Provocative 'Hurt Locker' carries a heavy punch

July 30, 2009 

Chris Hedges, in his stunning book "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning," wrote that "war is a drug."

Those provocative words precede "The Hurt Locker," one of the best war movies I've seen.

This exciting, draining and cerebral film does more than just nail a philosophical point to the wall and then ignore it. It's daring enough to follow through on its thoughtful premise. As we become immersed in the hard-edged depiction of U.S. soldiers in Baghdad who dismantle bombs for a living, we're given a taste of the euphoria and adrenaline rush that soldiers experience in the field -- as well as their tedium, fear and pride.

"The Hurt Locker" becomes, in a sense, a delivery system -- albeit an imperfect one -- for the drug of war. We feel its silky, seductive rush. And shiver at its brutal price.

Kathryn Bigelow, whose unblinking direction and stomach-churning storytelling set the tone, works with a taut, fierce screenplay by Mark Boal. (There were more than a few times that I forgot I wasn't watching a documentary.) She focuses on three U.S. Army team members in the current Iraq war who are part of a unit that tries to defuse the roadside bombs that have become such a part of life in Baghdad.

The most solid member of the team is Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who's a rule follower but certainly isn't blinded by the glamour of war. Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), younger and more inexperienced, is scared of dying, which makes him hesitant in the field. They're both a bit mystified by Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner in a caustic, aching and profound performance), a daredevil addition to their squad, who flouts safety regulations and prides himself on cheating death.

Much of the film is caught up in the tick-tock tenseness of confronting live bombs as the soldiers stare down each day's job assignment. If you wanted to look at this as an "action" film -- and it does have plenty -- these scenes would be like the elaborate stunts that form the foundation of the genre. But there's more here than a series of adrenaline rushes. Tying together the film is an arc that seems almost primal -- not interested at all in political ideologies or morality, but rather confronting humanity's underlying impulses toward conflict.

The film doesn't neglect the nitty-gritty of combat, and Bigelow has a knack for letting the small details swell with profundity: a soldier spits on bullets to get the blood off them so they won't jam in the gun; a fly crawls on the eyelash of another as he takes sight of a distant target; an offer of a juice box in the heat of the desert becomes a moment of tenderness.

At its heart, however, "The Hurt Locker" has an almost dreamy separation from war itself. We feel the power of the drug. And we realize that those who take it will never be the same.

The reporter can be reached at dmunro@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6373. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com/author/donald_munro.

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