The Hurt Locker (2008) Review


The Hurt Locker (2008), directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a script by Mark Boal, is the best nondocumentary American feature made yet about the war in Iraq. This may sound like faint praise and also like a commercial death sentence, since movies about that war have not exactly galvanized audiences or risen to the level of art. The squad of well-meaning topical dramas that trudged across the screens in the fall of 2007 were at once hysterical and noncommittal, registering an anxious, high-minded ambivalence that was neither illuminating nor especially entertaining. And the public, perhaps sufficiently enervated and confused by reality, was not eager to see it recreated on screen.


So let me put it another way, at the risk of a certain cognitive dissonance. If The Hurt Locker is not the best action movie of the summer, I'll blow up my car. The movie is a viscerally exciting, adrenaline-soaked tour de force of suspense and surprise, full of explosions and hectic scenes of combat, but it blows a hole in the condescending assumption that such effects are just empty spectacle or mindless noise. Ms. Bigelow, whose body of work (including Point Break, Blue Steel, Strange Days and K-19: The Widowmaker) has been uneven but never uninteresting, has an almost uncanny understanding of the circuitry that connects eyes, ears, nerves and brain. She is one of the few directors for whom action-movie-making and the cinema of ideas are synonymous. You may emerge from The Hurt Locker shaken, exhilarated and drained, but you will also be thinking.


Not necessarily about the causes and consequences of the Iraq war, mind you. The filmmakers insistence on zooming in on and staying close to the moment-to-moment experiences of soldiers in the field is admirable in its way but a little evasive as well. The Hurt Locker, which takes place in 2004 (it was filmed mostly in Jordan), depicts men who risk their lives every day on the streets of Baghdad and in the desert beyond, and who are too stressed out, too busy, too preoccupied with the details of survival to reflect on larger questions about what they are doing there.


The filmmakers, perhaps out of loyalty to their characters, are similarly reticent. But within those limits, The Hurt Locker is a remarkable accomplishment. Ms. Bigelow, practicing a kind of hyperbolic realism, distills the psychological essence and moral complications of modern warfare into a series of brilliant, agonizing set pieces.


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