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The Hurt Locker has a lot in common with past war films that managed to win Best Picture. Like Platoon, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal successfully manage to bring the war to the audience, even if the reality is a little twisted to fit a narrative. Sure, The Hurt Locker might not exactly portray how an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit operated in Iraq, but this is still an unbelievably enjoyable, suspenseful thriller.
The film opens with Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) doing their job, trying to diffuse a bomb. However, things don't go as planned and their leader, Staff Sergeant Matthew Thompson (Guy Pearce) is killed. Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) is assigned as Thompson's replacement. While he is an expert at what he does, his reckless nature doesn't gel with Sanborn and Eldridge. During their first mission together, James refuses to use their robot to investigate the IED first, instead going right away with a hands-on approach and puts the suit on.
Throughout the film, Bigelow and Boal let us inside the complex world of James, as he befriends a young boy selling DVDs at the base, Camp Victory, and we learn about his wife and son. While James is the one we learn the most about, I wouldn't necessarily call him the central character. Rather, the entire team is central to the film. We learn about Sanborn's reluctance to start a family and Eldrige's difficulty with handling pressure. Personally, I find Eldrige the most interesting of the three, considering the stresses he has to overcome throughout the film.
What makes The Hurt Locker a revolutionary film is the in-your-face presentation of the action. Bigelow's direction and Barry Ackroyd's camera follow the team's operations in documentary fashion. It's cinema verite used at its finest in the fictional realm. This is not pretty, but war isn't supposed to be. The Hurt Locker has a grainy visual style that never takes you out of the moment. Sure, Bigelow's use of slow motion may seem out of place in the overall flow, but it is used effectively and in few spots. This is slow motion in the Sam Peckinpah fashion – not done so much for style as it is to add importance to a moment that might be over in a flash.
While Bigelow and Boal's Oscar wins are well deserved, I wish there was a way for this film to have earned some acting accolades, but 2009 was packed with good performances. Renner earned his breakout role with The Hurt Locker and an Oscar nod. Mackie and Geraghty are also excellent. Also keep an eye on the always great Ralph Fiennes as the leader of the British mercenary group.
The Hurt Locker manages to keep the audience on edge like few other war films, since disabling these bombs is as nerve-wracking for us as it is for this group of experienced soldiers. However, what really will ensure that The Hurt Locker is a war film we will go back to is that it doesn't really get bogged down in the politics of the situation. The filmmakers didn't necessarily avoid them in the film, but it's not the focus. If you want to see how Bigelow handles that, go see Zero Dark Thirty. The Hurt Locker focuses on the soldiers – the men on the ground – and how the war experience effects them. It is an issue that is at the center of every war.
Comparing Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker is really a moot point, since they are different types of thrillers. The fact that they came from the same writer/director team shows their versatility. While Zero Dark Thirty is an investigation, a film about an obsessive search for a single man, The Hurt Locker is a dangerous war film in which the audience feels the pressure as much as the soldiers. It truly is an enthralling experience, one few war films can provide.
The Hurt Locker won Oscars for Best Picture, Director (Bigelow), Original Screenplay (Boal), Film Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. It earned three additional nominations for Best Actor (Renner), Cinematography (Ackroyd) and Original Score (Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders).
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