S. Army bomb diffusion squad in Baghdad circa 2004, is far and away the best non-documentary movie made thus far about the Iraq War. Of course that's kind of like being the prettiest girl in the burn ward, but it's a tense, nerve-wracking action thriller that's worth a look by any standard. It's not a message movie — in fact it's utterly apolitical (unless you consider soldiers admitting that they hate it there a political statement, but I don't think anyone would enjoy spending a year in the desert with hostile Iraqis) — and that's almost certainly for the best and will make it better stand the test of time ten, twenty, and so on years from now.

The film is shot a very stark vérité style. There's barely any music, the cinematography is sparse, the editing utilitarian and almost reminiscent of a documentary, and the dialogue no more mellifluous or witty than that of real soldiers (so in a sense it's the aesthetic opposite of the best Gulf War movie, Three Kings, which was extremely flashy and stylized). Relative unknowns assume all the lead roles, although a few celebrities fill out the edges, most notably Memento's Guy Pearce as a bomb expert. And like real war, casualties come fast and sudden with little pomp or fanfare (no soldier holds their friend's hand and gives a monologue about their mama as they die ala Saving Private Ryan), and the attrition rate is high.

The plot is also realistic to a fault, lacking any conventional three-act structure or central "goal" such as the aforementioned Three Kings or Saving Private Ryan; the story is simply that the bomb unit we follow has exactly 39 days left in Iraq, has to go on dangerous, potentially fatal missions to disarm IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) most every day, and they're all hoping to make it out alive. We follow them on seven or eight such missions, each of which has its own twists and unique action, but beyond being about the same characters there's no cohesive thread from mission to mission. The movie almost feels like the world's shortest mini-series, with each "episode" wrapping up in fifteen to twenty minutes and moving on to something new. This can make the movie feel a hair repetitive at points, but it's decidedly authentic.

I should note that, although it didn't really cross my mind, a few veterans on the movie Internet forums I frequent griped that the film's protagonist — a half-mad adrenaline junkie who throws away his headset in hostile territory when his CO bothers him, takes off his bomb gear in the middle of a disarming so he can "die comfortable," and ditches his unit to chase a hostile through the alleys — would be discharged so fast and hard his head would spin off in real life. And yeah, there's probably some truth to that, but in all fairness the movie doesn't present him as par for the course, he's called "a wild man" the higher-ups only keep on because of his bomb expertise, and his two fellow squad members resent the hell out of him and even half-seriously ponder "accidentally" killing him on the field so that he doesn't get them both blown up with his reckless abandon. It stretches reality a little bit, but it's entertaining, so I'll allow it.

Although the film is primarily about bomb diffusion, the highlight is actually one of the best (maybe the best) sniper duels I've ever seen onscreen. Several characters get pinned down by sniper fire from two Iraqis across a long dune, and the ensuing battle is ludicrously tense; free from any music or gratuitous dramatics as the American sniper takes careful aim, fires, sometimes misses, and sometimes hits, with reloading an agonizingly long process when every second another bullet is coming across the way and characters are getting picked off with horrifyingly little fanfare (indeed, without the American sniper even being able to look away from the scopes because there's no time). It's one of the year's best scenes.

I would imagine that The Hurt Locker isn't for everyone; some might find the hyper-realistic style a little jarring and some might find it a little too violent and depressing (and some people who know more about the military than me might get a headache from some of the inaccuracies), but I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who has interest in modern warfare or just enjoys a ballin' action movie.

3 Stars out of 5

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