Oscar Movie Month: "The Hurt Locker" Review

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Set in 2004 Baghdad, Kathryn Bigelow directs a tense and realistic drama focusing on three American soldiers whose job is to harmlessly disable improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Instead of presenting a position on the Iraq war, the story follows the moment-to-moment lives of the men in the bomb squad (played by Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie & Brian Geraghty).
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Oscar Movie Month: "The Hurt Locker" Review

-- Rating: R
Length: 131 minutes
Release Date: June 26, 2009
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Genre: Drama/Thriller/War
Cast: Full Cast and Crew

By showing the excitement and exhilaration of soldiers' lives in a modern war zone, just about every movie that may have originally been intended to be taken as antiwar becomes, in a way, strangely prowar. This is most apparent when a film tries to make its audience think long and hard but only succeeds in creating an uncomfortable bridge between shoot-'em-up action sequences. Such an effect is deftly avoided here, though the horrors of war are as lovingly rendered in "The Hurt Locker" as perhaps they have ever been onscreen. The trick seems to lie not with depicting a war as something bloody and murderous but rather as something tedious and boring. Blood and guts certainly sell tickets and may even win recruits for the next big war, but portraying a war as a huge waste of time involving a lot of sitting in dusty rooms and slowly going crazy might be a winner.

The difficulty is turning that deep, accurately depicted ennui of a modern war zone into saleable moving pictures. "The Hurt Locker" succeeds here, despite the difficulty of executing the filmmakers' vision, largely because just about everyone involved in this picture, from the cast and the director to the post-production crew and maybe also the caterers, stepped up and delivered masterful performances.

"The Hurt Locker" is an intimate and visually stunning depiction of the elite soldiers of the explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) team that is tasked with an extremely unpleasant and dangerous job: disarming bombs and other explosives in the thick of combat. When a new sergeant, William James (Jeremy Renner), takes over this team in the thick of the war, he alarms his two immediate subordinates, JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), by senselessly charging ahead into combat in the urban canyon. James leads his unit as if he has nothing to lose and may actually be looking for death. As the unit struggles to rein in the new commander, fighting breaks out all around the EOD, and the men will never be quite the same again.

The cast of "The Hurt Locker" delivers one powerful performance after another. Renner seems at times to be acting more or less in the direction of a professional critic whose review can make or break his career, while Mackie approaches a fine performance from the opposite angle: "Get a load of me in the army," he seems to be saying through nearly every line. Geraghty plays what in many ways is a pivotal supporting character in the film and doesn't seem to take it lightly. One wonders how he prepared for the role, as he seems to merge so completely with his character that the distance between him and the audience erodes completely by the end of the first action sequence.

"The Hurt Locker" took home six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was nominated for three more in the categories of Best Achievement in Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Actor for Jeremy Renner. The Best Director award went to Kathryn Bigelow, who earned every inch of that Oscar, and the Best Editing trophy was accepted by Bob Murawski and Chris Innis. It's really easy to overlook editing as an element in a film's success, but in an action film, sharp, lively editing can make all the difference between a deliberately paced meditation on the philosophy of conflict and 131 minutes of hammy performers who suddenly appear from nowhere to deliver lines that don't make any kind of sense. Good editing is even more crucial to action sequences, because it's usually difficult for an audience to keep track of where characters are and what they're doing. Mark Boal took the award for Best Original Screenplay, a category that seems to have grown more discriminating over the past several years.

"The Hurt Locker" isn't a typical war movie with lots of helicopter gunships and heavy-handed moralizing about the heavy burden of leadership or the duty to leave no man behind. It manages to come across as a gripping portrayal of the sodden nonsense that is modern war, without either high-explosive antics or trite moralizing. The direction is tight, the acting is superb, and the film is paced throughout to keep the audience absorbed in the plot.

Rating: 4 out of 5