This is by far the best film about the (second) war in Iraq. That statement isn’t entirely true as the film is not about the war in Iraq as such. It makes no political statement about the right or wrong of the war and tells us very little about war. With the way the war is shown on TV news we know about roadside bombs and suicide bombers so what can a film tell us about what is going on? Instead the film concentrates on the work of a bomb disposal unit. James Cameron (former husband of director Kathryn Bigelow) is reported to have said “I think this could be the Platoon for the Iraq War” I personally don’t see this as the films approach their respective conflicts very differently. I do however think in years to come the film will be looked at favourably when compared to modern classics like Platoon. As for the plot, there really isn’t one. The film plays out as a set of stand alone scenarios. This isn’t a criticism, it is actually one of the things that makes the film so good. There is a point about three quarters of the way through when a plot thread seems to be developing and the film appears to be losing its way, as it develops and the plotline frizzles out you suddenly realise how important it is to the overall film just like the ending brilliantly and simply frames the film.
There is not story arc containing a defined antagonist, the film is more a character study of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal tec’s (bomb disposal team to you and me) particularly Staff Sgt William James (Jeremy Renner) who is new to the team and has a more laidback if a little reckless approach to his job. The rest of the team is made up of Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) a by the book soldier who clashes with James who he sees as reckless. And Owen Eldridge, who is insecure and constantly looking for guidance and reassurance. All three actors are well cast, Jeremy Renner is brilliant as James. He is an actor I know very little about, I vaguely remember him for SWAT, 28 Weeks later and The Assassination of Jesse James. Judging from this performance I think we will be seeing more of him in the near future. There are also smaller roles; I will not call them cameos as some of them are significant if not large parts. They are: Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Evangeline Lilly (from lost).
Many of the scenes are long and drawn out getting more and more intense as they play out. These scenes are genuinely breathtaking with dramatic tension and not manufactured by fast editing. The tension is aided by an almost complete lack of music. I can not recall any incidental or background music, just an a low drone and an unsettling hum. The only music heard in the film is what James plays on his I-pod (all by the band Ministry). The sound recording and editing is excellent helping with the sense of realism. The photography style is interesting, the hand held 16mm cameras never really make you think you are watching a documentary, they have a certain documentary realism but as a viewer you are drawn into the action more than you often are by a documentary. The style is probably more akin to Cinema Vérité, this is expertly handled by Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd who has perfected the style with his many collaborations with Ken Loach. He is also responsible for the frighteningly realistic United 93 directed by Paul Greengrass who he has re-teamed with for Green Zone that is in post production at the moment. The best thing about this simple style is the filmmakers are not fastidious about it, they are not afraid to be stylish when id doesn’t detract from the drama. For example there are slow motion shots such as spent shells falling to the ground as we have seen a million times before but they way it is done you just don’t mind and don’t even find it clichéd. In an effort to make the film as real as possible the filmmakers tried to get permission to film in Iraq but where unable to, instead they opted for nearby Jordan just a few miles across the border from Iraq.
I have used the word breathtaking in this review, a word I probably use too often when reviewing films but in this case it really is true, I sat watching the film and at one point realised I was holding my breath. You will be amazed how short 130 minutes can seem, unlike Transformers 2 that felt like it was about a week long! This isn’t a great war film or a great action film it is simply a great film and one of the best I have seen this year. If Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t get a best director nomination at the Oscars it will be nothing short of criminal, on the films I have seen so far she deserves to win the Oscar.