Iraq. Baghdad. Insurgents. IED. EOD. These terms have swirled around in the world and in our minds for some years now, but what do we know beyond what the media feeds us? Do we really know the scope and magnitude of the emotional and physical battles being played out every day in the war? Do we really know or understand the magnitude of the insurgency bombings that take place on a routine daily basis? How many of you know what an EOD is? Or what an EOD squad actually does? Screenwriter Mark Boal does. Director Kathryn Bigelow does. And now, thanks to them, you will get the closest thing to experiencing a war zone first hand, and the unsung heroes of the EOD squads, with THE HURT LOCKER – a riveting, nail biting, action-packed, tension-filled film that pounds the screen with jack hammering intensity. Powerful. Visceral. One of the finest war movies of all time that will find a home in history among the best of the best.
Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) squads are our first and last line of defense against Improvised Explosive Devices (IED). EOD’s are bomb diffusion specialists who endure an extremely rigorous course of training not only in bomb diffusion but in mental exercise and discipline. IED’s account for more than half of American hostile deaths and have killed thousands of Iraqis as well. Staff Sergeant William James, Sgt. JT Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge are men with the right stuff. Part of the Army’s elite EOD squad, it is their job to diffuse bombs that are found in and around Baghdad before they have a chance to detonate and needlessly kill innocent people. The time is 2004 and IED explosions are the rule rather than the exception.
Sgt James is an adrenalin junkie. Sporting unparalleled swagger and bravado, he is fueled by the urgency, immediacy and danger of what he does. But above that, he appreciates the technical savvy of the insurgents building these homemade. bombs. He respects their skill and the power of the weapon. Sanborn is a gung-ho Army man who takes his duty to his country and his men seriously. In war, there is no room for showboating, comedy or recklessness. Everything is by the book. Needless to say, this sets the stage for an interesting dynamic between Sanborn and James. Eldridge, on the other hand, while a good soldier, obsesses with death and dying. Surrounded by death he has watched CO’s be blown into smithereens when a detonate goes wrong. Yet, he stays. He counts the days, but he stays. Each has their reason for being in Iraq. Each has their own reason for wanting to go home. Each has their own reason for wanting to return.
Jeremy Renner is outstanding as Staff Sergeant James. I first caught wind of him back in 2005 with Neo Ned which I was reviewing for festivals. Since then I have seen most of what he has done. Extremely versatile, as James, he blows the roof off the film (pardon the pun). He has the ability to mentally spin on a dime and translate that into character which he does numerous times as SSgt James. Commanding the screen, it is quite clear during the course of the film that he transformed and embodied his character and fell victim to the perils of war. So much of his performance went beyond acting. A very strenuous role, both mentally and physically, key to his character’s cowboy character and embodiment of the role is “The Suit” – one of the actual military issues suits EOD specialists must wear. Kevlar plated, insulated and a lack of oxygen, the suit can weight anywhere from 75 to 120 or so lbs. As Renner himself acknowledged to me, this is undoubtedly, the most mentally challenging role of his career. This is a 5-star general performance.
And while we’re talking about Renner, we have to talk about his training mandated by his co-star, “The Suit.” When he first signed on for the role of James, he was shown a little backpack type suit that weighed maybe 10 lbs. But then he went for formal military training with an EOD unit at Ft. Irwin. “Everything about it was difficult. Initially it was understanding military…all the acronyms. And then the actual EOD training, I did. If you want to be in the EOD you have to take this test. There’s a bomb suit. It weighs about 80 to 100 lbs., depends on how much gear you have on you. I put this thing on and did jumping jacks in this thing. No problem! Then, there’s this stack of paperclips on the ground. About 50 of them. Bend down. Pick one up and get up and go 10 feet and put it on the ground. Essentially, move the stack. Just getting onto the ground, that took a minute. I did like 10… I was fogging up. I was dying. ‘Get this thing off.’ That’s just one [test]. Then there’s dragging the [ro]bot. 200 lbs., 300 meters. Another thing is taking a 155, it’s about 75 lbs. on your shoulder. Just basic tasks that are arduous, physically draining. In the heat. It was 106 that day. You do that for about 45 minutes and then the last 15 of the EOD test is, take off the helmet and the gear, go to a chalkboard and write 49 divided by 7. All I thought was ‘cookies.’ Your brain is like mush.”
According to Renner, “Your IQ does drop about 40 points [being in the suit]. 25 to 40 points. My understanding of it is that it is such a mental toughness and not so much a physical toughness. Laser focus that gets you through all the difficult parts.”
“We all tried not to keep it [the suit] on me for very long. I tried to keep it on for no longer than 20 minutes or a half hour because then you start to want to pass out. It was 125 degrees there. It was brutal. But that was a massive part of the character we couldn’t do without it [the suit]. It was very informative for me.”
Anthony Mackie hits a home run as JT Sanborn. Mackie really brings the character full circle as we see him go from seemingly impervious as ops commander, coll, collected and in charge, to a soldier in the trenches under sniper fire and then nearly getting blown to bits from an EOD. With one explosive sequence, his entire character turns, and you can visibly see panic and fear replace the bravura and bravado he has maintained for his men throughout the film. Riveting and unexpected. What I did expect was Toms River, NJ native Brian Geraghty to play the “weak link” in the unit, Eldridge, and I wasn’t disappointed. Spending his youth riding dirt bikes in the Jersey sand and pine woods along the Parkway area makes Geraghty, a man who used to play Army, tailor made for the role of Eldridge. With a character structured to bring forth the unspoken fears that plague men and women in the combat zone, Eldridge presented both an interesting paradox on the outside and a dichtomous situation within the Bravo company unit and Geraghty captures that beautifully, driving the emotion home. However, in all fairness, I have to say that in certain points, Eldridge’s whining did go too far to the point of my wanting got grab a bomb and shove it down his pants to shut him up.
Look for some brilliantly cast cameos with Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes and David Morse. With those three performances you really get a sense of the diversity of the war and the personas involved, not to mention a tacit commentary attesting to the color blindness of war and the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen from one day to the next. Everybody bleeds red.
Written by Mark Boal, who also gave the very powerful “In the Valley of Elah”, THE HURT LOCKER comes from his experience in 2004 when he was embedded with an EOD unit. Described by director Bigelow as “life in the day of a bomb tech. . .the script read like you were there. It’s a page turner. I wanted to protect that feeling and give the audience the opportunity to be on an embed.” I had to ask Boal what possessed him to embed in an EOD squad. After an editor gave him an idea to do a story about the prevalence of bombs and fear of bombs in all of our lives since 911, he took it a step further. “Like most Americans, I had no idea that there was such a thing as an Army bomb squad. And like most people, I had no idea that this was one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.” What Boal captures even more than the technical accuracy of the EOD unit and specific missions, is the humanity of the situation and the men laying their lives on the line .
Technically, the film maintains a level of inscrutable excellence. I applaud Bigelow and her cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. Shooting in Super 16mm, the film has a “life and dexterity.” With four camera units unit in place, and using 12 cameras, the majority hand held and surreptitiously placed by Ackroyd as “ninja cameras”, the footage captured is as real as real can be. And with hand helds, there are some incredible angles that tacitly add to the tone of the film.
According to Bigelow, “bomb disarmament dictates an approximate 300 meter containment. The ground forces stop the war for the bomb techs to disarm whatever ordinates they are to displace.”
It was important to Bigelow for the audience to have this same geographical sense of space.
Extremely challenging is lensing in the desert under a blazing sun which becomes a lighting nightmare. On the flip side, there are interiors, alleys and dark hovels, lit and lensed at night providing for interesting effects with the night scope shots. They really make you feel as if you are in the heat of battle with these guys. It is technically masterful…although using so much hand held with 90% close up and midshot may give some viewers a headache. (And a caveat here – anyone with motion sickness should not see these film for that reason.)
Also key to the mastery of the film is the accuracy of the IED’s devised And created for the film, including a massive daisy-chain bomb. From the bomb aspect, the film is way cool – particularly SSgt James memorabilia collection of detonation devices…….talk about a Radio Shack war! Shot in Jordan, Bigelow has nothing but praise for the logistics of the country and the friendliness of the people, “but it was hot. Average temperature was 110, 115.”
There is an inescapable intensity to the THE HURT LOCKER that at times makes you forget this is a narrative film and not a documentary; a feeling of understanding, appreciation and awe that you will carry with you long after the curtain drops.
William James – Jeremy Renner
JT Sanborn – Anthony Mackie
Owen Eldridge – Brian Geraghty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal.