“The Hurt Locker,” a film directed by Karen Bigelow, written by Karen Bigelow and Mark Boal, starring Guy Pearce, Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty, with cameos by Ralph Fiennes and David Morse.

By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

San Francisco filmmaker Karen Bigelow’s latest film, “The Hurt Locker,” takes place in 2004 in Baghdad. Her film sometimes has a cinema verité look; the hand-held camera is the viewpoint of a very scared and anxious soldier whose eyes flit from one object to another. The film opens on the last 39 days of a US Army’s bomb squad unit’s tour, made up of three guys whose job it is to defuse IEDs. Guy Pearce plays Sgt. Matt Thompson, Anthony Mackie, JT Sanborn; and Brian Geraghty is Owen Eldridge.

The squad works on scorching hot terrain and uses robots to analyze anything that could hide a bomb. When the ‘bots malfunction, the team head, with the help of others members, dons a heavily padded outfit and a helmet (the outfit makes him look like a deep-sea diver from a 1930’s giant octopus horror film. His breathing is amplified like that of Darth Vader’s). US soldiers backing up the squad point their guns and yell in English at Iraqi citizens to leave the area. A flock of sheep may meander past. Some men and boys go up to rooftops to watch; others peer from darkened windows. Are they just watching - - or getting ready to detonate the bomb with a cell phone?

There are many tense standoffs between the soldiers and Iraqis. In each, soldiers are at a loss as to what to do. Aiming their weapons at hapless citizens, they ask their superiors for clarification on the Rules of Engagement, yet no one seems to know exactly what they are. A fully camo-outfitted general (David Morse), brandishing his automatic rifle, jumps out of truck only long enough to commend the bomb squad for their work. Sanborn wants to kill Iraqis if they don’t obey orders. It is only when the Iraqis finally get the message - - communicated by shouts in English, simple Arabic commands, and lots of gun waving and pointing - - that disaster is averted.

Bigelow’s story is told entirely from the soldiers’ viewpoint. Every Iraqi is a threat, even friendly boys who only want to play soccer. No Iraqi is played sympathetically. The covered women are old and fat; they scream and rail in Arabic, flail their arms. Sneaky, suspicious-looking men lurk in doorways, hide in corners and spy from windows and rooftops, and one aims a video camera at Eldridge.

A robot breaks down; Thompson has to find and defuse the bomb manually. He fails. A somber scene follows depicting a large, white room containing rows and rows of white boxes sitting on tables, each representing a dead American soldier. A soldier opens the lid of one and tosses in Thompson’s personal effects. Thompson's replacement is hot-shot Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who pisses off his comrades with his gung ho, go-it-alone, so-what-if-I-get- killed attitude. Going in to find a bomb and defuse it, he either sets off a smoke screen or removes his head-piece so his team not only can’t see him, but can’t communicate with him either. James prides himself on his bomb-defusing knowledge. No frustrating decisions whether to cut the yellow, red, or green wire. Still, we wince when he snips one. He is so sure of himself that at one site, he sheds his padded protective gear and helmet, saying, “If I’m gonna die, I wanna be comfortable.” We get a sense of James’s humanity when he befriends a teenage Iraqi boy. That insurgents allegedly plant bombs in corpses is brought home near the end of the film when the bomb team cases an abandoned building and James discovers the boy’s body.

Eldridge is certain that James is going to get him killed. Sanborn sees Iraqis the way the military programs its soldiers - - they are all Hajis. He hates Iraq, the Hajis, evident in how Mackie delivers Sanborn’s lines. Eldridge is the story’s weakling, the scared-y cat. He takes his troubles to Colonel John Cambridge (Christian Camargo), the company shrink. Owen challenges his ability as a fellow soldier, so Cambridge takes him up on it. You can see the outcome a mile away.
At one point, the three come up on members of Blackwater (headed by Ralph Fiennes in a cameo role) when its truck has a flat. The scene takes place in the middle of nowhere. An ambush ensues. Director Bigelow takes her time, here. The scene moves slowly. We wait with the team as they try to spot snipers through telescopes. We see what the men see: underwater images created by heat waves of parched land and a small, squat concrete bunker, until a red sun goes down. The scene is heart-stopping. In it, Eldridge earns his machismo.

Screen writer Mark Boal (who also wrote “The Valley of Elah,”) had gone to Iraq on a writing assignment, so claims he knows how to portray the life. Still, some of the character of James’s action didn’t ring true, such as sneaking off with Sanborn and Eldridge deeper into the Green Zone, after a massive truck bomb had exploded, lighting up and silhouetting the soldiers with roaring flames. Sanborn reminds James that a unit is right behind them to investigate the blast’s origins. Later, James abducts an Iraqi shopkeeper to take him through a village to find an Iraqi boy’s home. How the military warps minds is illustrated when Sanborn considers killing a mutually despised teammate. “Detonators go off accidentally all the time,” he says.

Bigelow has included the obligatory scene of soldiers getting drunk and beating each other up to celebrate completing a task. The verbal racial tension that is established earlier erupts in this scene into violence when white guy James pins Sanborn. who is black, beneath him and calls him “my bitch”. Also, war movies must have a scene where soldiers talk about their girls back home. James has an estranged wife (played by Evangeline Lilly in a couple of brief scenes) and an infant son.

The tour ends; the team is on their way home. Seeing hot-shot James later pushing a shopping cart down an eerily empty supermarket aisle, to a sappy supermarket soundtrack, in front of an endless row of countless boxes of cereal, you can feel his humiliation. He seems to be saying: “I almost lost my life a million times for this?” Putting his infant son to bed, he talks to him about what he loves most. The last scene shows just what this is, as the wording on the screen reads: “365 days left of this unit’s tour.”

Major critics liked this film, saying that, finally, after earlier films about the Iraq war (Gulf War included) were ignored despite good reviews, “The Hurt Locker” will be the one to make it big at the box office. I suppose because it is tightly focused on three American soldiers and avoids taking a political stance. Yet seeing the conditions under which soldiers are expected to fight: faulty equipment, inadequate supplies, scarce ammunition, no real direction, and confusion, and when we see the results of the military’s breaking down of the human soul, “The Hurt Locker” could be viewed as an anti-war film.

Watching it, it is easy to forget that if it weren’t for the US rush to war, US soldiers or those from our so-called Coalition Forces, never had to be there, risking their lives so that citizens of the "Free World" can stroll down an aisle with the tough decision of what else to toss into an already overloaded shopping cart. And the 5,000 plus American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians didn’t have to die. Many civilians and soldiers are still dying every day.