Kathryn Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron stated, when asked for a comment about her new film, that “I think that this could be the Platoon for the Iraq War”. While I do not necessarily agree with the comparison for reasons that will become apparent, I do think that it is an interesting one to draw. Underlying Cameron’s comment is the fact that Hurt Locker is one of only a few films about the Iraq War that attempt to look past the politics in order to focus upon the psychology of the individuals actually doing the fighting. This change of emphasis is harder to achieve than you might expect as film-makers are understandably reluctant to give the full Colonel Kurtz treatment to the people fighting a war that is still on-going. Indeed, Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah (2007) skirted around the issue of war’s dehumanising effect by showing the impact of the war not upon the individuals doing the fighting but rather upon their families. Similarly, David Simon’s TV adaptation of Evan Wright’s Generation Kill (2004) lacked bite by virtue of an unfortunate tendency to portray its soldiers as quirky but ultimately heroic individuals trapped in unpleasant situations by self-serving bosses and a corrupt system. Bigelow’s Hurt Locker does undeniably adopt a more direct approach to the psychology of war, it is just a pity that what intellectual content there is in the film is starved of oxygen by the elaborate set-pieces that form the bulk of the film’s running time.
Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is, as is traditional in these kinds of films, a man on the edge. An experienced bomb disposal expert, he takes over a team operating in and around an Iraqi city we assume to be Baghdad. From the very beginning, James horrifies his team-mates with a total disregard not only for his own safety but also for that of his team and of any surrounding civilians; He refuses to use robots to inspect uncovered bombs, he refuses to tell the rest of the team what he is up to and he habitually takes off his armour as he engages his team in more and more dangerous disposal duties. These attempts at disposal are wonderfully portrayed by Bigelow, whose control of tension and pacing are flawless throughout the film’s big set pieces, including a fantastically tactical engagement between the bomb disposal team and an Iraqi sniper. The extraordinary power of these set pieces is partly down to the stylised documentary aesthetic granted the film by United 93 (2006) cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, but it is also a reflection of Bigelow’s contextual framing.
By refusing to engage in the kind of political grand-standing that crippled Iraq War films such as Gavin Hood’s Rendition (2007) or Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs (2007), Bigelow is able to do away with many of the awkward narrative conceits that directors use to dramatise political and sociological theories. The Hurt Locker is not about a confrontation with an evil bomber as in Peter Berg’s The Kingdom (2007), Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994) or Stephen Hopkins’ Blown Away (1994). Instead it draws its tension from a confrontation between the protagonists and the world itself. The bomb disposal team grapple not only with the challenges set by the elaborately constructed terrorist bombs but also from the fact that the bombs are in a densely populated city filled with people who are not necessarily friendly. Indeed, in one scene, James tries to defuse a car bomb while his team-mates struggle to keep it together as ever open window and every civilian onlooker become spotters who could detonate the bomb and kill them all instantly.
With the back-bone of the film made up of scenes in which a group of individuals effectively battle against the world in an attempt to survive long enough to make it home, you would think that the stage was set for a character-driven film about the reasons why people go to war and how they cope with the realities of that existence. But the film’s more intellectual other foot simply never drops.
Far from being similar to Platoon, The Hurt Locker invites a much more obvious comparison with Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon (1987). Much like Riggs, James is on the edge, self-destructive and alienated from civilian life. Much like Riggs, James has a much more stable and sensible Black partner (Anthony Mackie) who is forever nagging him about how his crazy stunts are going to get them all killed. Indeed, James is actually a less well formed character than Gibson’s Riggs as Riggs’ self-destructiveness came from the loss of his wife, whereas James’ seems to come from a rather nebulous sense of alienation comedically conveyed by his absolute consternation when asked to choose a breakfast cereal from amid the dozens of varieties on sale at his local supermarket.
The Hurt Locker is a pleasant enough film but its reliance upon generic characters with utterly generic relationships ultimately robs the film of any pretence it might have of psychological depth or genuinely visionary status. Much like the summer’s other war film Inglorious Basterds, Bigelow’s undeniable capacity to deliver effective and beautifully made scenes is in no way wedded to a similar level of skill when it comes to managing an extended narrative. James’ existential angst is not only hollow and generic but also clearly present only to grant a thin veneer of narrative coherence to a film that is nothing more than a series of set pieces.