Faith Review – The Hurt Locker (2008)
Review by Kim Lee
Film Title: Hurt Locker
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Original release form: The film was first released theatrically in Italy in 2008. It was later released in the United States on June 26, 2009, in New York and Los Angeles. Based on the success of its limited run, the independent film received a more widespread theatrical release in the United States on July 24, 2009. The film had initially premiered at the Venice Film Festival in late 2008, then at the Toronto International Film Festival in North America, where it was picked up for distribution in the United States by Summit Entertainment.
Current Availability and formats: The Hurt Locker is currently available on DVD and Blue Ray for rental and purchase at many retail outlets.
Genre: War drama
Story elements: This film depicts a fictional, howbeit realistic, account of an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) three-member team serving in Iraq in 2004— Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). These three men are brought together when the original EOD unit team leader, Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), is killed by an IED (Improvised Explosive Devise) attack. The story unfolds as the squad tries to adapt to the pressures of integrating a new member into the team, a team leader very unlike their previous leader, while at the same time manage the extreme pressures of serving in an EOD unit in Iraq; remember the year is 2004. While Sergeant Matt Thompson (the Unit’s first team leader) and Sergeant JT Sanborn were a methodical and systematic team following strict protocol, new team leader Staff Sergeant Will James is a risk taker, often opting for competition between bomb and man. On the other hand, Specialist Owen Eldridge is a young and scared newbie to the Army looking for guidance and safety from his leaders. In this environment there is only life or death, war or peace, friend or foe, win or lose, good or bad—there is not much middle ground serving on an EOD unit in Iraq. As a result the tension and pace of the story are quick and frantic. Additionally, the mood is harrowing. I am reminded of an Aerosmith Song that sums up the central theme of Hurt Locker, Living on the Edge. These men are indeed living on the edge. Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Hurt Locker, wanted each viewer in the audience to be the fourth person on the team, using cameras, sound, and character development she achieves that goal.
Film Language elements: Ms. Bigelow filmed this movie similarly to a documentary. As a consequence, the viewer is most often transported to the perspective of the soldiers; you see what they see as they arrive at potential bomb sites—Iraqi civilians rushing past as they are being evacuated, soldiers scrambling to get into position and secure an area, animals wandering about aimlessly, trash and dust blowing about. The shots are jumpy, and angles and perspectives are all over the place; at times it’s a bit like being a player in a video game. Jeremy Renner (Staff Sergeant Will James) noted that he never knew where the cameras were, and added that he quickly had to adjust to cameras being and popping out all over the place. In the commentary section of the DVD and in numerous interviews, Ms. Bigelow is quick and pleased to talk about the number of cameras that were used to film this movie. Moreover, the movie was filmed predominantly in the Jordanian desert. Again, Renner remarked, “The sweat is real; the tears are real.” In one of the desert scenes, James and Sanborn have taken up a position on a dune to hold off an advancing attack. The viewer can watch the cracked lines become more and more pronounced as their lips begin to pucker from dehydration from the mercilessly beating sun. Notably the film crew has been nominated for two Oscars, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. Further, in an interview, Kathryn Bigelow’s film crew referred to her style of directing as a “scene painter.” Not surprisingly, Ms. Bigelow is a painter who spent two years at the San Francisco Art Institute; the scenes she paints here are harsh.
A particularly eerie element to the film’s account is the use of taglines on many of the scenes counting down the unit’s duration of rotation. For example, when Staff Sergeant Will James comes to CampVictory, the scene opens with the words “Days Left in Bravo Company’s Rotation 38.” Sanborn, Eldridge, and James’ first day out together to diffuse an IED does not prove to be a time of mutual cooperation. James has his own way of working and this often involves dismissing the advice, counsel, and participation of his fellow team members, much to the dismay of Sanborn whose task it is to keep James safe. At the completion of the team’s first call, Eldridge tells a furious Sanborn not to worry they only have 38 days left, to which Sanborn replies, “Thirty eight if we survive this one.” This countdown appears sporadically throughout the film, continuing the theme of living life on the edge, life in extremes.
In addition to sight, sound is another transporting element throughout the film. As the EOD squad is called from suspected IED sites to explosion assessment locations, the viewer is met with the sounds of chaos—sirens, flames, buzzing humvees rolling along, soldiers barking orders, children crying, Iraqis screaming or chanting or moaning, heavy breathing as firefighters and soldiers breathe through masks, running, police officers shouting orders, planes and helicopters flying overhead, sporadic gun shots, dogs barking—all the sounds one would imagine in the bedlam of war. Music is another transporting element, though it is used sparingly. There are key scenes in the movie when music is vital. When we first meet Will James, he is in his barrack listening to heavy metal; we get some insight as to what he feels through what he listens to. When we follow Will home, we get further insight as to what he feels through what he is being forced to listen to, Muzak. Sound is a key feature throughout, occasionally music, but for the most part naturalistic. Notably, sound is another area in which this film is being recognized by Oscar. The Hurt Locker sound team has been nominated for Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing.
While the story chronicles each of the three characters’ nuanced ways of dealing with stress, the primary character is Will James. James embodies the film’s opening quote from New York Times war correspondent, Christ Hedges—“The rush of battle is of often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug. War is a drug.” During one particularly grueling call to the site of a potential car bomb, James ignores the pleas to his fellow team members to leave the area to the engineers. The evacuation squad has secured the area so they can leave. James ignores the calls of his comrades because he is determined to “figure this out.” Following some tense and frightening moments, Will dismantles the bomb and makes his way back to the humvee where he promptly lights a cigarette and declares, “That was good.” The scene is reminiscent of two lovers who have just had sex. Will is addicted to war, living life in extremes. Consequently, he finds it difficult, if not impossible, to adjust to life without war. There are some particularly poignant scenes in the film depicting Will’s return home. Will tries to adjust to a much slower pace of life, life filled with grocery shopping, gutter cleaning, cooking, etc… For example, in one scene Will is standing in a grocery trying to decide, on what seems to be an endless array of choices, which cereal to choose for his family. In another scene Will is talking to his very young toddler about love. Will realizes that his son loves his toys, pajamas, mommy, and daddy. He explains that as one grows older one finds fewer and fewer things to love. Will heartbreakingly opines that in his case maybe there is only one thing he loves, and that is war. The audience has seen that Will loves. He cares deeply for his fellow soldiers; he makes friends with an Iraqi child; he becomes enraged at the destruction caused by those intending to kill or maim civilians. In one particularly moving scene, Will discovers a dead child whose body has been prepped for a body bomb. Mistaking the body for the Iraqi child he has befriended, Will removes the explosive device from the boy’s abdomen, and carries the dead child out to waiting Iraqi solders for a proper burial. Later in the film, Will discovers his mistake; his young friend is not dead but alive. As the boy approaches Will for conversation and friendship, Will becomes fixed and hardened, too afraid to let his heart risk being broken again. In another disturbing scene, Will and Sanborn are called to disarm a man who has a bomb strapped to his chest. The man decides he does not want to die after all and pleads for help. Will and Sanborn arrive at the scene. With only two minutes to act, they struggle desperately to save the man. As the time ticks dangerously close to zero, Sanborn urges Will to leave saying, “This is suicide; he’s a dead man.” Will orders Sanborn to leave and continues his frantic efforts to save this man who is continuing to plead for help. In the final seconds of the bomb’s countdown, Will must flee. He takes the man’s face in his hands and says repeatedly, “I’m sorry; I’m sorry; I’m sorry; you understand me? I’m sorry.” Will runs for safety and the bomb explodes very close to him and Sanborn. The two men come very close to death, and both are injured as a consequence. Riding back to the base in their humvee, the two men try to process the day’s event. Sanborn, nearly weeping, admits that he does not want to die, not yet. He asks Will how he does it, if he understands the risk they take each time they go out, if he understands that each time they are called it is a matter of life and death. Will explains that, “Yeah,” he does understand; he gets it. Yet he does not know why he is the way he is. Pitifully, Will asks Sanborn if he can tell him why he is the way he is. Sanborn replies, “No.” Will may not know why he is the way he is, and Sanborn may not know why Will is the way he is, but the audience does. Will is addicted to war. Will loves war.
Audience/Cultural Context elements: While the film is clearly attractive to male audiences, and marketed as such, Ms. Bigelow was more interested in telling a story and engaging in a social dialogue. In an interview with Newsweek, Ms. Bigelow discussed her concern for the soldiers who enjoy war. She further noted that this Army is an all-volunteer Army, and considered that there may be soldiers who clearly want to be at war. What happens to these men and women during peace? This is demonstrated in the way the story follows Will James’ character. It is striking to note that the film did not debut in the United States. Additionally, the film’s initial release in the United States was limited. Could it be that Americans are still not ready to thoughtfully consider the Iraqi War and all of its consequences? This film is difficult to watch as one might imagine. It contains many of the horrors of war. The soldiers use graphic language. There is much violence. However the language and violence are in no way gratuitous. They are a vital element in the telling of this story. And while the film may not be appropriate for teenage audiences on many levels, it could prove to be most educational—religiously, socially, ethically, emotionally, politically, and morally—with thoughtful guidance, considering that it is older teenagers and very young adults who are often the ones asked to fight in wars. This film is hard to walk away from without continuing to think about some issues raised and talk about them.
Theology is found: There is one explicit reference to Jesus. Will James is called to the scene of a suspected car bomb. He searches and finds the device in the trunk. Upon seeing the many elements to this particular bomb, he begins removing his protective suit. Sanborn wants an explanation. James explains, “There is enough explosive material in there to send us all to Jesus. If I am going to die, I am going to die comfortable.”
Theological themes for conversation:
War and peace, life and death, good and bad, pain and comfort, alienation and community, as well as love are all stories that dominate the biblical drama. These are the themes the Christian church is called to read about, pray about, talk about, think about, preach about—live out. And yet the churches, at least the churches I attend, have and remain unusually silent when it comes to America’s war in Iraq. Consequently, the burden of the war has been primarily, if not exclusively, borne by soldiers, their friends, and families, as well as the land of Iraq and Iraqis. Most Americans have been and remain unencumbered by the war and its effects.
Suggested type of conversation: Guided group discussion and questions.
Recommended ways to view and engage the film: I would plan a date to discuss the film. Prior to the discussion, I would ask the participants to rent and view the film. For the discussing I would have the movie and show selected scenes prior to specific guiding questions.
Concluding remarks: Interestingly, the film does not open with its title. Rather it opens with this quote from Chris Hedge, a New York Times War correspondent, “The rush of battle is of often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug. War is a drug.” It is not until the end of the movie that the audience sees the film’s title, The Hurt Locker, which means “a period of immense, inescapable physical or emotional pain.” Maybe the audience does not see the title until the end because it’s not until one has been on the journey of war with James, Sanborn, and Eldridge that one can fully understand Hurt Locker.
This film has been nominated for:
Oscar Golden Globe
Best Motion Picture Best Motion Picture Drama
Best Actor Jeremy Renner Best Director
Best Director Kathryn Bigelow Best Screenplay
Best Original Screenplay
Best Film Editing