Perhaps one ought to recognize a genre that can be described as “Shut Up and Watch” movies. While this applies to the audience in most cases, in this case I refer to instructions for the filmmakers. Or to be more specific, movies where the instruction was followed. A very small group of films qualify. Of all the tools in a filmmaker’s kit, the most underrated are those that expect the filmmaker to get out of the way and let the story tell itself. The Hurt Locker, with its 6 wins yesterday night, is among the more illustrious recent additions to the list.
The film begins with the following quote:
The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.
Then all the other words disappear and only the last phrase remains. After all the movies about war where the camera is placed in the midst of the battlefield, one is inclined to think that most soldiers, given a choice, would just say no to this particular brand of narcotic.
Sgt. First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) is in the minority. He loves his job. And what is that job? He defuses bombs, mostly improvised explosive devices (IED). And there seem to be a lot of them lying around in Iraq. The first time you see him, he has just joined Bravo company after his predecessor got killed in an explosion. When he walks out towards a bomb, he is so covered in protective gear that one cannot make out the man beneath the suit. But watching him walk with a spring in his step (as much of one as the gear would allow, anyway) tells us a lot about the kind of man he is. In the midst of all the chaos, here is a man who has found something he loves doing.
Maybe it is the intellectual aspect of it. While IEDs are, by definition, simple in their design, the bomb-makers level the playing field through little tricks that make it easier for someone to make a mistake. It is James’ job to decode these tricks. Mind versus mind, pure and simple. When he is done with his job, he keeps a part of the device as a souvenir. Would he have loved his job as much had it involved simply shooting at people? I doubt it.
The scenes that focus on what he does are shot with absolutely no embellishments. All you see is a man doing his job. The makers shut up and watch him do it. It is mesmerizing. These moments are interspersed with shots of the team who are tasked with keeping him (and themselves) safe while he does it. They clearly don’t enjoy their job, and feel that his gung-ho attitude endangers them as well. At one point, one of them asks him whether he is cognizant of the dangers in his profession. His response does not really answer the question, but reveals a heck of a lot about him.
The opponents are not really seen. You see Iraqis all around them, but they have no idea who is a harmless civilian and who isn’t. Most of the time, we don’t know either. One could argue that the film is one-sided in its portrayal. But think about this for a moment: these people work in an environment where they cannot identify their enemy. It adds to the difficulty in doing their job. As is demonstrated in numerous instances, they are disinclined to shoot first and ask questions later, but they do not have the luxury of a detailed investigation. This movie is about their working conditions. When we do not have the luxury of knowing who to label as a bad guy with a bomb, we understand the situation they are placed in.
I do not wish to enter into a political argument at this point — this film is not so much about the necessity of war as it is about the fact of it. It is a specific story about a certain group of people who have been asked to do a job. Their opinions do not matter to the decision makers, nor are they aired in the film.
And here is a man who, amidst all this, has found something he loves. There is a moment when we see him in a store, standing before a huge rack of cereal boxes of every type. It seems a lot more complex to him than red wire versus blue.