When it comes to movies about George W. Bush's 2003 war in Iraq, none have been focused on actual battles or ground action. Recent Iraq war movies have been about the emotional effects on the soldiers after they've returned from combat. In short, recent Iraq movies have taken place in America, not in Iraq. They've not truly been war movies. This film is the opposite. It is perhaps the first, true, Iraq-war movie.
Kathyrn Bigelow directed this film based on the true experiences of her friend, Mark Boal, who was an embedded journalist with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit. It's also based on a wealth of declassified documents Boal gathered. Bigelow presents a realistic and gritty war picture that is unnerving and literally explosive.
Bigelow photographed the film in Amman, Jordan, near the Iraqi border, in order to give a more authentic feel. According to Ed Symkus of the Gatehouse News Service, Bigelow said she photographed the film in an unconventional way, not telling the actors where the cameras were going to be and moving them from moment to moment.
She said, "What happens then is the actors aren't performing for the lens." She felt, if the actors weren't aware of where the cameras were, it would help to focus them on the story and their characters, and not the technical stuff.
Ask any actor who is performing in scenes with special effects and technical setups and he'll tell how restricting it can be. How they stand, how they move, even down to the smallest facial twitch, has to be planned and mapped out, so that the special effects and technical stuff work perfectly. This can sometimes make actors feel not like people but more like puppets.
This film doesn't have a ton of technical stuff. There are a few special effects, namely the bomb explosions. There are also a couple of intense gunfights. But, with Bigelow's choice of direction, she frees her actors to be more than just puppets. Here, they become flesh and blood human beings with real emotions. As such, the men in the spotlight show us the fine line between bravery and fear, between conviction and confusion.
The three actors are Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. There is no question in my mind that the efforts these three have given here are Oscar-worthy. Each one is absolutely riveting. Through their performances and Bigelow's direction, I was right there with them.
Each man literally gives blood, sweat, and tears, and I felt all of it. When their hearts started racing, mind started racing too. When they started breathing heavily, so did I. I felt everything they did, even during their times of relief and jocosity, which were indeed short. There were times when they wanted to kill each other, as well as moments of togetherness and dependence. Yet, I never lost sight of these guys. I was engaged the whole way, as they clearly were.
It's the summer of 2004. The Iraqi insurgency is in full swing, which fights against the American forces using homemade bombs, or what's called IEDs. The EOD has the onerous job of disarming these bombs or preventing them from exploding. Many of the IEDs are roadside, hidden in places near Baghdad streets where army soldiers are known to traffic.
Jeremy Renner stars as Staff Sgt. William James, the bomb tech that arrives to join the army's Bravo Company, 38 days before that group gets to return home. He becomes their EOD's new leader. When the EOD is called for a bomb threat, James is the guy who actually has to cut the wires.
Anthony Mackie plays Sergeant JT Sanborn. Sanborn is a well-trained sharpshooter who unlike Staff Sgt. James doesn't have a wife and kid. He's a single African-American who's probably the most anxious of everyone in the group. He's careful because it's his job to keep his team safe.
Brian Geraghty plays Specialist Owen Eldridge. Their ages aren't given, but Eldridge seems like the youngest of the group. He supplies support for Sanborn, but, at the same time, he's a little wet behind the ears. He's not completely artless, but he's certainly not as jaded as the others.
An army psychiatrist, a Colonel John Cambridge who serves in Baghdad, offers counseling to Eldridge who resists it. Eldrige talks to the Colonel but never too much. It's perhaps part of that macho attitude that he doesn't need it because he can handle anything on his own.
Staff Sergeant James at the outset certainly believes he can handle things on his own. James is a bit of cowboy. Some might call him reckless. He's no doubt cocky, if not overly confident that he can defuse any bomb. At times, it means him removing his safety equipment and staying in a dangerous situation longer than he should, like rock climbing without a harness or motorcycling without a helmet.
He is perhaps a thrill-seeker or perhaps he suffers, as writer Chris Hedges describes, from the potent and often lethal addiction of war as a drug. He's not one to be psychoanalyzed, but he's most comfortable walking into dangerous situations without a hint of hesitation.
James is the best example, but all of them want to appear as though they're made of steel, unshakable, and tough to the core. What we learn though is that each has his fears and limits. James in particular comes off so cavalier, but even he has his breaking points. He's Mr. Cool, but there comes a moment when even he loses it.
He ceases to be the calm and collected cowboy seeking the greater good. He then becomes a rogue agent acting out a personal vendetta, going off half-cocked.
There have been so many action films that have depicted explosion after explosion, but never have I been more captivated by the explosions in this one. Bigelow creates great aftermath but really strikes you with excellent flashpoints of various bombs, some in slow motion, others in real time.
What really strikes is Bigelow's attention to detail. The men go from one bomb-diffusing situation to the next, each one that much more intense. When the bombs go off, Bigelow makes you feel every inch of that shockwave. But, there are other minor details, a stray cat, a buzzing fly. They all may seem small, but it adds up, as Bigelow really puts you in that experience.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for war violence and language
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 11 mins.