The Hurt Locker

Director: Kathryn BigelowStarring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty

WHAT a week it has been for Kathryn Bigelow. On Sunday night in Los Angeles, Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar for her Iraq war film, The Hurt Locker, which was also voted Best Picture of 2009. And if recognition from the Academy was not enough, The Hurt Locker also gets its cinematic debut in Slovakia this week –nine months after hitting screens in the United States.

Slovaks are the big winners here, of course. The Hurt Locker is a brilliant, nerve-shredding film and is in many ways too good for recognition at the Oscars. It is tough and unflinching and far removed from the schmaltzy, sentimental or issues-driven movies that often capture the top gong. As a neat side point, it was also the lowest-grossing film among the ten official nominees and it is easy to spin its victory as a direct triumph over the box-office juggernaut that is Avatar. James Cameron’s 3D effort has now recorded the highest takings of any film, ever. Oh, and Cameron used to be married to Bigelow.

While Cameron may have left that relationship with the backing of the highest spenders in the industry, Bigelow seems to have taken most of the best ideas – and even more audacity. It is easy to regard Avatar as an allegory of the Iraq invasion of 2003, but The Hurt Locker does not conceal its brutal realities behind anything, much less 10-foot-tall blue aliens. Bigelow’s cameras are direct and follow an elite bomb-disposal unit in Baghdad, faced daily with the chaos on the lawless streets. Limping cats, flocks of errant goats and searing heat provide the unique backdrop, but piles of rubble, abandoned buildings, and just about any passer-by all might pose a mortal threat. Lethal improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are concealed beneath the streets, in the trunks of cars and even in the body cavities of dead children.

The unit we follow comprises three men: Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar), Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). Loosely they represent everything it takes to survive in the most unforgiving warzone.

Eldridge has the helplessness and fear of a young, reluctant rookie (“This is a war. People die all the time. Why not me?”) and Sanborn is conscientious and rational (“It’s just 39 days, 38 if we survive today.”). James, though, is brave to the point of recklessness, supremely talented in his most precise of skills, but also a risk-taker. He has defused more than 800 bombs, and is still saving wiry trinkets of his successes beneath his bed. He is, to all intents and purposes, an adrenalin junky, addicted to the drug of warfare. When we catch a glimpse of him in a supermarket late in the film, an endless row of cereal boxes presents a more severe threat, through its sheer mundanity, than hundreds of pounds of high explosives and an assassin with a trigger nearby.

When I first saw The Hurt Locker last summer, and enthused about it to friends, they assumed I was talking about a documentary. The grit and realism here is consistent with the work of only the most dedicated journalists, but if anything the film demonstrates where drama has it over fact. Although it is all by necessity faked, it is done so meticulously. Bigelow’s camera goes closer to the action and further into the characters of these men: there are some extraordinary performances, a succession of thrilling set pieces and not a cliché in sight.

Bigelow also understands that the silent threat of explosion is far more nerve-wracking and meaningful than even the actuality of it. We are consistently on edge: a twitch of a curtain, a citizen with mobile phone, a windscreen wiper – are all imbued with excruciating menace. When the detonations come – and they do – Bigelow keeps them quiet. We are given the time to reflect that the men do not have, and we are trusted not to sensationalise.

The Hurt Locker is as tense as any action movie, but is abundantly intelligent too. Best picture? It just might be.

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