Among director Kathryn Bigelow’s many gifts is the ability to make men feel penis envy. That’s the theme (and sly joke) of her melodrama Blue Steel, in which a male bystander watches a female cop blast a robber into oblivion and covets her phallic power. Pity the movie is so ham-handed, and that Bigelow’s rollicking existential surfer thriller Point Break ends up drowning in grandiose machismo. But in her smashing Baghdad drama The Hurt Locker, Bigelow makes the Olympian leap into the mind—and circulatory system—of the male warrior. Her voice is attuned to men under threat from all angles; and the men, their weapons cocked, are attuned to everything—a squeak, a pop, a wire snaking out from under a mound of debris. The Hurt Locker might be the first Iraq-set film to break through to a mass audience because it doesn’t lead with the paralysis of the guilt-ridden Yank. The horror is there, but under the rush.
One of Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s few missteps comes right at the start: an onscreen quote from journalist Chris Hedges to the effect that war is a drug, “a potent and often lethal addiction.” The quote is brilliant, subversive, to the point—and pins down the thesis too much. It robs us of the chance to frame that idea for ourselves. The Hurt Locker is otherwise unhinged. The film revolves around the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, a bomb squad that shows up to dismantle devices of varying degrees of sophistication and deadliness. After an overture in which a cautious sergeant goes bye-bye, his replacement shows up: Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a Zen cowboy who strides up to potential IEDs in a way that makes you yelp either “What a suicidal motherf----- ” or “That is some hot shit!” A colonel (David Morse) repeats the latter like a hosanna, but Sergeant J. T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), working under James, thinks he’s dangerous—a cock-of-the-walk on a walk off a cliff.
A bomb squad in a war zone presents dizzying variables: Each time out, James has a new puzzle to solve (Where’s the trigger? Is there a timer or are insurgents standing by with a button to push?), while Sanborn and the jittery specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) pirouette and focus and refocus their sights: “Young man at nine o’clock holding a video camera.” “Three guys at six o’clock.” “Cell phone!” (the last a potential detonator). Do you shoot them? Shoot into windows with kids nearby? Boal, a journalist, suggests what other scriptwriters haven’t: that civilians can go bonkers from the pressure, too—freezing in their cars or striding up to overanxious troops with idiotic pleasantries. (“Where are you from—California?”) Bigelow, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, and editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski form a crack unit of their own. There are sudden camera moves, cuts a beat too quick, and jumps from close-up to long shot that signal explosions are imminent—even when they’re not. Here is how I knew I was inside the movie. Under fire, his weapon jammed from the sticky blood of its last operator, James screams at Eldridge to clean the blood off the bullets and panicky Eldridge yells, “How?” and James says, “Saliva!”—and I found myself building up spit, as if maybe I could help before the next onslaught.
Even with the kicky technique and violent, macho horseplay (in between missions, the comrades-in-arms pummel one another), The Hurt Locker wouldn’t click without characters of stature and actors to match. Renner has the wit to internalize James’s hot-dog tendencies—to make him less, not more, theatrical, with no wasted motion. (James wouldn’t be much good defusing bombs if given to flamboyant gestures.) Mackie doesn’t play Sanborn as a by-the-book killjoy, but a man who’d take honest joy in killing James—who does, at times, pose a threat to the unit’s safety. Geraghty’s Eldridge is an unholy mess, wholly reactive and therefore undefended. A few name actors—most memorably Ralph Fiennes as a brusque, seasoned contract soldier—pop up and go out with shocking speed. Normal movie-star rules are suspended.
It’s only after The Hurt Locker ends and your fight-or-flight instincts ebb that the flaws seem more apparent, like the too-pat subplot about a kind but glib therapist (Christian Camargo) who decides to get out from “behind the wire” and go on a mission. The final shot, though thrilling, puts too fine a point on things. Last but maybe foremost are the politics—or lack of them. The question of what the hell these good men are doing in a culture they don’t understand with a language they don’t speak surrounded by people they can’t read hangs in the air but is never actually called. Or is that why this movie rises above its preachy counterparts? Bigelow’s triumph is to show why they don’t call that into question themselves. She’s deep inside their testosterone-soaked psyches, where “why” has no meaning and sensation is all.