The first lady of celluloid action, Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break), has made the first critically acclaimed Iraq war film. With nine Oscar nominations, The Hurt Locker is being heavily tipped to beat her former husband James Cameron's Avatar and take the Best Picture prize at the Oscars in what has admittedly been a weak year for American movies.
What The Hurt Locker does exceedingly well is use a series of tense action sequences to build a picture of American bomb-disposal experts being governed by the hands of fate rather than bringing stability in Iraq. Bigelow wastes no time with character development as the movie jumps straight into an action sequence as Staff Sgt Thompson (Guy Pearce) attempts to defuse an IED (improvised explosive device).
Bigelow, as she does throughout, ramps up the tension by constantly pointing the camera at Iraqi onlookers, any one of whom could have a remote detonator, just waiting for the right moment. Soon the arrival of the maverick-bordering-on-reckless Staff Sgt William James (the Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner) becomes the focus of the story. Renner is an adrenalin junkie who does nothing by the book, much to the consternation of his comrades, Sgt Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). For him war is all about adrenalin and he likes nothing more than putting his life in danger.
Bigelow shoots these scenes with a hand-held camera and a sense of emergency. She also moves from one action sequence to the next, giving the audience no rest as the soldiers try to navigate through the last 38 days of their tour. But it's not the guns and bombs that stick out. Animals wandering across the screen show how everyday life goes on, even in a war zone, and some of the best scenes involve James befriending a young DVD seller who calls himself Beckham, after the footballer, at the local market. Inside the chaos there is still the semblance of life. The Americans run across a British group (Ralph Fiennes included) in a pertinent moment that shows the miscommunication and mistrust that exists between the allies as they talk about "being on the same side". The chaos allows James to shine in ways that he could never do as a civilian.
When the action eventually takes a pause, Bigelow reflects on the soldiers' life in camp as they count down the days. Here the story starts to fall into clichés from time to time, as the soldiers miss home and bond over shared experiences. It's classic storytelling and manages to talk about the war without making grandiose, misconceived and all-encompassing statements. Film of the year? Probably not. Best American film about the Iraq war so far? Absolutely.