With little more than a month remaining on their 2004 tour of duty in Baghdad, Bravo Company's Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are hoping to get out of Iraq alive and in one piece. In THE HURT LOCKER a routine but dangerous mission results in a fellow soldier's death. Naturally, the accident unsettles the surviving men in the company, the jittery Eldridge in particular. Bravo Company disarms improvised explosive devices littering the war-torn streets, so very little margin of error exists for avoiding tragic consequences.
The introduction of Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) to their ranks does nothing to alleviate Sanborn and Eldridge's uneasiness. James possesses a phenomenal talent for disabling IEDs and staying cool under pressure, but he's also prone to risk-taking that endangers himself and all other military personnel in the vicinity. For James such disregard for protocol is necessary to achieve the adrenaline rush that attracts him to the work and makes him so successful. It certainly helps that he's wired a little differently than other soldiers, but his methods also ratchet up the tension in already stress-filled situations.
Screenwriter Mark Boal based THE HURT LOCKER on his experiences as an embedded journalist with a bomb disposal unit in Iraq. The script's authenticity and director Kathryn Bigelow's cinema verité style pull us into the film with a mixture of awe and terror. The film plunks us among these men performing incredibly hazardous work day in and day out and leaves us with frazzled nerves and appreciation for their service. Viewed purely as an action film, THE HURT LOCKER delivers again and again with tense scenes of IED disarmament and the potential for combat at any moment. The repetition can have a numbing effect, which admittedly works toward the film's purpose of addressing war's addictive nature, but it also causes THE HURT LOCKER to lose some steam toward the end.
Bigelow's naturalistic direction is critical to maintaining realism and intensity in the action sequences. The camera is often used as if the photographer is alongside the soldiers. When Bravo Company engages in a firefight with insurgents in the wilderness, the camera hunkers down with the men and keeps to a range as far as their equipment permits them to see. This may sound like an inconsequential or restrictive creative choice, but in this instance pinning the camera to a single spot in the rocky terrain is paramount for conveying screen geography and fostering suspense.
THE HURT LOCKER avoids explicit political statements about whether the United States military's presence in the region is legitimate or unjustified. Implicitly positive or negative readings of the film's stance on the War in Iraq probably reflect the beliefs viewers carry into the theater than what's on screen. This isn't a coward's way out for the filmmakers but rather an acknowledgment of the soldiers' reality. THE HURT LOCKER goes to great pains to present the challenges confronting them and how they function. When staring at several bombs that need to be disarmed, philosophical debates about patriotism or warmongering aren't the most urgent things coming to mind.