Director: Kathryn Bigelow; Release date: out now
The Hurt Locker has been reviewed with something close to rapture in the US. Roger Ebert (the Simon Cowell of US film critics) gave it an orgasmic five-star review, calling it "breathtaking", a "great film" and "a leading contender for Oscars".
It is easy to see what took Roger's breath away. The story follows an elite bomb disposal unit counting down their final 39 days working in occupied Baghdad. Decades ago Hitchcock already knew that a ticking bomb is, by definition, exciting cinema.
In The Hurt Locker this narrative tension is ratcheted up by the way that director Kathryn Bigelow and her cinematographer Roger Ackroyd (who normally works with Ken Loach) have shot their story. It was filmed using four hand-held cameras to take us up close and personal as the bomb disposal guys play with death. Each defusion is shot in real time so the tension becomes almost visceral. By any standards The Hurt Locker is an extraordinarily exciting and visually ravishing movie.
If The Hurt Locker was about any other soldiers in almost any other war, we could leave the review right there. But The Hurt Locker is set in occupied Iraq and the hype in the US is that it is more than a white-knuckle movie - the claim is that it tells the truth about the atrocity of the Iraq invasion.
Hollywood always has a problem with the US's dirty wars. US movies trade in the currency of good guys and heroes, but Iraq is so obviously a vicious and stupid act of aggression and the "coalition" have behaved with such barbarity that Hollywood simply cannot find the credible stories it needs. Where is the part for Bruce or Brad in Abu Ghraib: Die Hard with a Blowtorch? So we are still waiting for a Hollywood movie about Iraq which is simultaneously intelligent and works as cinema. Instead we have had well meaning and torpid films like Rendition, Lions for Lambs and In the Valley of Elah.
The Hurt Locker tries to square this circle by changing the angle of entry. Essentially it sidesteps the big issues of Iraq by taking a tight focus on the three men who make up this elite group of bomb specialists. These are three regular guys and they simply do not conform to the usual square-jawed hero type of Hollywood legend. Instead they are foul-mouthed, cynical and resentfully scornful of the politicians and officers who have organised such chaos in Iraq. The movie opens with the words "War is a drug" and the central figure (Will James) is literally a junkie strung out on the adrenalin pumped by "the most dangerous job in the world".
However, some critics went on to claim that The Hurt Locker is an "anti-war" film. We should be clear that this just isn't true. This is Platoon, not Apocalypse Now.
This is still a film "about" Iraq with absolutely no interest whatsoever in the country or its people. Iraqis are no more important to The Hurt Locker than they were to the US army. This is a film about what the Iraq war does to Americans, not the horror of what the US has done to Iraq.
In short this movie is stylish, articulate and out of the ordinary, but it is also thin, compromised and almost guaranteed to disappoint you. Exactly like Barack Obama himself, of course.