The Hurt Locker

Alfred Hitchcock had a rule about surprise and suspense. For surprise, put a bomb under a table and blow it up. For suspense, leave it there, ticking, and let people sit at the table playing cards.

These precepts may seem prosaic if your goal is also to make a political pronouncement about the war in Iraq. But then, political pronouncements about the war in Iraq, when in movie form, tend also to be prosaic. The Hurt Locker is something else. It asks: What if the bomb is somewhere in the middle of a trash-strewn street? What if there are many more bombs just like it? And what if it’s little consolation to know this is only a movie, because it’s a movie about a real place with real trash-strewn, bomb-filled streets?

One answer is to pay close attention to the people whose job it is to defuse all those bombs. The Hurt Locker is very simply an episodic investigation of what it means to be the right man for such a job. Set in Baghdad in the summer of 2004, it embeds with a fictional three-man U.S. Army bomb squad team, formally known as Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians, and casually known as the bravest sons of bitches you can imagine. These include the immaculately responsible, protocol-minded Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie); the sensitive, uncertain Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty); and their cocky new leader, the apparently reckless and thrill-addicted Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), who routinely suits up in heavy blast-resistant armor and lumbers straight into certain danger.

These characterizations may sound generic and reductive, but they have their share of well-played surprises (and, of course, suspenses). The soldiers’ personalities seem at once obvious and inscrutable, and they behave both admirably and abhorrently. It’s as if their work, combining mundanity with mortal danger, has forged their spirits. When not protecting fellow troops and civilians from improvised explosive devices, they keep busy with violent, celebratory, cathartic roughhousing. Sometimes they hate each other. Sometimes they crave each other’s approval. And each of the actors’ performances is uniquely extraordinary. Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes make short-lived appearances here too, but the movie belongs to its central trio, and particularly to the magnetic Renner.

As for their enemies, all The Hurt Locker really says about the makers and users of these cruelly catastrophic weapons is that they could be anybody. Whether that view implies paranoia or pragmatism is something each viewer will have to decide for himself. But it is necessarily the EOD technician’s view.

Director Kathryn Bigelow, most famously the maker of Point Break, is a skilled marshal of intense masculinity and physical danger. It is worth noting that she’s a woman at work in men’s worlds, but only because her work gets so much strength from apparently having nothing to prove. Like many other action filmmakers, Bigelow prioritizes immediacy. But unlike many, she achieves a rigorous clarity of space and time. We’re often reminded how many days remain in the men’s rotation, or how many minutes and seconds they have before a bomb explodes, and we always know who’s who and where they are — unless we’re not supposed to know, because they don’t either. Part of what sets The Hurt Locker apart is its terrifying coherence. It seems like a dream and like a documentary at the same time.

The writer is Mark Boal, whose 2004 Playboy magazine article “Death and Dishonor” was the basis for Paul Haggis’ film of Boal’s script, In the Valley of Elah. In 2005 Boal published another article, “The Man in the Bomb Suit,” for which he spent time in Baghdad with the bomb tech staff sergeant who at that time had disarmed more IEDs than anyone else in the war. The Hurt Locker is a fictional riff on that experience.

And the best thing about its detail-minding journalistic veracity is that the movie answers questions with more questions. Like: Is it worse to be the guy alone in the middle of the street taking the bomb apart while whoever made it probably is watching, or to be the guys covering him and trying to keep him safe, even as that task seems increasingly impossible? Maybe even more to the point is a question James asks directly: “Do you know why I am the way I am?” To which Sanborn directly replies: “No, I don’t.”

It’s only a movie about men at work in war. Yet it seems like a definitive War Movie. Not for any self-important aspirations as such, but for the great virtue of being supremely Hitchcockian — of ratcheting up suspense and paring down surprise to its essential action. In that way, The Hurt Locker is exhilaratingly rudimentary.