The American Interest

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Men at Work

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is an Iraq war film we can believe in.

Published on September 1, 2009


The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
131 Minutes (First Light Production)

After half a dozen years of Iraq war features, documentaries and Television series on networks from HBO to Lifetime, critics have near-unanimously dubbed The Hurt Locker the best film yet made about the conflict. This is a surprising judgment for what seems at first blush to be a straightforward action flick with sparse dialogue, no grand narrative and little in the way of character arcs. There are scarcely any conventional combat scenes, nor is there a readily apprehended moral of the story—no lament of the horrors of war, no moving ode to the bonds of brotherhood.

Yet the critics are right to praise The Hurt Locker, for if it is straightforward, it is deceptively so. Other films have flitted around the war zone itself only to settle on its periphery: the after-action police procedural In the Valley of Elah, the “coming home” drama Stop-Loss, the political bombast of Rendition and character studies of grief like Grace is Gone. The Hurt Locker, however, places us squarely in the path of chaotic violence in a volatile foreign environment. It focuses on crucial but underreported figures in the war: the men who disarm IEDs. In director Kathryn Bigelow’s hands, this focus manages double duty: The film’s peerless realism and reportorial spirit capture what is unique to the Iraq war experience as no other non-documentary film has yet managed to do; yet its central concern, exploring the human response to fear and mortal danger that is the essence of life at war, transcends Iraq. And it’s as muscular and entertaining as the best films of iconic war movie directors Sam Fuller (The Big Red One) and Howard Hawks (Only Angels Have Wings, Rio Bravo).

The film unfolds in episodic fashion, offering a narrow but vivid slice of life in a three-man Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit (EOD) in 2004 Baghdad. In contrast to the overweening auteurism of a Brian De Palma (Redacted) or Robert Redford (Lions for Lambs) who set out to say Something Important about the war and its evils, Bigelow begins with simple curiosity about the men who choose to take on “the most dangerous job in the world.” Indeed, the ubiquitous and ever-evolving IED has been of central importance in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and bomb techs are, as screenwriter Mark Boal put it, the MVPs of the conflicts. Rather than apply force, they diffuse potential violence—and suffer a casualty rate five times that of combat troops for their efforts.

The Hurt Locker, whose title is taken from a colloquial expression for extreme pain or disaster, is the result of Boal’s having embedded with an EOD squad that confronted as many as 12 to 14 IEDs per day, some buried under dirt and blacktop roads, others hidden in garbage cans, donkey carts, telephone poles, abandoned car trunks and even in dead human bodies. His screenplay is structured around seven equally intense set-pieces that convey the maddeningly variable nature of the threat. And throughout, the bomb-makers hover just out of view—a cigarette left smoking in an abandoned workshop, a triggerman fingering his cell phone from behind a butcher shop window, a kite flying to signal the successful detonation of a suicide bomber.

Bigelow, who made her name as a deft practitioner of the action/adventure genre with such films as Near Dark, Point Break and K-19: The Widowmaker, has largely kept her distance from Hollywood. The French company Voltage Pictures gave her independent financing and complete control of the production, allowing her to bypass safer, studio-preferred filming locations such as Morocco or the California desert for Amman, Jordan and an area 150 miles to the northeast, just short of the Iraqi border. Iraqi refugees served as extras, filming took place under grueling 115-degree heat, and actors wore the ninety-pound protective suit used by the bomb techs themselves.

Bigelow didn’t insist on such authenticity for the sake of making a high-minded documentary; she did so to produce a form of experiential cinema. Her aim was to create an utterly immersive world that elicits an immediate, visceral response from the viewer. Her fine-arts background (she studied abstract impressionism at the Art Institute of San Francisco and the Whitney Museum’s independent study program) has given her a keen awareness of how visuals work on the senses. She gets the fact that, as New York Times critic Manhola Dargis observed, “we go to movies for what they do to our bodies and not just the ideas they plant in our heads.”1

Many action movie set-pieces these days are unrealistically fast-paced, firing explosions and sending bodies flying in a macabre high-wire act. Such excesses dazzle more than engage the viewer, disorienting him rather than enabling him to get lost in the world onscreen. The Hurt Locker reins in such spectacle to allow you almost to feel phantom sweat on your nape, the sand crusted on your face and flies in your eyelashes, and above all, the panic of naked exposure to an enemy as pervasive and invisible as the air you breathe. After two hours of this sensory experience, you struggle to adjust to the world you encounter upon leaving the theater.

Similarly, where most action movies collapse time and space to create an artificial kinetic energy, Bigelow makes strategic use of quiet moments to stretch and sharpen the tension. The bomb tech, lumbering forward in the ninety-pound suit, takes the “lonely walk” toward the IED in almost real time. As he slowly traverses the corridor of space between him and potential death, each heavy step forward carries the possibility of a sniper attack or remote detonation. Is that woman shaking dust from a carpet on her doorstep sending a signal? Is that man with binoculars on the balcony merely curious?

Bigelow effectively denies the viewer the gratification of tension and release, as well as the expected pattern of crescendo toward climactic denouement. She primes you to expect disaster to strike, and then nothing does. As in real life, the disaster comes when least expected, unheralded by Hollywood cues, to pound on the nerves and stomach. Once we’ve been mesmerized by the black, grim explosion that kills the first team leader, we spend the rest of the film anticipating the next one, tormented by our own imagination. With each of our EOD unit’s seven missions, troops clear a wide perimeter around the bomb, and the war itself seems to halt as one man advances toward the lethal object. This war movie conveys the terror of war not through chaotic combat scenes, but by distilling all the fear and adrenaline down to the kernel of this existential meeting of one man and one deadly threat.


And who is that man? What kind of person is attracted to this job and can do it extremely well? In a refreshing departure from its predecessors, The Hurt Locker doesn’t pathologize these men, but makes a point of their tremendous skill and competence under pressure. The EOD unit’s trio are defined by their relationship to fear: One gives in, one manages it, and one thrives on it. Seasoned professional Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) keeps fear in check by insisting on strict adherence to protocol, while the jittery rookie, Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), becomes one thrumming, raw nerve after their team leader’s death.

They are joined by Staff Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner), who wryly introduces himself as a brash redneck before displaying his formidable talent in the field. Where Sanborn’s bravado masks fear, James’s seems to feed directly from the charge of the danger itself. Refusing use of the recon robot, he saunters (insofar as the bulky space suit allows) toward the first IED with a casual “I’ll handle it.” After a more hair-raising mission, in which he casts off the protective suit and headset to work swiftly and unencumbered, preferring to “die comfortable”, he lights a cigarette in almost post-coital satisfaction and says, “That was good.” We’re never quite sure whether he flouts safety protocols because he’s the demented cowboy Sanborn thinks he is, or because, having disarmed 873 IEDs, he’s so skilled that he has no use for any of them. Either way, his insouciance bewilders and disturbs his teammates, who are counting down the last 38 days of their tour. Quickly realizing that their mercurial leader could get them killed, Sanborn and Eldridge keep a wary, resentful distance, while regarding James with both fury and grudging admiration.

In Renner’s finely hewn performance, however, James isn’t just an adrenaline junkie. He’s cocky, reckless and infuriating, to be sure, but he’s also avuncular, funny and oddly charming as he tackles each mission with equal parts instinct and improvisation. You can feel the audience fall for him, then pull back in discomfort as his risk-taking becomes increasingly compulsive and unsettling. Though he might seem a familiar “maverick” war movie trope, and though we’re invited to marvel at his skill and courage, he’s no John Wayne. Renner’s face is non-descript. He’s strong but hardly statuesque, and while his job requires tremendous self-sacrifice, one couldn’t quite call him noble.

And here the film’s initial question—what kind of person does this job?—gives way to the second, more penetrating one: What does the job do to him? Does war create a Will James or just attract him to the only place where he makes sense? In James we see how the adrenaline rush heightens the senses and sharpens one’s focus; he feels more keenly alive with each clipped wire. He has a magpie-like habit of collecting “things that could have killed [him]” in a box under his bed: The bomb parts are souvenirs of his favorite daredevil acts. But when what should be terrifying becomes routine, he seeks out more dangerous challenges, exposing himself and others to unnecessary, poorly calculated risks.

In another wrinkle on the patriotic war movie, the wife and child at home don’t draw him away from the fray; they drive him back to it. Back home, James stands blank-faced before a wall of cereal boxes at the supermarket, and mechanically cleans rain-soaked leaves from the gutters of his house. Such calm becomes first uncomfortable, then punishing, until he itches to return to duty.

James doesn’t change or offer up any soul-searching revelations from the trenches. But Bigelow has a gift for advancing story and complex characterization without words. Our impression of the man evolves from seeing him in action, from a soccer scuffle with an Iraqi boy, to a near-silent sniper/spotter collaboration with Sanborn, the bond of which gives way to a fistfight that literally hangs on a knife’s edge. Only once, in an moment of candor alone with his infant son, does he express muted ambivalence about the insuperable attraction of his dangerous job. There is something tragic but inevitable about the film leaving him where he most wants to be, walking alone toward the horizon to face yet another thing that could kill him, but that gives him the thrill he can’t live without.

Ultimately, The Hurt Locker neither indicts men like James as unhinged aggressors, nor canonizes them for their service. It rather allows us to appreciate their skill while making us prickle at the high price of acquiring it. It allows us, too, to thrill at their bravery as we inwardly ask ourselves about our own capacities. One kind of Iraq war feature or documentary would have unabashedly applauded these men in the way of those pictures that cast the Greatest Generation in amber. Another kind would have showed us the ugly side of their profession, indicting the war through the deluded hero. The Hurt Locker does neither. It seeks only to lead us to reality as those on the ground have experienced it. And we join them there, as best we can.

1Dargis, “Action!” New York Times, June 18, 2009.

Noelle Daly is assistant editor of The American Interest.