The Hurt Locker

IEDs, snipers and a sergeant with a death wish - welcome to 21st century warfare

You are on a dusty track in Baghdad, sweaty-palmed, tense, on patrol with an American bomb disposal unit with a cavalier sergeant on point. Each step forward in the scorching heat could trigger an IED, sending you and your comrades off to kingdom come in one awful impact.

The locals eye you suspiciously, often with hostility. Your fatigues and armour are little defence against snipers or explosions and since there is no frontline the threat is diffuse – one wrong turn could land you in the thick of it. The enemy is everywhere and nowhere, the rules of combat ill-defined. When IEDs are detected one of you has to step forward to detonate the device safely: cut the wrong wire and you’re mince meat.

Watching The Hurt Locker is to share the compressed silences and terror of three US combatants on patrol in Baghdad. The jerky camera-work and documentary feel give the film a reality and weight denied to the twisting narratives and Hollywood chiaroscuro of war epics like Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan. This is messier, more immediate.

At The Hurt Locker's centre is Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner), a risk-taker who is finally seduced by the danger and adrenalin of war. Described by the US military top brass as a ‘wild man’ he ratchets up a high number of successes in IED detonation, moving into the killing zone with a swagger somewhere between fearlessness and outright stupidity.

His wingmen, Sanborne (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are terrified by his gung-ho approach. This adrenalin junkie could well be the death of them. They briefly debate doing him in as the humvee rolls noisily across the desert, but decide against it. Better to let James keep risking the full brunt of blast after blast. As ever in war films, the extremity of the circumstances ultimately brings the men into desperate intimacy: they have to rely on each other if they want to make it to the end of their rotation.

The Hurt Locker
is really a series of tensile vignettes, slowing down and stretching out the heart-stopping moments on patrol when an IED is uncovered and Sergeant James moves to contain its threat. Or the camera zooms in and minutely follows crossfire on the streets of Baghdad, forcing you to realise the amoral truth of conflict: either you shoot the enemy or he shoots you. There isn’t time to pontificate.

This isn’t a film about the morality or politics of Shock and Awe. It neither aggrandizes nor demonises the mission of American and British troops in Iraq. The film simply introduces the viewer to the heat of battle and leaves you to draw your conclusions.

What The Hurt Locker amplifies is an uncomfortable truth: the danger of war is exciting, even thrilling for a certain kind of solider. This is a view of war-as-addiction, a pursuit that jangles the nerves and provides an outlet for the violence of the beast within. Do we really believe that it’s only a sense of patriotism and duty to one’s country that compels so many young men (and women) to serve in warzones?

For a certain personality-type at least, war is a rush, a kind of high, a series of perversely thrilling exchanges at that hair-trigger between life and death. When James and his men shoot an Iraqi sniper or emerge victorious from another near-fatal brush with a bomb, they are energised, more keenly and joyously thankful to be alive, aware of their own power and agency. They’d rather do this than an office job.

When Sergeant James heads back home he finds himself hankering to be back amid the danger of Baghdad – the intensity of warfare has left him unfit for civilian life and its less earth-shattering concerns. He’d rather be defusing bombs than deciding which cereal to buy at the mall. Once you’ve looked at the Gorgon you are changed forever.

It is easy to see why The Hurt Locker has been showered with awards, including Oscars for best director and best film. (Kathryn Bigelow was the first female to win best director). The film is an education in the reality of war, a jerky ride into mortal combat. Smart enough not to offer pat judgements on the ethics of US involvement in Iraq, it shows you the horror of the conflict and the contradictory impulses driving its agents, leaving you to decide whether it’s all been worth it.

The Hurt Locker is screening at The Nerve Centre, Derry on March 26 at 8pm. Watch the trailer here.

Joanne Savage