Disheartened I immediately added the DVD to my online rental list. And, eventually, the DVD arrived. While I was waiting for the DVD to be released my enthusiasm gradually cooled. The film was being lined up for reams of awards at the major ceremonies this year. Oscars were being mentioned. Suddenly I was concerned - was The Hurt Locker yet another Hollywood friendly flick - all big effects and small story, with a ridiculous love interest thrown in for the hell of it?
I can give you a very short answer.
This is perhaps one of the most un-Hollywood films I have seen in ages, and one of the most absorbing films I have ever seen. I don't want to delve too much into the plot of the film here - because you need to watch the film, but the basic premise is simple. The central character is Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner. SSgt James is a a bomb disposal expert, part of an elite team operating in Iraq diffusing IEDs and unexploded ordnance. A bit of a wildman he comes into a new team, breaks all the rules and embarks on a personal mission to out do and outwit the bombmakers he faces.
The first hour of this film literally flew by in a series of breathless set pieces that kept the heart racing. The pacing of this film really is inch perfect, just as you can't bare the tension the threat is suddenly overcome. At one point you watch Renner attempt to disarm the bomb - from the viewpoint of someone who may or may not be the bombmaker. Every second you are braced for this myseterious man to reach into his pocket and pull out the cell phone that will trigger the bombs - it is an intense roller coaster ride of emotion.
The detail and research that has gone into this film shows how much effort has gone into the film. The equipment used by the team is accurate, the sheer difficulty of working in a heavy, unwieldy and boiling hot suit of armour is highlighted, as is the total ineffectiveness of this armour if it all goes wrong.
After the first hour you are overwhelmed by the bravery that these men show on a daily basis, but the film doesn't just go in for hero worship. Major characters, played by well known actors drift into the proceedings and are dispatched without qualm. There is no sense that any of these actors were too important to be killed off, and the suddenness and unexpected nature of these deaths is such a moving tribute to what the reality of war is really like. At one point a character runs blindly through gun fire and emerges the other side without a scratch. But moments later, when the audience assumes he is safe, he is dead.
As the film moves past the halfway point the apparently unflappable Renner is exposed as being human, and this is where The Hurt Locker comes into its own. Just as William James seems to be untouchable his world begins to fall down around with him. His rocky relationship with the rest of his team becomes closer, before imploding after a series of disastrous decisions. His obsession turns to a sense of paranoia - are the bombmakers targeting him as an individual? He personalizes the battle to the point that he is driven to act alone - or by dragging his team along with him. At one point he is running through the streets of an Iraqi city at night wearing a hoodie and his camo trousers. The fear throughout this scene is almost palpable, as Iraqi citizens turn baleful stares on him. Any attempted relationships with the Iraqi people, no matter how well intentioned seem doomed, he is unable to relate with his family and cannot express what he has gone through to them. And, in a masterstroke, he is returned to his life back in America, to the glitz of shopping malls and consumer choice and seems totally and utterly lost. The strength and confidence has drained out of him, the character who for 60 minutes drew us deep into his world into his cocky shield of self-confidence and bravado, suddenly seems weak and vulnerable, unable to complete day to day tasks that the audience perform without a second thought.
The depth of William James fall is so deep, the contrast so great that it really hammers home just how vulnerable all of our soldiers are across the world today, how incredibly, unbelievably brave their day to day lives are, and how little support they get when they come home. This is not just an absorbing a moving watch, it is one of the most powerful calls to give our servicemen the attention that they deserve.
Visually the film is shot brilliantly, the score is subtle so that it doesn't intrude on the action but adds to the atmosphere. All of the performances are excellent - although I did cringe somewhat at Ralph Fiennes in his ex-SAS military contractor merc role, a little too cliched for my taste.
That is not to say that the movie is without it's faults, and has been criticised for some of its political posturing and in some cases for it's portrayal of the Iraqi people. Others have questioned the accuracy of some of the events depicted.
James Barber at Military.com dug out a video from the Pentagon Channel - an interview with the director about how accurate the film is. Well worth a watch. Chris Yogerst asks on David Horowitz NewsReal asks whether the film is a great action film or anti-war propaganda. Army of Dude has a great review on his site - although with spoilers - from the point of view of someone who has military experience...
But while there may be criticisms, I still thought it was absorbing, exciting, intriguing and thought provoking. Should it win an Oscar? Whom am I to decide... I can't remember the last time that the film I wanted to win the Oscar did so. So I wouldn't be surprised to see The Hurt Locker go home empty handed. But I would urge you to go pick up the DVD. Or convince your local cinema to show it again!