The Hurt Locker: A Near-Perfect War Film

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The U.S. Army bomb disposal unit has three men: an intelligence officer, the specialist who covers the scene with his rifle and the staff sergeant who walks up to the device and tries to turn it off. Today there's a report of one on a Baghdad street. Mission simple to define — "Let them know that if they're gonna leave a bomb on the side of the road," the staff sergeant says, "we're gonna blow up their f---in' road" — but way harder to accomplish. As he walks toward the contaminated area wearing a heavily insulated space suit on a 130-degree day, he catches the corner-eyesight of a man about to use a cell phone. The spaceman turns and runs. Too late: BOOM! The bomb detonates and so does he. Blood seeps down his helmet visor like red rain on the wrong side of a car windshield.

This is the first scene of The Hurt Locker, which has its world premiere here at the Venice Film Festival before playing Sunday at the Toronto fest. No U.S. opening or distributor has been secured, but that should change once festival people strap themselves in for this dynamite drive through the Iraq occupation. (Make that war.) Except for a few digressive scenes — a solo sortie of personal vengeance, a conversation about what it all means — that could easily be cut from the 2 hr. 11 min. running time, The Hurt Locker is a near-perfect movie about men in war, men at work. Through sturdy imagery and violent action, it says that even Hell needs heroes.

The director, Kathryn Bigelow, has paraded her adroitness with complex stories about oddball characters in two curious subgenres: Near Dark (1987) was the all-time teenage vampire love story, Point Break (1991) the all-time surfer-heist movie. The scriptwriter, Marc Boal, is a journalist for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and Playboy, which ran a story that Paul Haggis expanded into the sharpest of last year's Iraq-related dramas, In the Valley of Elah. These two filmmakers have pooled their complementary talents to make one of the rare war movies that's strong but not shrill, and sympathetic to guys doing an impossible job.

With the death of their boss, and 38 days left in their rotation, the two survivors — Sgt. J.T. "Bomber Mike" Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) get a new guy, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who lacks the dead man's leadership skills or his bluff camaraderie. James doesn't say much, just does his own thing, which is to keep little pieces of Baghdad from blowing up.

On his first mission, James releases a cloud of smoke, protecting him from sharpshooters but obliterating his comrades' view of him. (There's another company ready to cover him closer to the action.) A taxi has just edged toward the suspected device; he tells the driver to back out of the area. No movement. James walks closer, repeats the order; stillness. He puts his gun against the man's head: "Wanna back up?" The car slides into reverse. "Well, if he wasn't an insurgent," somebody says, "he sure is now." Finding a string nearly buried in the street dirt, James finds it attached to seven bombs and matter-of-factly snaps the wire for each. OK, that's done. Piece of cake, seven slices.

It's a creepy marvel to watch James in action. He has the cool aplomb, analytical acumen and attention to detail of a great athlete, or a master psychopath, maybe both. A quote from former New York Times Iraq expert Christopher Hedges that opens the film says, "War is a drug." Movies often editorialize on this theme: the man who's a misfit back home but an efficient, imaginative killing machine on the battlefield. Bigelow and Boal aren't after that. They're saying that, in a hellish peace-keeping operation like the U.S. deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan (James' previous assignment), the Army needs guys like James.

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