It would make sense to cover this before the Oscars. I did not even know about the 'buzz' surrounding this when it was released in the UK - bad marketing I think. Then again, released in August, it had to compete with the Summer big-boys and ... those last two weeks of August, for me, was spent in Morocco so all the publicity it got was lost on me. Even before it got to the cinemas, buzz surrounded it following its premiere at the Venice Film festival - with a ten-minute standing ovation. It continued through the year - Best Film of 2009 - one of the few that managed to cross boundaries to get into Sight and Sound and Empires Top 10 lists. Then the awards: Directors Guild, BAFTA nominations, Golden globe nominations, Oscars ... the list goes on. After I watched it, I had to squeeze Synecdoche, New York out of the number ten-spot, placing The Hurt Locker just after The White Ribbon at Number 5.
Nevertheless, I was keen to see ever since I saw the credibility garned from the aforementioned magazines - but alas - it was only months after that I managed to watch it. Not at the cinema too - which wold have been awesome - but by paying full price for the Blu-ray disc. Quite a risk - but then, there are bigger risks you can take.
An Unknown Story
We are following bomb disposal unit in Iraq. The film opens with a situation whereby Thompson (Guy Pearce) is killed trying to 'dispose' a bomb. The film then tracks the change in the unit as a new guy - Sgt Will James (Jeremy Renner) - replaces the deceased memeber of the unit. The other two members of the unit have their own problems, but it is Will James who rocks the boat with a complete diisregard for danger - for one, he doesn't use the robot-bomb-finder, preferring to wear the bomb-suit and sorting all out himself. Throughout the film we are counting down the days before the unit are rotated out again - this gives us the impression that the soldiers are dying to get home. And maybe thats true for most of them - but some of them are in their element.
A Sense of Urgency ...
Bigelow gives the film a sense of urgency as the film is shot on hand-held, documentary-style cameras. Only using huge landscape shots and interesting angles when it reveals something shocking (five, six bombs ...) or something beautiful (the desert landscape...). The pace of each section also helps you become entirely 'on-edge' throughout the film - and as the lead actors are 'unknown' you have no investment in them as to whether they live or die. They are as unknown as the soldiers in Afghanistan now.
What positions this film higher than the vast majority of war films is the questions it raises regarding the initial question: What makes a good soldier? I shall never forget a conversation I had with a fellow teacher a short while ago regarding soldiers on the front line - he claimed that soldiers on the front line should be criminals. If you got to prison, he claimed, you should join the army and fight on the front line. I was very quick to state that it is madness - why on earth do you want to put the petty theives and the I-go-against-authority folk, apparently under authroity defending everyone else. I would rather someone clever and wise defend my ass. Fact is, the best soldiers are often those who conduct themselves well under-pressure and who have no fears of danger - they just focus on the job at hand. So, you think of the criminal burglar - one would assume they conduct themselves well under pressure, clearly don't consider the dangers associated with such-a-lifestyle (Jail? I'm better than that; Owner of the house with a gun? I'll beat their ass before they pull the trigger.) - the focus is on theft, and how to steal items quick and quietly.
Now think of The Hurt Locker - our first impression of Sgt Will James is that he is dangerous and a liability - but soon enough, we realise that Eldridge (Geraghty), you could argue, is a liability because he is so scared of dying and even Sanborn (Mackie) has his own fears and worries - and as careful as he is - these fears could affect his judgement. By the end, the 'loose cannon' (could their be a more incorrect term?) that is Sgt. James is the perfect soldier. Thats how I feel anyway. His focus is only on the job - his life, and even the lives of the other soldiers - are on a knife-edge anyway. If he can save a man attached to a bomb, he will try to save him (whether or not statistically it is unsafe) because he is human - and he does care. But the fear of death and danger is not a factor - the disposal of a bomb is more important. Eldridge is death-obsessed, Thompson - I assume - and Sanborn ignore it but Sgt Will James. He knows of death. Being so close to death is a part of the job (so celebrate it - keep souvenirs!). What is also part of the job, and is more important than his life - is the lives of others and the lives of the people he defends. That is the job a soldier.