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Review: Hurt Locker (2009)

December 31st, 2010

For a movie billed as "near perfect" and a directorial performance considered a front runner for the Oscars, I was a bit disappointed in "Hurt Locker".

I caught Hurt Locker late night at my buddy’s on the first night of my Los Angeles vacation last February. Given that it was competing with drunken viewing of Olympic curling off his DVR on the other nights I spent during my vacation there, it should come as no surprise that Hurt Locker just didn’t stand up. The film had garnered a whopping nine Academy Awards nominations, so I was genuinely excited to give it a look-see. Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t do enough to warrant the awards season hype. This remains true as a complete this review almost a year later after watching it on DVR and gritting my teeth as it cleaned up at the 2009/10 Oscars.

The most notable nomination always is for Best Picture and Best Director. Hurt Locker took home both awards with Katheryn Bigelow becoming the first female Best Director award winner. It also took home the award for Best Original Screenplay (from embedded journalist Mark Boal, who spent part of 2004 with an Iraq-based bomb disposal unit), Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing. While the three technical awards are more than well-deserved, even when up against the formidable technical accomplishments of Avatar, the three creative awards were probably less spot-on.

This is not to say that Hurt Locker isn’t very good or that it isn’t a film (this most certainly isn’t a “movie” like Avatar). I just take the position shared by veterans and military-aware reviewers that the film lacks authenticity and presents itself as “gritty” and realistic, even though the story is grossly ridiculous at times.

Read more of why I didn’t fully enjoy being stuck in the Hurt Locker.

The film starts with a quote from Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” The characters in the film all run heavy on the adrenaline rush of battle which is a very real part of war and being a soldier (although I am an officer in a version of the reserve military, I am not in a combat branch and don’t pretend to have experience in this area). And Ms. Bigelow introduces the viewers in a brilliant, compelling opening scene featuring the disposal of an improvised explosive device (an IED).

The opening scene (featuring Guy Richie) was nearly flawless in its cinematic execution, meaning things went somewhat downhill from there.

This was the core of the brilliance of the movie. The actual settings and technical shooting and cinematography was done very well, but after that opening scene, the plot lines just expanded beyond the realistic into a fantastical world of self-importance of over-extension. The movie often tried too hard to be too many things. It was a commentary on the war in Iraq, a story about men learning to be fathers and maturing, and a glorification of the bomb disposal squads of the military. It was brutally disjointed in all three parts, coming together as as Hodge-podge mixture of adrenaline and daddy issues. Nowhere was this more driven home than in separating a bizarre whiskey fueled, fight club bonding session with a moment 15 minutes earlier in which two characters ponder murdering the same superior with whom they bond.

That is not to say that nothing was done well in the movie. In particular, the scene where Jeremy Renner’s Staff Sergeant William James returns home was excellent. His confusion, standing and staring at a massive row of cereal boxes was the singular best moment in the film from both an acting and commentary perspective. His further inability to converse with his son and his wife continued to this one theme. That success drives home, above all else, the many ways in which the bulk of Hurt Locker failed to deliver.

The cinematic presentation of the explosions was done using actual pyrotechnics, over CGI. Refreshing and brilliant from a cinematic perspective.

We were given an overcooked perspective on the reckless and high flying world of bomb disposal. It was almost as if Mark Boal mixed his experiences and interviews with Iraqi bomb disposal veterans with an all-night marathon of Top Gun viewings to come up with the storyline of the movie. Yes, the bomb disposal unit is an understated group of heroes who do dangerous, high-anxiety and unglorified work; however, are we really to believe that they are the jacks-of-all-trades that Boal would present to us?

In this film, James, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are far more than specialists. They seem to be the only ones in Iraq who are capable of doing anything from communicating with locals, engaging enemies and ferreting out insurgents. The rest of the military executes injured hostiles (Really? Really?!?!), cannot communicate effectively and cower in street corners from the threat of bombs. It is no wonder that most military veterans would be furious with the portrayal of the U.S. Military.

But even bomb squads proved upset with the filmmakers. The primary reason for this is that the bomb squad is reflected as being incredibly reckless and care free. Anyone who honestly believes that bomb squad folks are accurately represented by Renner’s James or Keanu Reeve’s lead character in Speed (“What would you do?!?”) need to have their heads examined more than the characters in Hurt Locker.

Which brings up the interesting choice of including an Army psychologist (Colonel Reed, played by David Morse). This was a move I won’t criticize as more attention needed to be brought to the psychological impact of war on soldiers, but it is interesting to note that the most well adjusted of the soldiers (Geraghty’s Eldridge) is the one getting his head shrunk.

In any respect, the unrealistic portrayal of life in Iraq really damaged the viewing experience for me. Overall, the film remains a compelling visual tale that, with a solid suspension of disbelief, is engaging for the viewer and tells a tale of the damages of war. From a commentary perspective, it falls shorter than another contemporary project.

Tom Hanks’ The Pacific may have been set in World War II, but it was released at the same time and, in being contrasted with its European counterpart Band of Brothers, provided a far greater commentary on the progress of the war in Iraq. The post-9/11 steeled character of wartime America that was shown in Band of Brothers‘ European theater shirked back to The Pacific‘s time of apprehension and costs of war. It is far harder to show the impact of the Iraq war when considering the unrealistic nature of the actions portrayed in Bigelow’s tome.

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