When "Saving Private Ryan" was released it was heralded as a breakthrough in the treatment of war in movies. It's opening sequence was terrifying, gripping, distressing and (apparently) unnervingly realistic in its depictions not just of the wounds of war, but also of the confusion of battle.
'Hurt Locker' tells the story of three soldiers in a bomb disposal team in occupied Baghdad after the end of formal hostilities, in the centre of the insurgency. In constant danger from bombs, snipers, suicide attacks, far from home and in great heat - the three main characters seek to survive. Sgt William James (Jeremy Renner), the main bomb disposal expert is accompanied throughout by two specialists, Sgt JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and Sgt Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) whose job is to keep him safe as he disarms devices. Much of the plot concerns James' maverick and dangerous approach to the task, bravery to the point of foolishness, unquestioned skill and lack of judgement.
The Hurt Locker is a very different film from 'Ryan' - yet has been lauded in similar terms, as achieving a new depth in Hollywood's treatment of armed conflict. This film is well worthy of its Oscar's for direction, editing, sound, script, and so forth - part of its power is that there are no lousy errors in these departments to distract, but the whole presentation unrelentingly seizes the imagination for the entire 126 minutes. But it is not in these things that the contrast to Ryan is most apparent, neither is it in the fact that Ryan takes place in the middle of an enormous set-piece battle; whereas Hurt Locker exists within the excruciating tension of hostile occupation and guerrilla warfare.
The key difference rather, is in fact that all the characters in 'Ryan' sanely long for home, and dream of returning to their girl back home in Pennsylvania, Alabama, or Tennessee. In a sinister, and disturbing development in this film it becomes apparent that Sgt. James, isn't merely naively gung-ho, but is deeply committed to, and indeed addicted to, the pursuit of war. If 'Ryan' is chilling in its treatment of the threat from without, the horror of war and the losses sustained; The Hurt Locker is chilling in its dealing with the threat from within - that the very act of war might actually intoxicate the human soul, and so overwhelm a personality that nothing else provides it adequate meaning - especially not the comforts of civilian domesticity.
If this is a serious message which writer Mark Boal wanted to relay (basing his writing on his time spent as a reporter 'embedded' amongst US troops in the Iraq war), then Kathryn Bigelow's film delivers it with a mighty punch. The film is a (15) certificate, reflecting some strong language and distressing scenes, which no doubt were part of the real experience that Boal wished to capture. Utterly compelling.