The Hurt Locker may or may not be a masterpiece, but it's certainly the first Hollywood movie about the Iraq War that stands a fighting chance of attracting an audience. The most fascinating thing about director Kathryn Bigelow's (Point Break, Near Dark) film — and why it seems so revelatory and brave — is how doggedly apolitical it is. Her point is that war — at least for the grunts doing the actual fighting — exists in a parallel universe completely devoid of politics or even old-fashioned concepts of right and wrong. Under the circumstances, questions like "Why the hell am I even here?" are not only counterproductive, but potentially lethal.
Set in 2004, the movie concerns an elite military unit (Delta Company) stationed in Baghdad whose job consists of scoping out and defusing bombs. Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner in a breakthrough performance that deserves to be remembered at awards time), the group's new leader, is a gung-ho cowboy whose seeming recklessness and disregard for "official" protocol scares the crap out of his team members (Anthony Mackie's Sanborn and Brian Geraghty's Eldridge). James is an adrenaline junkie. He thrives on danger and the narcotic-like exhilaration of always being one step away from harm's way. Back in the U.S., James' life seems hopelessly mundane by comparison (a visit to a supermarket sends him into temporary paralysis).
Bigelow and Renner make it eminently clear that James is the type of guy who would probably shrivel up and die if he didn't have the addictive rush/high of combat that propels him from Point A to Point B. The quote from former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges that opens the film — "war is a drug" — might seem like a reductive cheap shot if the evidence on screen weren't so damn persuasive.
Whether it's ingrained in one's DNA or acquired through the experience of battle, Bigelow leaves for the audience to decide. One thing's certain, though: Nobody has yet come up with a methadone-like substitute to help wean vets like James away from that scary-and-it-feels-so-good corner of the sky.