Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow || Produced by: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Nicolas Chartier, Greg Shapiro
Screenplay by: Mark Boal || Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Christian Camargo, Evangeline Lilly, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Guy Pearce
Music by: Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders || Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd || Editing by: Chris Innis, Bob Murawski || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 131 minutes
One of the few films of 2009 that had any business being nominated for the 82nd Academy Award for Best Picture, The Hurt Locker (THL) is important, if nothing else, for the fact that Kathryn Bigelow became the first (and so far the only) woman in history to win the Academy Award for Best Director. Given the recent success and additional Best Picture nomination — as well as the shameful lack of another Best Director nomination — for her awesome Zero Dark Thirty (2012), which chronicled the hunt for and assassination of Osama bin Laden, Bigelow is behaving more like an artistic, veteran director than her ex-husband, James Cameron. THL forgoes any sort of political commentary — a first among the massive wave of recent Iraq War dramatizations — and instead focuses its narrative on a more atmospheric level. Bigelow zooms her magnifying glass on an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD)-unit, in particular the man responsible for defusing bombs in the field (Jeremy Renner), and amplifies the tension of soldiers operating in a hostile environment. It’s a highly effective film that relies on excellent camerawork, cinematography, and editing to derive endless intensity.
The script is well paced, and gives the viewer plenty of time to breathe in between the tense bomb-defusal scenes. The set-pieces themselves are masterworks of tension and insert us in the shoes of characters constantly surrounded by hostility, feeling as if danger could come around the corner at any moment, and any civilian may be an imminent threat to their survival. The inability to know who to trust is emphasized over and over in THL, with most of the key characters resorting to trusting nobody outside their unit. The way this tension builds and is held without ever feeling draining is impressive. Of particular noteworthiness is the sniper battle that occurs halfway through the film, which is shot in a patient, beautiful way that combines the vast openness of desert landscapes with the deadly art of the long-shot. Violence in this film is used sparingly, but it feels especially impactful when it does occur. The opening bomb-defusal sequence in particular is memorable and does a good job of introducing the film’s running theme of death from any direction.
The editing of THL is laudable given the film’s ability to cover over two-hours’ worth of episodic content while keeping the pace snappy. Every set-piece is intense, but never exhausting, and none overstay their welcome. Numerous scenes cross the 180-degree line constantly, and yet the geography of each encounter is always clear. The film even allows brief moments for comic relief between shootouts or bomb defusal-sequences, but they never drag or feel forced. THL should be considered a prime example of how to pace, edit, and structure an episodic, faux non-linear feature-film. It doesn’t jump back and forth in time, per se, like a Quentin Tarantino film, and yet the narrative maintains a sense of tension and thrust despite various scenes occurring in unimportant order, often weeks or months apart, and with no MacGuffin.
That rigorous editing style was necessitated by Bigelow’s use of multiple cameras to capture different perspectives in most sequences. THL shifts from extreme long-shots to medium-shots to close-ups far more methodically and frequently than your average action or war film. Again, the terrific editing maintains context and geography, but the rapid shift in perspectives and points of view (e.g. a bomb-maker observing Jeremy Renner defuse his creation, the opposing snipers in the film’s centerpiece) heightens the intensity and pacing of each set-piece. The cameras’ freedom of movement and the prevalence of handheld shots would otherwise imply a reliance on digital photography, but THL’s use of Super 16mm showcases a grainy, rough look that emphasizes the dust, sand, and desolate landscapes of the setting.
While most general audiences enjoyed the film and critics raved about the film’s intensity and cinematography, there has been a large amount of criticism directed at The Hurt Locker from Iraq War veterans for its inaccuracies regarding troop behavior, equipment, and general military protocol. I was shocked at the level of disdain and snide comments that were directed at the film’s supposed faults on websites selling the home video formats, such as Amazon.com.
While I find most South Asian viewers’ complaints about Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) annoying and founded in misplaced indignation, I can sort of see where they’re coming from with the situation of a British film set in India, and the whole “Slumdog“-title, but this Hurt Locker nitpicking… not so much. This is a matter of suspension of belief that all films require, and applies as much to a film like THL, which is neither claiming to be a documentary nor based on a true events. It is a work of fiction, just like The Social Network (2010), a film that also made up entire segments and characters in its script because those fictionalizations made for a more interesting story.
In my opinion, people bitching about the inaccuracies of a film like THL have run way past the concern for contextual realism to pointless nitpicking and unjustified criticism. Viewers who whine about these “inaccuracies” are the same sorts of folks who praise political documentaries for agreeing with their world-view, or laud a film like Act of Valor (2012) for starring active-duty Navy SEALs, or praise Gods and Generals (2003) because their props and infantry formations are authentic. Complaining about minute details like soldier uniforms, how exactly servicemen address officers, and the particular arrangement of an OED-unit is a complete waste of time, because these things are meaningless in the context of the actual film and the style of filmmaking it uses to tell its story. Criticisms of this film’s adherence to military protocol are non-arguments.
The Hurt Locker is almost an “experimental-action film” that focuses its efforts on the beauty of the kill-shot and the intensity of a desert warfare. Bigelow’s piece has relatively uninteresting characters, save for Jeremy Renner’s intriguing character-study, yet its action, editing, choice-of location, and cinematography blow most other contemporary war films out of the water. I’m sure having actual actors speak the lines helped a little bit, too.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Hurt Locker boasts awesome camerawork and some of the most memorable set-pieces I’ve seen in a war film. The sniper sequence is particularly well done. Bigelow maintains a grinding, intense mood throughout the story’s episodic structure, and makes great use of Jeremy Renner’s attitude and charisma.
— However… the rest of the cast are just kind of “there.” Nobody besides Renner is particularly well drawn or developed, save for perhaps Anthony Mackie.
? Some people love war. Me, I love Cheetos.