It took four years following the end of the Vietnam War for any filmmaker—specifically Francis Ford Coppola—to be able to make sense of the sheer madness of the conflict. It almost drove Coppola insane. The Iraq war doesn't appear to be ending anytime soon—and without much distance, the crop of narrative films about it so far has been relatively unimpressive.

In spite of the lack of historical perspective, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker manages to be a completely engrossing war film. Unlike recent Iraq war movies such as Stop-Loss and Redacted, The Hurt Locker communicates the absolute insanity, chaos, tension, psychological impact, and sudden brutality of war without beating you over the head with the war-is-bad stick.

The Hurt Locker follows a three-man explosive ordnance disposal unit in Iraq as they trudge from bomb site to bomb site, defusing explosives, all while under constant threat of attack. There is no villain, the squad members aren't pithy tough guys, there is no overarching mission the squad must complete in three acts—their lone goal is survival.

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Bigelow hasn't lost her flair for staging brilliant action scenes since directing modern cinema's finest surf-heist movie, Point Break, nearly two decades ago. The Hurt Locker's numerous bomb- disarmament scenes are pants-shittingly tense, and a cat-and-mouse sniper battle sequence is riveting. Bigelow also draws impressive performances from a cast of relative unknowns, whose presence in the film—instead of big-name actors, whose fame subtly distances them from peril—greatly heightens the tension. The brief appearances by recognizable faces such as Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes do much to drive this point home.

Unlikely as it seems, the woman who made a career out of directing Keanu Reeves as a surfing FBI agent and Bill Paxton as a vampire has churned out what might be the most unnerving, nail-biting, and engagingly relevant war film in years. recommended