There’s a moment near the end of “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful look at life and death on Baghdad’s mean streets, where one American sergeant — a cool, tough professional on mission after mission — finally breaks down and loses it after yet another close brush with death. “Another two inches . . .” he sobs. “Shrapnel pierces my throat, I bleed out like a pig in the sand. And nobody gives a s–t!”

If there’s a political statement contained in this film, that’s it right there: Nobody gives a s–t. Part of “The Hurt Locker’s” mission is to bring home the reality of Iraq deployments to a public that has been largely shielded from having to ponder the human cost of the war. But for the most part, Bigelow’s film — unlike nearly every other Iraq war film, from “Lions for Lambs” to “Redacted” — manages to avoid polemics and remain tightly focused on the micro level, on the careful tracing of wires in the sand, or the wary scanning of rooftops with scopes.

This is a second generation Iraq war film: The whole question of “why we should/shouldn’t be in Iraq” is practically a moot point. American soldiers walk down devastated streets, disarming an endless series of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and car bombs, count the days until their tour is up, and view every Iraqi they see as a potential threat. Iraqis, glimpsed in windows and doorways, are just as wary of the Americans, viewing them with fear, curiosity or hostile intent. The gulf between them is immense. All that neocon talk about “flowers in the streets” and “an Iraqi Marshall Plan” now seems like so much la-la faerie-land head-tripping. The only goal left seems to be — survive.

The Hurt Locker
Director Kathryn Bigelow
Run Time 105 minutes
Language English
Opens Now showing (March 5, 2010)

That’s the case for a small EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) team in Baghdad. Stunned by the death of a good officer, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) want to play it safe and by the book and get home alive. Too bad for them that the new guy in their unit, Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), is a cowboy, a guy who’s taken so many risks and survived them that he thinks he can keep on rolling the dice.

“The Hurt Locker” follows James’ unit through a variety of everyday missions in Iraq; somebody calls in a suspected IED the EOD, the team rolls up to check it out, and then attempts to defuse or detonate it, with a robot if possible, hands-on if not. Of course this whole procedure happens with the assumption that the person who planted the bomb is most likely watching, and able to detonate it remotely at any time. The suspense becomes almost unbearable, and the viewer spends the entire film expecting some massive, horrific blast to come at any time.

The film’s theme is clear enough, opening with a quote by author/war correspondent Chris Hedges, which describes “the rush of battle” as “an often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” Director Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal — who spent several weeks following EOD teams in Iraq — set up James as a case study, an adrenaline junkie who’s too good at what he does; so he can’t stop.

Renner’s performance in the role is superb, mixing professional pride, bravado, denial, and a big dose of crazy. He’s a war-movie kind of hero, a guy who sees doing the right thing as more important than doing the safe thing, which does not endear him to his team, who suspect James is going to get them all killed.

If there’s one problem with the film, it’s that it reaches for authenticity, but clearly departs from reality in a few scenes. Actual vets have mixed opinions about the film: Many praise it for giving people an idea of what it’s like in the sandbox (Iraq), while also noting that parts of the film ring false, especially the risks that Renner takes. One vet in particular, writing for The Huffington Post, blew a gasket over this and has been quoted everywhere, but her protests seem a bit much. You’d be hard-pressed to find any retirees taking on street hoodlums with rifle in hand, but that departure from real-life didn’t hurt “Gran Torino.”

The same is true for “The Hurt Locker’ “s concessions to movie-thrills.

This may not represent the absolute reality of conflict in Iraq, but Bigelow has fashioned a gut-wrenching, gripping piece of suspense cinema that seeks to grab you by the neck and drag you into the sweat-dripping, paranoid, one-wrong- move-and-you’re-dead world of an EOD team. She does that exceedingly well, while also managing to make you reflect on what war does to a man.

A scene near the end of the film says it all; James is back States-side, in a supermarket aisle where his wife has asked him to get some cereal. He looks up and down the aisle, confronted with the decision of about 100 different brands to choose from, and the pointlessness of even thinking about something so trivial makes him almost implode with an emotion he can barely understand. For some vets, there’s just no stepping back from that edge.

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