The boredom, stress, camaraderie, and sheer strangeness of trying to do good while insurgents are trying to blow you to bits are at the core of this fairly simple but exceptionally powerful wartime drama of an elite bomb squad in Iraq.
The politics and hypocrisies of war are generally subjugated by screenwriter Mark Boal (In the Valley of Elah) in favour of keeping a documentary eye and ear on how the team copes with their jobs when their careful, considerate team leader (Guy Pearce) is killed, and later replaced by a cocksure ex-Texas Ranger (Jeremy Renner) whose style and persona starts to put everyone else in danger.
Renner’s Staff Sergeant William James isn't a flat villain; as the character himself expresses near the end of the film, he doesn't know why he's perfectly wired for war; whether team members die or are in a stressed-out states, James stays calm and psychologically agile, and he knows that building support in weaker members is vital not just for his on safety, but to get the job done.
Kathryn Bigelow's film runs just over two hours, but with the exception of a near-end scene involving home life between James and wife Connie (Evangeline Lilly), it's a perfectly paced drama with great chunks of tension. A key scene where James reveals himself to be an excellent leader (as well as diminish his colleague's desires for some personal revenge) is when his group is caught in a desert cross-fire between rebel snipers.
The battle is played out over long distances: each killer aims and fires sharp little salvos until the winner is left standing. The scene goes on for quite a while – midday thru dusk – but it's used to show how the needs of the job (or mission, for that matter) quash internecine conflicts, as well showcase the competition that fuels rival snipers.
Perhaps the only sneaky political commentary happens when the team encounters a group of British bounty hunters (led by Ralph Fiennes) prior to the sniper battle. The hunters' chief concern is getting their prisoners back for a cash reward, and it quietly infers the overall unfairness of well-paid bounty hunters whose tour ends whenever their greed is sated, and the lower paid infantry whose tour runs much longer.
By focusing on the men and not the politics, the film is more subversive in the way it conveys the nihilistic traits of war: certainly during the pre-surge period during which the film is set, no one is winning, and the only gains are in carnage and the insurgents’ inventive methods of delivering an explosive payload.
Bigelow (Near Dark) shot the film in Jordanian and Kuwati locations, and the use of jittery (but not seasick) documentary camerawork places the viewer at the perimeter of every drama, whether it's on a dusty street, or the barracks of the demolition team.
The sound design is also quite naturalistic, with good use of silence as well as Dolby gunfire and explosions, and the score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders is fairly minimal and respectful in the way it weaves between scenes.
A powerful little film, and one of Bigelow's best works to date.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan