“The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a script by Mark Boal, is the best nondocumentary American feature made yet about the war in Iraq. This may sound like faint praise and also like a commercial death sentence, since movies about that war have not exactly galvanized audiences or risen to the level of art. The squad of well-meaning topical dramas that trudged across the screens in the fall of 2007 were at once hysterical and noncommittal, registering an anxious, high-minded ambivalence that was neither illuminating nor especially entertaining. And the public, perhaps sufficiently enervated and confused by reality, was not eager to see it recreated on screen.
So let me put it another way, at the risk of a certain cognitive dissonance. If “The Hurt Locker” is not the best action movie of the summer, I’ll blow up my car. The movie is a viscerally exciting, adrenaline-soaked tour de force of suspense and surprise, full of explosions and hectic scenes of combat, but it blows a hole in the condescending assumption that such effects are just empty spectacle or mindless noise. Ms. Bigelow, whose body of work (including “Point Break,” “Blue Steel,” “Strange Days” and “K-19: The Widowmaker”)has been uneven but never uninteresting, has an almost uncanny understanding of the circuitry that connects eyes, ears, nerves and brain. She is one of the few directors for whom action-movie-making and the cinema of ideas are synonymous. You may emerge from “The Hurt Locker” shaken, exhilarated and drained, but you will also be thinking.
Not necessarily about the causes and consequences of the Iraq war, mind you. The filmmakers’ insistence on zooming in on and staying close to the moment-to-moment experiences of soldiers in the field is admirable in its way but a little evasive as well. “The Hurt Locker,” which takes place in 2004 (it was filmed mostly in Jordan), depicts men who risk their lives every day on the streets of Baghdad and in the desert beyond, and who are too stressed out, too busy, too preoccupied with the details of survival to reflect on larger questions about what they are doing there.
The filmmakers, perhaps out of loyalty to their characters, are similarly reticent. But within those limits, “The Hurt Locker” is a remarkable accomplishment. Ms. Bigelow, practicing a kind of hyperbolic realism, distills the psychological essence and moral complications of modern warfare into a series of brilliant, agonizing set pieces.
Her focus is on Delta Company, an Army unit whose job is to detect and defuse — or carefully detonate, if all else fails — the I.E.D.’s that seem to pop up everywhere, like mushrooms in the rain. Some of the devices are brutishly simple, others fiendishly elaborate, but each one lays the groundwork for a cruel and revealing test of character.
And much as Ms. Bigelow excels at setting up and cutting together these live-wire moments of danger, they are not feats of technique-for-its-own-sake as much as highly concentrated, intimate human dramas. The engagements between Delta Company and its shadowy adversaries contain an element of theater. The bomb-makers mingle with Iraqi bystanders to observe and assess their work, standing on balconies and at windows watching impassively as the Americans shout, sweat and gesticulate, actors in a show whose script they are fighting to control.
Not that the soldiers are all on the same page. “The Hurt Locker” focuses on three men whose contrasting temperaments knit this episodic exploration of peril and bravery into a coherent and satisfying story. Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is a bundle of nerves and confused impulses, eager to please, ashamed of his own fear and almost dismayingly vulnerable. Sgt. J. T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is a careful, uncomplaining professional who sticks to protocols and procedures in the hope that his prudence will get him home alive, away from an assignment he has come to loathe.
The wild card is Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who joins Delta after its leader is killed and who approaches his work more like a jazz musician or an abstract expressionist painter than like a sober technician. A smoker and a heavy metal fan with an irreverent, profane sense of humor and a relaxed sense of military discipline, he approaches each new bomb or skirmish not with dread but with a kind of inspired, improvisational zeal.
As he gropes for the wires that will ignite a massive car bomb or traces a spider-weblike cluster of shells buried under a street, he looks like a man having the time of his life. Not that he is frivolous, though to Sanborn he seems insanely reckless.Rather, to quote a Robert Frost poem, James is a man whose work is play for mortal stakes.
And Mr. Renner’s performance — feverish, witty, headlong and precise — is as thrilling as anything else in the movie. In each scene a different facet of James’s personality emerges. He can be callous, even mean at times, but there is a fundamental tenderness to him as well, manifest in his affection for an Iraqi boy who sells pirated DVDs and his patient solicitude when Eldridge, under fire and surrounded by dead bodies, has an understandable bout of panic.
There is more friction between James and Sanborn: competition, incomprehension, but also a brand of masculine love similar to the passion between Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in “Point Break.” In one scene Mr. Mackie and Mr. Renner trade stomach punches in a ritualistic display of affectionate aggression that looks as if it will end in either sex or murder, and Ms. Bigelow’s insight is that the tense comradeship of soldiers rests, often tenuously, on barely suppressed erotic and homicidal impulses.
“The Hurt Locker” opens with a quote from Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent for The New York Times, declaring that “war is a drug.” And it is certainly possible to see Will James as a hopeless war addict, a danger junkie sacrificing good sense and other people’s safety to his habit. But his collection of mechanisms from bombs that nearly killed him and the blend of serenity and exhilaration that plays over his blunt, boyish features when he finds a new one suggest otherwise.
Eldridge is a decent guy, dangerously out of his element but making the best of a bad situation. Sanborn is a professional, doing a job conscientiously and well. But James is something else, someone we recognize instantly even if we have never seen anyone quite like him before. He is a connoisseur, a genius, an artist. No wonder Ms. Bigelow understands him so perfectly.