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'Hurt Locker' kicks off Bigelow retrospective

Last year's best American movie, "The Hurt Locker," kicks off the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions' summer series, "The Films of Kathryn Bigelow," tonight at 7:15 at Mountcastle Auditorium (725 N. Wolfe Street). For my 2009 coverage of Bigelow's movie, including interviews with Bigelow, her screenwriter, Mark Boal, and a Baltimore-born bomb-squad expert, James Clifford, click here.

When I spotted this series on the summer-movies listings, it was exhilarating for me to think again about "The Hurt Locker" -- and to think about it fresh. In tons of pre-Oscar ink, the film was usually praised for transcending the specifics of the Iraq War ­­-- or at least for making the demands of movie art paramount. But director Bigelow and screenwriter Boal use materials wholly rooted in Iraq to spin a tale of men testing each other and themselves. They face hazards that are physical (heat, wind and sand), emotional (isolation, claustrophobia) and generally alienating (you can't tell potential enemies from friends without at least knowing the language -- and few on our side know the language).

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Not even the most ambitious and overtly political of previous Iraq War films, such as Brian De Palma's "Redacted," had as much to say about Americans alienating Iraqis because the soldiers haven't developed efficient ways of communicating with them. (Paul Greengrass' "Green Zone" had a lot to say about this issue months after Bigelow's movie enjoyed its brief theatrical run.) In "The Hurt Locker," good-humored Iraqis can easily get soured when Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) soldiers force them from a bombsite without being able to explain why they're doing it.

The tragicomedy of it all is that the EOD soldiers themselves recognize the plight they share with these Iraqis. After one showdown at gunpoint with an Iraqi cabbie who careers onto a bomb scene, oblivious to roadblocks or barked threats, bomb-squad leader Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) comments that if the man weren't an insurgent to begin with, he is one now.

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Renner turns James into the opposite of an idiot savant. When it comes to defusing bombs, he's a savant, all right. But he's never an idiot. His supreme confidence imbues him with uncanny alertness. James is the character who embodies what the filmmakers set up as their thesis. For a master warrior like James, the bracing, all-encompassing immediacy of combat, along with its challenge to prowess, can turn war into a drug.

We'll be covering more of the Bigelow films as they come up in the schedule. Were you one of the lucky few who went to see "Hurt Locker' in a theater? Or, like most people, did you catch up to it on DVD? (I'm curious: How did it play on a video screen?) What other Bigelow films have you seen -- and are you eager to see them again?

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