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Loving bombs, hating war

January 10, 2011

Visiting an Iraqi war one where young soldiers struggle to find personal peace

The Hurt Locker, USA, 2008, Dir. Kathryn Bigelow

I tucked into my own private bomb suit when I arrived at The Hurt Locker, a hide-your-eyes peek at three young bomb demolition experts who are caught between Iraqi insurgents, palpable fear, and the American government’s willful attempt to force its democracy on the unwilling.

My senses were bombarded at the parking lot where the imposing warehouse-like multi-screen movie theatre bristled with neon. The firing line started as I entered the bright foyer. I took my first hit when my VISA card disappeared into a machine and I struggled to buy a ticket.

With talented no-name actors – no Tom Cruise super-stars here – the performances promised to be a high point. These guys were looking for their big break; they would work their hearts out to please director Kathryn Bigelow. She did have some help from Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce who provided cameos. But it is the anonymity of the main cast that helps make this an effective war/anti-war film.

When I settled into my seat, a loud Coke-induced belch came from the seats above me.  Snippets of cheap-shot dialogue bounced out from Dolby speakers. Light-show graphics zapped us. Then, after five minutes of previews sent flying objects hurtling toward me. Locker began.

I had pictured myself in an oasis as the summer film drought dragged on. Suddenly, I was in darkness and the desserts of the cradle of the world lay before me.

A man dressed like Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon approaches some plastic rubbish. The demo crew has discovered a bomb amidst the street refuse. Across the street, a man talks on a cell phone. Soldiers train AK-47s on him. He punches a phone key as the bomb suit waddles towards the plastic.

Bam! An improvised explosive device (IED) blows the man to smithereens. Welcome to the Hell of Iraq.

Locker is not a film for the squeamish or feint of heart. In one scene, a man with explosives strapped to his body is left to die when the demo experts run out of time. In another scene, snipers painfully die one by one in a sandy shootout. In still another, a young boy is discovered with a bomb surgically inserted into his body.  

But Bigelow and her no-names give us more than blood and guts realism. They also reveal the mental stress and struggle of young men. One wants to have a son, another wants a girlfriend to love him, and a third has lost interest in his family and replaced them with his love of bombs.

Think the quiet of Thin Blue Line, add the tension of Platoon and the insane fear of The Deer Hunter. Locker is the latest in a long history of American war films that attempt to get inside the minds of the soldiers who find themselves on front lines that are not of their making in places that they would not choose to visit.

 Unlike Bigelow’s earlier directorial outings (Mission Zero, K-19: The Widowmaker), this one penetrates our senses in such a way that we feel the anguish of the men and we share their doubts about what they are doing. And yet, she also uncovers another kind of feeling: some are lured by the bombs and will abandon all else to be near them.

Not just another depiction on the war-is-hell theme, Locker is a unique attempt to expose us to life at the front and the war of the mind that marks it. Bigelow succeeds and I leave the theatre, still ducking the shrapnel from the popcorn and frozen yogurt kiosks and escaping the row of foxholes where others will soldier on in a darkness of their own choosing.

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