What can I say about The Hurt Locker that hasn’t already been said? I could tell you about my theory about how Katheryn Bigelow is actually secretly a man named Keith Bigelow who is macho and everything but masquerades as a woman to grab special attention with his films. I mean how else could one explain a woman defying gender stereotypes and making films which lack that typical gendered touch. See Stop Loss by Kimberly Pierce (director of Boys Don’t Cry) and you will know what I mean. She has taken on futuristic science fiction (Strange Days), gone into the depths of the ocean in a Russian nuclear submarine (K19: The Widowmaker) and even broken into the exclusively white male club of Academy award winning directors. I'm telling you, that's not a woman. But I’m not going to go into the details of that.
Or I could tell you about the excellent script by Mark Boal that takes on a few stray incidents involving a bomb squad (Jeremy Renner, Brain Geraghty and Anthony Mackie) during a 38 day rotation and weaves them into a narrative, so powerful and disturbing, that will leave you pondering about the film for a long time after it’s over. I could talk about the superb direction of Katheryn Bigelow, her cunning use of cameos and her amazing ability to build tension in scenes so effectively that it is almost excruciating to sit through them and yet, impossible to actually leave. I could also tell you about the flawless technical details: the sound work, the art direction and the documentary style cinematography. Or I could even tell you about Jeremy Renner superb restrained performance that anchors the film or Brain Geraghty’s excellent act as the manic, distressed third man in the squad who is struggling with the psychological scars of war. But then, all that has already been said, hasn’t it?
Instead, what I want to tell you is that I think that The Hurt Locker is not just a great war movie but it is also a unique one. If you look at war movies (particularly, American war movies), you can easily classify them into two categories: pro-war and anti-war. The great pro-war movies include The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, The Great Escape etc. The anti-war classics include Platoon, No Man’s Land, The Deer Hunter, The Thin Red Line and others. It is interesting to note that most great pro-war movies are about World War II and the anti-war ones are about Vietnam and other similar conflicts. This sort of appears to stem from the whole justified and unjustified war dichotomy. In that sense, the Iraq War has been the most unjustified war the world has seen since Vietnam. And this is where The Hurt Locker, which is undoubtedly the Platoon of Iraq War, defies the above classification.
Unlike the abovementioned movies, instead of being pro or anti war, The Hurt Locker seems to revel in its moral ambiguity. I’m not saying that it is a neutral film, most certainly not. However, it is clearly not a message film. There are no heroes here. Interestingly though, unlike Platoon, there are no villains like Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) here either. It chooses to display a viewpoint that makes you think and interpret. It’s easy to see the movie as anti-war when you see the opening line (“The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”) or the psychological effects of war on all the principal characters especially Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). However, the movie also looks at the addiction that is war without making any moral aspersions about the addicts. It doesn’t look upon them as deranged savages or mentally fucked up. It humanises them showing their insecurities, weaknesses and passions. That they consciously choose war doesn’t automatically make them inhuman. In that context, it is interesting to see the contrasting tones in the characters: William James has a cowboy-esque cocky demeanour when he is dealing with bombs. However, he also is capable of treating Iraqis like Beckham (Christopher Sayegh) as humans; something both, the more rational Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge seem incapable of.
This is where the triumph of the film truly lies. It takes us through the moral greys of war and its participants in a way that few, if any war movies have. Sure, it shows us the horrors of war. Each character manifests these horrors in different ways. However, the film doesn't use that to drive home a message in black and white terms. It realises that there can be no such universal message and instead of conjuring one, it leaves us to struggle with that idea. That is the great thing about it. It never loses sight of what it has to say. Even in the third act, where things seem to get a little too far fetched, Bigelow has the sense to exercise sufficient restraint to prevent the film from getting derailed. The final chapter and epilogue to the film are audacious and yet, so well structured and thought out, that they catapult the movie to a level of greatness that few war movies have ever achieved.
At the end of the day, that is what you take away from The Hurt Locker. The film portrays the excruciating and alternately, exhilarating lives of the bomb squad with superb precision and detail. It succeeds for the most part in showing these bits as they are. And then it calls upon the viewer to make an assessment. I’m fairly certain that the makers of the film may have their own differing views on the moral aspects of the subject. It can be seen as an anti war film and in some ways, even a propaganda film. That a war movie allows for so much interpretation makes The Hurt Locker a unique war film; certainly the best to come out of last year and arguably, maybe even the best war film ever made. And I'm telling you: that woman is a man!