Best known for 1991’s ‘Point Break’, Kathryn Bigelow is back in the frame with one of the better films about the US Army in Iraq – and one of the few not to send American audiences running for the hills. Written and co-produced by war reporter Mark Boal (who worked on Paul Haggis’s ‘In the Valley of Elah’), Bigelow’s film combines an expert management of tension with a sensitive and journalistic attention to detail: she has one eye on the truth and the other on the multiplex, and, if you can forgive her the odd sentimental or sensational flourish, this makes for an unusual mix of the thrilling and the sobering.
The film’s focus is a bomb disposal squad in Baghdad in 2004 and the 38-day rotation of Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, pictured), an expert in defusing devices and a mouthy renegade whom you could view as either ‘hot shit’, as one superior calls him, or deserving of a sock in the jaw, as one of his peers prefers. Bigelow builds suspense and empathy by sticking closely to this small band through several episodes – including one superbly executed desert gunfight – and allowing us to experience events as they unfold for the soldiers.
The photography from ‘United 93’ DoP and regular Ken Loach collaborator Barry Ackroyd lends a frenetic immediacy to proceedings, while the use of Amman as Baghdad lends context and reality to a claustrophobic story. Bigelow is more interested in psychology than politics, but she shows just enough awareness of how the behaviour of soliders can fuel retaliation and even includes one direct suggestion that the US Army can and does choose to disregard the welfare of civilians. Most encouragingly, the film offers a fine distinction between heroism and heroics.
Click here to read an interview with director Bigelow