As the critical response has suggested, this is an impressive war film about Iraq. Stylistically similar to the hyper-real visual style seen in Cloverfield (US, 2008), it uses extreme handheld shake to signify ‘thereness’. If you’re filming defusing an unexploded bomb the niceties of framing and composition are going out of the window. The cinematographer is Barry Ackroyd who shot United 93 (US, 2006) and The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Ire-UK, 2006), both realist films. However, although documentary-style camerawork, that follows rather than leads the action, is evident in these films, they remain carefully composed; I felt mildly nauseous watching The Hurt Locker such is the camera shake on the big screen. Ironically, this effect makes it more of a ‘roller coaster’ than Hollywood blockbusters even though this is nothing like a mainstream movie.
The best review I’ve read is by the reliably excellent Philip French in The Observer and I agree with much of what he said. I’ve written about most of the Iraq movies in my latest book (I’ll extract the relevant section and blog it later) and The Hurt Locker is certainly a fascinating addition. Its focus on the American viewpoint is slightly problematic for me as all Iraqis are filmed as potential terrorists; take the shot of the DVD vendor that suddenly makes him look sinister when he’s simply a guy trying to make a living. However, if we accept that this is a function of the film’s viewpoint, the protagonist and addicted risk-taker SSgt William James, then this is acceptable. Peter Bradshaw, in The Guardian, suggests this is a challenge to ‘political correctness’ as if there’s something wrong in questioning the representation of the antagonists.
The British do get to show their face but are so money-seeking and inept, once the shooting starts those that haven’t been shot yet don’t even fire a gun, that we descend into a gung-ho Hollywood movie despite the fact that the sequence is brilliant.
The sound design is spectacular, by Paul N.J. Ottosson, adding to the visceral discomfort of the experience. This is cinema that is about experience; experience that most of us, thankfully, won’t have. I don’t know any serving soldiers but met one on leave from Afghanistan on a train journey. The soldier obviously needed to talk about their experiences and now I know of someone in the front line each time I hear of casualties they won’t be in the abstract. Cinema can also do this, to an extent, allowing us to understand the experiences of others. If we learn nothing of the ridiculous politics fueling East-West conflict from The Hurt Locker, we do get a sense of what it might be like to be there.