Now that the troops are pulling out and the war no longer haunts the headlines, maybe people will want to see a film about Iraq — especially since it's one of the best war movies ever made. Kathryn Bigelow's films have ranged from Near Dark (1987) to near-disaster, but here, for the first time, she forges her mastery of detail, composition, pacing, psychological insight, and perverse beauty into a masterpiece.
It begins with a bang — maybe the most beautiful explosion in film history, the detonation of an IED (improvised explosive device) in the streets of Baghdad in 2004 at the height of the insurgency. In extreme slow motion, the blast waves stroke the littered street, shivering rust off a derelict car. Had Sam Peckinpah been into explosions, he couldn't have done better. But this would have been just a flash in the pan if Bigelow had not already created the world in which it takes place.
That starts with the location — not Baghdad, but the slums and the desert outside Amman, Jordan, which Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd have rendered in point-of-view shots that make you want to wipe the sweat and grit from your eyes. They capture the heat, the light, and the dust, the dun-colored streets strewn with rubble and trash that might conceal a booby trap, and the bullet-pocked buildings from which stare the unfriendly faces of persons who could easily be holding a detonator. Bigelow and Ackroyd transform this into her urban version of Monument Valley.
Patrolling the area are members of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) units. When a suspicious object is found, they clear a 300-meter perimeter. Then, if necessary, one of them marches in alone, clad in an armored suit that looks like something from 2001, to go mano a mano with what might be a stray wire or the fuse to a blockbusting IED.
This takes a lot of nerve, a steady hand, and a bit of madness, all qualities of Sergeant William James. Played in a career-making performance by Jeremy Renner, James, like his namesake, is pragmatic and philosophical and a fan of religious experiences — namely, the rush one gets from solving a lethal puzzle seconds before being obliterated. Renner makes his character seem utterly reassuring in his competence and totally unreliable in his recklessness. These qualities elicit an ambivalent response from the other members of his team, the stoic Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and the rookie Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). They can't decide whether to frag him or fall on their knees.
Mostly, though, Sanborn and Eldridge look forward to the end of their tour of duty. This countdown — which we see in periodic titles — mirrors the shorter ones James must beat in teasing out the secret of each bomb he encounters. As detailed in the script by Mark Boal, who served as an embedded journalist with one such unit, the defusing process unfolds with excruciating authenticity, and together with the bluntly fatalistic dialogue, these sequences pulse with an almost fetishistic fascination as well as with gut-wrenching suspense.