Standing over a bomb

Few things have defined the war in Iraq like the coarse, lethal homemade bombs buried under trash along the country’s roads and the soldiers who risk their lives to disarm them.

That’s the message of “The Hurt Locker,” an adrenaline-soaked, apolitical war movie that leaves audiences believing a cell phone — used to detonate the bombs — is more dangerous than a tank on the modern-day battlefield.

Writer Mark Boal, a journalist who was embedded in the U.S. military four years ago, and director Kathryn Bigelow, who has made a career capturing the alpha male with subjects like bank robbers addicted to surfing (“Point Break”), capture the brutal symbol of the Iraq war and hone it into a raw, realistic film that is certain to keep moviegoers talking hours after they leave the theater.

The film centers on what may be the most critical and fascinating military assignment in Iraq: the bomb squad unit. Known in military parlance as Explosive Ordinance Device (EOD) teams, they dealt with psychotic danger on a daily basis at the height of the war in Iraq.

Boal spent a couple of weeks with bomb squad units in Baghdad at the end of 2004 and beginning of 2005. Accompanying the highly specialized three-man teams, he came to realize there was no “safe zone” in Baghdad.

The movie is heavy on the action and details, but Boal and Bigelow steer clear of the somber moralizing that has characterized some of the more recent Iraq war films, including the critically acclaimed “In the Valley of Elah,” which was based on a story Boal wrote.

Even Boal admits soldiers may have their own opinions about the war and the motivations and politics behind it, but when they stand in front of a roadside bomb, all they think about is disarming it and making it out alive.

“We both wanted to capture … the moment of life-and-death decision-making,” Boal said in an interview with The Hill.

The goal was to tell a “human” story and not a political one, Bigelow said.

“Our interest was to make a movie about the soldiers. There is no politics in the trenches,” she said. “The idea that these individuals, in my opinion, have the most dangerous job in the world and the opportunity to examine that psychology in a cinematic translation I thought would be really fascinating.”

In many ways, “The Hurt Locker” is a study of men in combat, in which bravery, brotherhood, fear and the pure fight to survive come together in a singular experience. Perhaps the best summation of what the movie seeks to portray is in its beginning, with a quote from journalist Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

“The Hurt Locker” is structured around the 38 days a three-man U.S. Army bomb squad (portrayed by Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) have left in their rotation in the terrifying streets of Baghdad. The movie offers an apt composite of the types of personalities and characters in a bomb squad — and the contrasting temperaments make the movie even more powerful.

Sgt. Will James (Renner) stands out as the fearless and at times reckless technician — an extremely skilled adrenaline junkie who disabled 873 bombs in Iraq alone — who, at the same time, loves the fierce, intellectual challenge of disarming the bombs. In a box under his bed, he stores symbols of devices that have nearly killed him: various parts of explosives, and his wedding ring.

Two sharp-shooting specialists cover James on the battlefield: Spc. Owen Eldridge (Geraghty), fraught with nerves, fearing he’ll never leave Iraq alive and bearing the lingering guilt of not acting in time to save his last technician; and Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Mackie), a play-by-the-book intelligence officer who thinks following the rules will help him survive.

While the movie is a fictionalized story, it is firmly rooted in reality, thanks to Boal’s close observations and descriptions of his time in Baghdad. The movie was shot in Jordan with sets exactly meeting the specificity of the scenes.

Bigelow was also able to spot Iraqi architecture in Amman, Jordan’s capital, a finding that brings authenticity and veracity to the movie. Add to that truckloads of garbage strewn on the clean streets of Amman and you have a snapshot of a chaotic Baghdad at the height of the war.

Boal and Bigelow tapped into a wealth of military consultants, some of whom they met coincidentally in an Amman hotel lobby. Many of the military contractors and personnel cycled in and out of Iraq through Amman, said Boal.

“You sit in the hotel lobby, and 20 military consultants would pass in the course of an hour — former Navy SEALs and former British SAS [Special Air Services], former bomb squads, current bomb squads,” Boal said. “People are coming fresh off the battlefield.”

Bigelow and Boal did not use just their expertise but ended up casting some of these people in the movie — one is  decorated former New Zealand special operator Barrie Rice.

The movie’s creators also did not lack U.S. military equipment for the movie. They received their logistical support from the Jordanian military, which uses a good amount of U.S. military equipment.

The actors in the movie also spent some time training in the U.S. military’s own sandbox: Fort Irwin, Calif.

The movie — which will be widely released on July 10 — already is catching the attention of the EOD technician community.

“The EOD community as a whole is very supportive and interested in the fact that someone did a movie about them,” Boal said.

Boal has been receiving pleas for DVDs from some of his military friends in Iraq, but he doesn’t have any himself. The movie has been pirated and is available on the streets of Baghdad for 50 cents apiece.

Roxana Tiron covers the military and defense industry for The Hill.