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July 21, 2009

The Hurt Locker: The First Great Iraq War Movie

After six years of mediocre, Oscar-trolling prestige pictures that failed to impress audiences or critics, the first true masterpiece of the Iraq War movie genre has finally arrived. It's Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, and for multiple reasons, it succeeded where so many other cinematic treatments of the war have failed.

The film, which was written by journalist Mark Boal, follows an elite bomb-diffusing unit as it counts down the remaining days of its deployment in Iraq. James (the amazing newcomer Jeremy Renner) is the chief diffuser, an adrenaline junkie with hundreds of bombs to his
credit, who often takes huge risks that put his fellow soldiers in danger. This causes him to frequently clash with Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), his more by-the-book colleague.

The Hurt Locker is filled with tense scene after tense scene, including multiple IED-diffusing scenarios when we know an onlooking insurgent could press the button at any moment and a desert shoot-out sequence that goes on for what seems like hours. But the film is as
heartbreaking as it is nerve-wracking, especially in an epilogue sequence that recalls the "I'm an average nobody" scene at the end of Goodfellas. "War is a drug," the film tells us in an opening title, and takes that almost literally.

Until Hurt Locker, Iraq War films have been mostly characterized by cloying, sanctimonious pap like Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah (based, ironically, on an article by Boal) and Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs. Kimberly Peirce's Stop Loss was better, but still felt more like a civics lesson than a movie. And David Simon's Generation Kill mini-series was a disappointment, its top-notch pedigree and truckload of Emmy nominations notwithstanding. Until now, the only
truly outstanding films about the war have been documentaries like James Longley's Iraq in Fragments and Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight.

Compare that with both World War II and the Vietnam War, which both produced a virtual treasure trove of instant classics, some made before the wars were even over.

But what makes Hurt Locker truly great is that it's most interested in telling us an honest story about these soldiers and this war, without servicing any type of political agenda. The film, refreshingly, is politics-free, and isn't aimed at provoking a reaction one way or another about the political ramifications of the war.

The soldiers aren't depicted as soulless killing machines, as tools of a corrupt government or as pure saints. They're honest-to-God real human beings. For this we can largely thank the script and the actors, especially Renner, who deserves every acting accolade in the world. There are also memorable cameos by more recognizable faces like Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce and David Morse.

Some on both the left and right, not surprisingly, have misunderstood the film. The American Prospect's Tara McKelvey called the film a "remarkably effective military recruiting tool," which I frankly had trouble seeing. The Hurt Locker by no means makes war look fun, and its likening to war to a "drug" isn't meant as a compliment. Drugs, after all, are bad for you. Meanwhile, the Big Hollywood blog attacked the movie as "a left-wing film," and attacked the mainstream media for
depicting it as neutral. The general critical community disagrees with both. RottenTomatoes currently gives it a 97 percent positive rating.

Kathryn Bigelow, probably best known previously for the unintentionally hilarious Keanu Reeves film Point Break, has produced a fantastic, realistic film that will likely be seen as the defining cinematic legacy of the war in Iraq. Other directors will try to better The Hurt Locker, but the bar has been set high.


2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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