The Ten Percent: The Hurt Locker

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Biff Bam Pop! recently celebrated six years of pop acculturation – no small feat in the Darwinian struggle for survival that is the world of online popular culture news, reviews, commentary, and criticism sites. With another column due this week, BBP’s birthday celebrations had our thoughts turning back to the year 2008 and the TV and film productions of that year which earned a place in the Ten Percent of things which are not crud. There was a lot to choose from, but one film stood out as a true landmark in several ways: The Hurt Locker.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty, Point Break) and starring Jeremy Renner (Avengers, American Hustle) and Anthony Mackie (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Million Dollar Baby), The Hurt Locker follows veteran Sergeant First Class William James (Renner) during a tour of duty in Iraq doing what he does best: disarming bombs. The US Army calls this duty explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) and the men and women who do this job are highly trained, incredibly skilled, unbelievably brave, and maybe just a little bit crazy. James works as part of a three man team, backed up by Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) who watch over James as he works, alert to enemy attack and to James’ needs in the field.

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that James, while truly one of the absolute best EOD experts in the field, is not a by-the-book kind of soldier. He takes chances, risks himself and his team, and seems to get a profound rush from his work. The opening words of the film, “war is a drug,” are prophetic as James comes to realize that the only times he ever feels truly and fully alive are when he is pitting his skills against those of the bomb makers, where any mistake could mean obliteration. Sanborn is just the opposite: a young man who just wants to do his tour and come home in one piece. He too is skilled, dedicated, and brave, but he’s also not addicted to the rush like James is.

James Mackie (left) and Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker
Anthony Mackie (left) and Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is astonishingly good, and is a showcase for the potential power of the war film genre. The core group of three men is a unit forged from men of different backgrounds, races, and experiences. As James’ enthusiasm for EOD leads them into progressively more risky situations, the conflict between the men becomes almost as intense as their conflict with the enemy. Bigelow brings the viewer intimately close to these three men, so close that you can almost feel their breath, so close that your body tenses with every passing second as James tries to figure out how a bomb is wired, and the hyper-alert Sanborn scans, scans, scans – and suddenly snaps off a shot that sends an unseen sniper tumbling. They rely on one another even as James’s actions threaten to tear the team apart. Indeed, James’ thrill-seeking will cost the men dearly before the credits roll. Yet they have to function as a team despite him, because if they don’t, none of them will make it home alive. There’s no drum-banging patriotism here, but there is a realism that is frightening on several levels, not least of which is the ability to understand James’ addiction to the war from the inside.

It is Jeremy Renner’s performance that brings this all home. Renner is a very subtle, but powerful actor, and The Hurt Locker is right in his wheelhouse. He brings Bigelow’s intimate composition even closer; his soft-spoken, Southern drawl belied by the wild light in his eyes as he determines which wires will let him live, and which will erase him utterly. Renner gives us an inner agony in this performance as well. James knows that he shouldn’t like the war this much, shouldn’t get the rush he does, shouldn’t want it so badly. He has a beautiful young wife and a baby boy back home, but all the color bleeds out of his life when he’s there. One of the finest scenes in the film takes place back in the States where James is grocery shopping with his wife and son. She asks him to go get a box of cereal, and he disappears. Later, his wife finds him on the cereal aisle, staring at the yards and yards of different, colorful boxes, overwhelmed by the sheer range of choices available, and the man who can disarm the most complicated IED suddenly can’t figure out what cereal to get.

Sgt. James confronted by the "real" world.
Sgt. James confronted by the “real” world.

Home is too much for him. The war and his work there is focused, his field of view narrowed, his choices few and finite. Above all, those choices matter in a much more viscerally fundamental way than choosing Fruit Loops over Trix ever could. In that single scene, Renner and Bigelow tell us all we need to know, and perhaps more than we wanted to, about the disconnect between the normals of Anytown USA and downtown Mosul. It is difficult to begrudge Jeff Bridges his 2010 Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart, but for our money, Renner should have taken home the golden statue that night (The Hurt Locker premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2008, but did not see wide release in the US until the summer of 2009). Yet The Hurt Locker did well at the 82nd Academy Awards, taking home Best Picture, while Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director. Not too shabby.

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Kathryn Bigelow with her Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director

The Hurt Locker remains one of the most realistically honest portrayals ever made of both war and the men who fight them. More, it provides an all-too rare glimpse into the special hells that are being created in these most modern of conflicts, where everything is turned upside-down, and for some, war becomes the biggest high there is. In the end, we are left dazed, wondering how James can ever really come home and reintegrate into civilian life, assuming he survives his addiction. More, how can anyone come back from the edges we have sent them to and become again the mothers, brothers, friends, and neighbors we once knew? It’s a question we’re not really asking – because we fear the answer. That is why The Hurt Locker is part of the Ten Percent.


Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to <u>Breaking Bad</u>, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the <u>Babylon 5</u> Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

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