Director Kathryn Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal, starring Jeremy Renner (William James), JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty)
The title credits roll leaving a quote “war is a drug” fading into a scene where a robot is laying a charge to create a controlled explosion of an improvised explosive device (IED) when it fails. The sergeant suits up and goes in, just getting to the kill zone when one of the company spot a civilian with a cell phone who can’t understand their shouts for him to drop it. It triggers the IED, and bomb disposal team have lost a sergeant.
His replacement is staff sergeant William James with a fondness for Ministry, particularly “Fear (Is Big Business)” and “Palestina”. Contrast the latter’s opening “Palestina was a very nice girl/ She liked to travel and sample the world…” with the second verse’s “Palestina told her family and friends/ She’d be back, to take her revenge/ Palestina made her mind up to die/ Palestina had a belt of death/ She had explosives strapped to her chest/ Palestina is a martyr now in the sky” and the way the chorus fits both Palestina and James’s lives “My life will be short and sweet.”
JT Sanborn’s first reaction is “He’s reckless”. Eldridge is inclined to agree. However, both have to work with him. On their first trip out together, James doesn’t bother sending in the robot first, but suits up. Finding Sanborn’s constant questioning irritating, James takes off his headphones and mike, so his concentration is solely focused on the IED, which he finds is connected to four more devices. Luckily he manages to isolate the charge so the task is reduced to wire cutting. The scene stretches credibility but sets up James as a risk-taker, Sanborn and Eldridge as resigned to working with him and implicates wider questions. The implication is James prefers to recon a suspect device himself rather than rely on a robot that can only see and report, not read a scene or establish the difference between a curious civilian and one who’s carrying a detonator.
A second incident sees the bomb disposal team turn up as an area is evacuated. A suspect device is in a car. James suits up and goes in whilst Sanborn and Eldridge are delegated to watch for snipers and potential remote detonators. Eldridge spies a civilian with a video camera and complains he doesn’t want to end up on You Tube. Sanborn sees three guys in a minaret apparently communicating with the cameraman. James has abandoned the suit so that he can climb in and out of the car and rip up the seat easier. The charge is found and IED isolated. Later that day a colonel asks James how many bombs he’s disarmed. James responds that he can’t remember but the colonel insists on an answer. Clearly thinking off the top of his head, James says “Eight hundred and seventy-three,” which would equate to three IEDs a day. That the colonel is amazed rather than incredulous non didactically illustrates the gap between those in command and those on the ground.
The rotation continues. Searching for an IED, the team find a hastily-left temporary camp and a dead boy left lying in blood-soaked clothes: the one gory scene in the film. Bigelow doesn’t shy away from death and injury but the focus is towards the people left behind, the people still fighting to survive today, whether civilian or soldier. Sanborn’s reaction is to get inexperienced Eldridge out but James hesitates as his instinct tells him there’s something the boy’s hiding. He’s proved right. That evening he phones his ex-wife who’s trying to put their toddler son to bed but can’t find anything to say.
But the team aren’t just about disposing of found unexploded devices but also investigating post-explosion. An apparent suicide bomb is detonated and the team are sent in to establish whether it was a suicide bomb or remotely detonated. Sanborn thinks the latter and recommends leaving it to the infantry to search for snipers. James decides it’s the former and commands them to carry out a brief search that almost results in Eldridge’s capture. Yet, in another incident James recognises that even he can’t detonate a bomb in time and clears the area before it explodes. So the recklessness is underlined by a self-preservation instinct.
At the end of the rotation, Sanborn reckons he’s done. Realistically the rotation is shown as a series of incidents with no story or narrative behind it. There’s no pattern behind where the devices are left. Some are clearly the product of organised groups attempting to terrorise people into fighting, others are left behind after an evacuation and seemingly forgotten, others are used by suicide bombers. This is a country where goat herders carry guns, young boys throw stones at American armoured vehicles and people are suspicious; perhaps damaged beyond rebuilding in any semblance of peace. Like a poem, the film focuses on one team of bomb disposal experts to tell a wider story.
James returns to his home, his ex-wife rescuing him in a supermarket by suggesting he come for dinner as he’s completely flummoxed by the choice of cereals. He casually mentions Iraq is short of bomb disposal experts. It’s no surprise when the next scene shows him returning to Iraq and suiting up before approaching another suspected IED, soundtracked by Ministry’s “Khyber Pass”, “Where’s Bin Laden/ Where’s Bin Laden/ He’s probably runnin’/ Probably hidin’/ Some say he’s livin’ at the Khyber Pass/ Others say he’s at the Bushes’ ranch.” The unspoken last word is that opening quote.