The Hurt Locker


The Hurt Locker follows a three-man U.S. Army explosives disposal team through a series of high-stress operations and misadventures in Iraq.

Sergeant James is the squad leader. He is a long time veteran of this kind of work, and arrives early in the film to take over for the previous leader who was killed when a device he was working on exploded. He is an adrenaline junkie who at some level loves this stuff, and seems to love it more the more reckless he is. He not only takes crazy risks working on explosives, but multiple times in the movie wanders into unfamiliar and likely hostile Iraqi neighborhoods alone or with just his two teammates to investigate something or attempt to track down someone.

Sergeant Sanborn sometimes carries himself like he’s the leader of the squad, and has a kind of resentful rival attitude toward James based on James being the newcomer and especially James being so irresponsible, certainly with his own life, but on some occasions with the lives of the two other members of the team as well.

Specialist Eldridge is hovering right on the edge of a breakdown. He’s had about as much of this kind of life as he can handle, and is seeing an Army psychiatrist about it. The arrival of some crazy cowboy with a death wish who puts them all at substantially greater risk is absolutely not what he needs in his life right now.

The Hurt Locker is really good in certain respects. It has several truly edge-of-your-seat, life-or-death scenes—more gripping than you will see in the vast majority of action movies, or war movies specifically.

Perhaps the most powerful scene of all is when a panicky Iraqi civilian presents himself to the Americans pleading with them to save him. He is wired up as a suicide bomber but frantically claims he doesn’t want to go off as such, the implication being either that he changed his mind, or that he was coerced into being a human bomb.

The main characters are psychologically interesting, especially James. Enough is made manifest about them through their behavior and dialogue so that they are distinct individuals instead of running together as generic soldiers, but not in the sense that they’re each given some exaggerated trait or traits so they’ll simplistically fit their stereotype. As compelling as the action is at times, it doesn’t crowd out skillful characterization.

The Iraqis are depicted in an intriguingly ominous manner. With only a small number of exceptions they don’t speak and they don’t interact with the Americans. They stare at them a lot though. They tend to hover at the outer edge of scenes, taking in all that is happening with sullen expressions, often from high windows.

The Iraq of The Hurt Locker very much has the feel of an occupied country, a conquered country, not a country that has been “liberated” and is now happily allied with the force that rescued it from its dictator. The Americans never know whom to trust, never know who will kill them if given any opening to do so.

Even the reluctant suicide bomber guy is suspect. How do they know he isn’t trying to draw as many Americans near him as possible before he detonates himself? The uncertainty of how to read the Iraqis just adds to the impressive tension of many of the scenes.

Evidently, though, the movie is highly inaccurate. Or at least so say most veterans and people who would have knowledge of explosives disposal missions and such.

Sometimes stuff like that probably doesn’t much matter. Like if a soldier has such-and-such insignia on his uniform whereas in real life it would be a different one, or if they’re driving some vehicle that’s slightly different from what the Army would really use in that situation. I mean, to purists that stuff matters, and all else being equal it’s better to get such details right rather than wrong, but I’m not going to dock a movie significant points for that type of inaccuracy.

Or say there’s some kind of operation that in real life would have been done at night but in the movie they show it happening during the day so it’s light enough for the viewer to be able to follow what’s going on. Usually I’d be OK with that kind of thing too, again as long as it’s not some major deviation from reality.

But I gather The Hurt Locker’s inaccuracies are considerably more substantive than these. Some of them are still details—though arguably bigger details—but a lot of them have to do with the reckless behavior of James. Evidently his antics just would never happen in real life.

In the film’s defense, it’s not implicitly claiming that James is typical, that this is how soldiers with his job carry out their duties (even if reportedly plenty of people joining the military since the film came out say they want to be assigned to a bomb disposal squad because they see him as a badass role model). He’s an exception; the film focuses on him precisely because he’s not the run-of-the-mill explosives specialist.

But those who know far more about such things than I seem to see him as too far beyond the pale even to be a plausible exception. Soldiers—even mavericks—who are trained in this kind of sophisticated specialty don’t cavalierly strip off their protective gear because, “If I die I want to be comfortable.” And they don’t—as I alluded to earlier—spontaneously go off on wild goose chases into hostile neighborhoods on the remote chance they’ll somehow be able to sneak up on some bad guys.

I don’t know. I mean, I’m inclined to believe whatever the people who have experience in such matters say, but on the other hand, don’t people in wars sometimes do crazy or stupid things, sometimes deviate from doing things by the book?

Then there’s also the question of how much it matters if it’s accurate. Maybe there are few if any officers in real life like Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, but isn’t he a terrific character regardless? If James would never get away with his shenanigans for five minutes in real life, is it OK to pretend otherwise in a movie for dramatic reasons?

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’d say as a rule of thumb that I’m a stickler for accuracy, that I tend not to excuse movies for making stuff up in order to be more entertaining or make some point they’re trying to make or whatever. So that’s the way I’d lean here, but it’s a close enough call that it’s not like it ruined the movie for me.

The Hurt Locker is still a compelling action movie (it moves so fast that it feels like it’s at most half of its running time), with significantly more psychological depth than you normally get in this genre. It’s an especially good study of how horrible situations of high stress and danger can pretty much destroy some people (e.g., Eldridge), while being paradoxically addictive to others (e.g., James—though you could say that in a different way it destroys him too). This is very skillful filmmaking. Even if in certain particulars it’s not in fact realistic, it feels very real. Solid recommendation.