Who knew that director Kathryn Bigelow was anything other than a Hollywood hack? Sure, sure, she's had her supporters, but practically all of her past projects have favored cold style over warm substance. The justly forgotten Blue Steel was one of the worst films of the 1990s, Point Break was merely daft masturbation fodder for fans of Patrick Swayze and/or Keanu Reeves, and the Harrison Ford dud K-19: The Widowmaker was so dull that just writing about it makes me ... zzzzzz.
Where was I? Oh, yes, getting ready to praise Bigelow for a tightly wound film whose few flaws can be found in Mark Boal's screenplay rather than in her own potent direction. Boal, who co-wrote the only other worthy Iraq war film to date (In the Valley of Elah), focuses his attention on the soldiers who are placed in the line of fire, never allowing any political discourse to enter the conversation. It's an acceptable decision in that it pays sincere tribute to Americans willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, although it's also a timid move in that it steadfastly refuses to challenge warhawks in the audience, many of whom will be idiotic enough to view this as a "pro-war" flick.
The Hurt Locker follows the three members of a bomb squad plying their trade during the last six weeks of their tour of duty in 2004. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is the leader of the outfit, a man as reckless as he is efficient when it comes to defusing bombs (it's believed he holds the record in this unenviable category). Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is the most professional -- that is to say, most stable -- member of the team, anxious to get away from a job he despises. And Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is the young pup of the outfit, a clean-cut kid terrified that his life will soon get snuffed out.
Bigelow and Boal follow the trio around as an on-screen marker counts down the number of days left in their rotation. Maximum suspense is not only gained through their encounters with specific bombs but also through the big picture that strains at the fabric of the film: Will all three make it out alive? It's a testament to the performances of all the actors (specifically Renner and Mackie) that we invest so strongly in characters that truthfully aren't fully developed.
The movie works best when its storytelling remains shaggy; it gets into real trouble when it introduces a forced subplot in which James sets out to avenge the death of a friend. But never does Bigelow falter in her direction, which, by adroitly alternating between muscular and sensitive, reapplies a recognizable face to a conflict that is already slipping from the American public conscious with all the wispiness of a bad dream.