Kathryn Bigelow has made quite a career for herself directing male driven action films. Although she certainly is no household name, many of her films are well loved by men in their twenties or later, most notably K19: the Widowmaker and 1991’s Point Break. With The Hurt Locker, her first feature film in six years, Kathryn Bigelow has moved from simply wowing male audiences to garnishing the notice of critics as well. The Hurt Locker is being called one of the first non-political war films of the Iraq war era and has been dubbed by many (particularly it’s advertisers) as “the best film of the year.”
The lead is played by Jeremy Renner in what many are calling an Oscar worthy performance. While this may be questionably high praise, it certainly is a visceral and affecting performance. James is the team leader of Bravo Company whose daily regiment consists of finding and diffusing bombs. It’s an undeniably dangerous job, and the film is mostly concerned with observing the men who have willingly put themselves in such a dangerous position. opens with a quote that states simply, “war is a drug” and the film plays that theme diligently over the following 131 minutes as it explores the actions and motivations of its main characters.
The story follows Staff Sgt. William James, who seems to love the job for one reason and one reason only: the adrenaline. He takes his protective gear off when a bomb seems particularly bad. He keeps a box filled with pieces of every bomb that’s almost killed him. His men move between loving and hating him, even contemplating for one chilling moment whether it would be worthwhile to kill him.
It’s an effective kind of character study in which we learn about a character purely by observation. The film doesn’t concern itself with back-story or speeches about wishes and fears. In the tradition of such great classics as Lawrence of Arabia, it is content with simply observing the complexity in a man by what he does.
In the end, however, the film is a bit hollow. Perhaps it is its absolute refusal to make a value judgment on its heroes. Or perhaps it’s the overall somber attitude of the film – even other overwrought character studies as Lawrence of Arabia and Citizen Kane knew how to have fun in the process. It is, I suppose, an effective study of one kind of man. However, I doubt the film will take a place in the classics simply because it is not a film about heroes. The action is thrilling, the suspense palpable, the characters unique and engaging, but in the end it feels a little too full of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It is an excellent film by all accounts in its execution, but the artists seem obsessed with the truthful depiction of a matter with little or no concern for the virtues it portrays. A real hero is one that portrays real virtues in the pursuit of his goal. James’ strongest virtue is that he does an excellent job defusing bombs. He is otherwise frustrating and disrespectful to the men around him, often putting them in danger. He brushes off his men’s critiques of his dangerous leadership habits without really answering their concerns.
One might say that Bigelow simply is not making a film about heroes and is choosing rather to study the very real and very flawed men who are actually fighting our wars. This is fair, but I must ask: in this age when our heroes are relegated away from the war films of old to the morally ambiguous — at best — superheros of today, where are the truly virtuous heroes to be found?