Here is Jeremy Renner ("The Unusuals", 28 Weeks Later) as Staff Sergeant William James, leader of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) squad in The Hurt Locker [trailer], directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days), and written by Mark Boal, who was embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq.
The Hurt Locker shows us what it feels like to know you could be killed any second. As the EOD specialists work on bombs or even just drive through the streets, everyone around them is a suspect. Defusing a bomb is more complex than "yellow wire or blue wire"; it takes time. In that time, any of the multitude of bystanders might pull a gun or might punch a number into their cellphone that triggers the bomb. Bigelow does an admirable job of giving us a taste of that life. Many critics have remarked that The Hurt Locker is exciting and tense as an action movie and should not be marketed as just an art film.
This is not a very political movie. It does feature a few scenes with secondary characters doing immoral things, which can be considered criticism of the war, but for the most part The Hurt Locker is focused on the characters. An example: There is a sniper scene that is reminiscent of a similar sequence in Stanley Kubrick's anti-war masterpiece Full Metal Jacket. Whereas Kubrick used his scene to demonstrate intellectual concepts about the futility of war, Bigelow uses hers to show us the varying reactions of soldiers under pressure.
Throughout the film, we see how the constant pressure causes some soldiers to freak out, while SSgt. James thrives on danger... and that's where I had a bit of a problem with this film... [bxA]
James is a reckless cowboy. It's an archetype that works great in any number of action movies. When Dirty Harry or Axel Foley tell off their chiefs, turn in their badges, and go rogue, you denounce the chiefs for being squares, and you root for the mavericks. In The Hurt Locker, you might agree with the squares. The movie feels realistic, and so you treat James as a real person, and not an action cartoon. What are you doing, James?! You're going to get everyone killed, you idiot! The dynamic is jarring. It pulls you out of the movie a bit. As I write this, though, I must wonder if this juxtaposition of realism and action clichés is intentional. Perhaps Bigelow is making some sort of Catch-22-style statement about the insane being the only ones who can survive in war? Or perhaps the movie is just somewhat flawed and overhyped? Either way, it's still certainly worth watching.
Here is Sergeant Nick Moncrief, aka "Solo", rapping about his experiences in Iraq, from Gunner Palace [trailer], a documentary directed by Michael Tucker.
You can watch a video of Sgt. Moncrief's rap here. And here's a New York Times article about rapping soldiers in Iraq. The title of this post comes from lyrics by Specialist Richmond Shaw, and you can see that snippet of his rap in the trailer.
Filmed from 2003 to 2004 and released in 2005, Gunner Palace takes us into a bombed out palace in Baghdad that now houses American soldiers. This documentary has the distinction of being the PG-13 rated movie with the most f-bombs (42). The original ruling was R for language, but the director won his appeal on the grounds that the military sends recruiting messages to kids under 18, and so they deserve to see what life as a soldier is really like.
Like The Hurt Locker, Gunner Palace is also relatively apolitical. It is sympathetic to the soldiers and shows us their daily lives. We go along with them on patrols, on investigations of bombs, and on raids into people's homes where everyone is screaming at each other and hoping not to get shot. We get a sense of why it's so hard for soldiers and Iraqis to trust each other and get along.
Tucker also shows us that, despite the daily dangers the soldiers face (or perhaps because of them), some manage to create art in their spare time. We hear some freestyle rap, we hear some rock, and we see and hear some amusing pantomime-assisted storytelling.
The rocker and storyteller is the silly and charming Specialist Stuart Wilf. Sadly, while doing research for this review, I discovered that, some time after the filming of the movie, the day after Spc. Wilf returned from his tour of duty, he partied late, had a car accident, survived, and racked up tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills while uninsured. The VA said he's a low priority case for compensation because his injuries were not work-related. (The VA, of course, is overwhelmed with injured soldiers these days, in part due to the increase in survival rate that modern field medicine has brought. One in seven soldiers have have suffered mild brain injuries with long term physical and mental effects, including personality changes and cognitive decline!)
These two films bring us into the world of American soldiers in their own ways. The Hurt Locker does it viscerally while Gunner Palace does it musically. Regardless of what we think about the war, we can surely agree that it's not easy being a soldier.
I leave you with this image of Specialist Wilf playing the Star-Spangled Banner, Hendricks-style.