When Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for directing The Hurt Locker (2008), she was the first (and to this day, only) woman to receive the award. Not only did she break one of Hollywood’s most notorious glass ceilings, she did so by defying stereotypes at the helm of a gut-wrenching war film that almost exclusively featured men. Bigelow’s direction, Mark Boal’s script, the film’s technical achievements and the actors’ performances are unquestionably excellent. Besides its Best Picture win and Bigelow’s award for directing, the film also won Academy Awards for writing, editing, sound editing and sound. But while The Hurt Locker’s craftsmanship was widely praised, its politics were more controversial. The film focuses intently on the immediate situation of the US–Iraq war without any explanation of the larger geopolitical context within which it is set.

The Hurt Locker focuses on the last month of service of an elite army unit that specialises in explosive ordnance disposal. In the context of the Iraq War, this meant defusing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in extremely public and dangerous situations. Bravo Company’s regulars are Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). Early on in the film, they are assigned a new leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), who Sanborn and Eldridge provide backup for as he dismantles IEDs in the field. Sanborn is a cool-headed and rational soldier, while the less-experienced Owen is highly strung and volatile. When James arrives, he seems cavalier and reckless, and immediately creates tension within the group. After this set-up, the film is a series of tense set pieces: IED removals; interactions with a group of private contract mercenaries (led by Ralph Fiennes); and, finally, an encounter with a suicide bomber. The final act of the film centres on James’ obsessive search for a missing Iraqi boy who sold him DVDs at base camp.

Boal based his script on his experiences as an embedded reporter with US forces in Iraq in 2004 for Playboy magazine. The film, accordingly, has a remarkable immediacy; it brings a fresh approach to its depiction of the unique fighting circumstances of the Second Gulf War. Bigelow and Boal’s main interest lies in the tension among the bomb squad, between James and the bombs he tackles, and ultimately between James and himself. Events that shake strong emotions out of other characters are processed completely differently by James (Renner’s performance is as brilliantly believable as it is remarkably opaque). Slowly, the audience comes to understand that he is moved solely by adrenaline. Even his quest to find the lost boy becomes an excuse for more rash adventurism.

The Hurt Locker is a striking portrait of both men in combat and the Iraq War, and was generously rewarded in mainstream circles, but its apolitical nature has nonetheless been justly criticised. Not only does it fail to delve into the politics of US involvement in the Gulf, it also paints a heroic picture of James, who can be read as the devil-may-care rebel of so many action movie tropes. Even his inability to cope with the normal world, captured in a powerful supermarket scene late in the film, feeds into the trope of the man-boy who only wants to go out on further exciting exploits. Bigelow and Boal’s studied neutrality allows for almost any interpretation, but their intent is indicated by the quote that they preface the film with (taken from former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges’ book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning): “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

The movie is 11 years old, and American wars in the Middle East collectively remain the longest in US history – yet hardly anyone now speaks of them. Watching The Hurt Locker now, the film’s engagement (or lack thereof) with post–9/11 politics doesn’t feel as immediate. Instead, the film paints a grim portrait of all of America’s wars since Vietnam. The soldiers never have any real experience of Iraq or its people, and have little understanding of the people whose land they occupy, relying solely on their technology and weaponry. James wears an enormous blast-resistant suit that looks like an oversized astronaut’s outfit, complete with a giant glass helmet that keeps him literally and figuratively in a solipsistic bubble. The bomb removals take place in an urban environment, where many people look on; the soldiers never know who is holding the trigger for the device they are disarming and who is an innocent bystander. By focusing on the narrow perspective in which the soldiers operate, The Hurt Locker captures the tragedy of all such imperial adventures.

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The Hurt Locker (2008 USA 131 min)

Prod. Co: Voltage Pictures, Grosvenor Park Media, FCEF Prod: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Nicolas Chartier, Greg Shapiro Dir: Kathryn Bigelow Scr: Mark Boal Phot: Barry Ackroyd Ed: Chris Innis, Bob Murawski Prod. Des: Karl Júlíusson Art Dir: David Bryan Set Dec: Ameen Al-Masri Cost Des: George Little Mus: Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Evangeline Lilly, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Guy Pearce

About The Author

Rahul Hamid teaches film at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study and is an editor at Cineaste Magazine.