Each week, we’ll upload a Save the Cat!® Beat Sheet Breakdown of a current Oscar hopeful, continuing until this year’s broadcast of the 2010 Academy Awards®.
“The Hurt Locker” breakdown was written by Save the Cat!® contributing editor Jennifer Chang:
Finding a copy of The Hurt Locker to rent at your local Blockbuster this weekend may have been nearly as hard to do as — dare I say it — diffusing a bomb. With an explosion of praise from every film critic under the sun and with more award nominations being added to its arsenal with each passing week, it’s no wonder that there is nary a video store around that hasn’t been raided of its Hurt Locker stock.
The independently produced and financed movie hailed in The New York Times as “the best American feature film yet made about the war in Iraq,” does an exceptional job of presenting the grim reality of the war without taking a stance on it. This ain’t no Avatar, folks.
The central conflict is not what you’d expect; true, the heroes of the film — the members of an elite U.S. bomb disposal squadron — face the threat of enemy fire at every turn. However, all this is peripheral to the title character’s personal battle with his addiction. You see, William James lives for the rush of disarming explosives. War is his drug of choice, and the story unfolds around his pursuit of the next fix.
So let’s examine the beats. Yes, The Hurt Locker hits all 15 of them as cleanly as if they were locked targets. Fair warning: spoiler alert!
Opening Image: We meet Sergeant J.T. Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge as they aid team leader Thompson on a mission to disarm a roadside bomb. Though surrounded by Iraqi civilians — any one of whom may be a potential remote bomb detonator — the men are calm, in high spirits and full of bravado.
Theme Stated: Despite their training, their sophisticated technology and their tactical expertise, there’s a snag in the mission. A moment of misjudgment and hesitation spells tragedy for Sergeant Thompson.
Set-Up: Enter Sergeant William James, the bomb tech sent to replace Sergeant Thompson. James and Sanborn meet for the first time and it’s clear that James is strangely unconcerned that the fate that befell his predecessor can easily befall him.
Catalyst: James’s modus operandi is revealed on his first mission. He’s reckless. He blatantly ignores both procedure and direct orders from Sanborn. And when an Iraqi in a taxi speeds up to him with questionable motives, James is cool and unflinching as he faces him down. The mission is a success, but James’s team members get a better sense of who they’re dealing with. It makes them uneasy.
Debate: Elridge sits down for a psychological assessment with the camp’s doctor and asks, “Be all you can be? What if ‘all I can be’ is dead on the side of an Iraqui road?” Meanwhile, in a tense discussion between James and Sanborn, Jame’s demons come to light. Unlike Eldridge, he has a cold disregard for personal safety – and the safety of others. The question is if he’ll continue to let himself lose touch with his own humanity in the days to come.
Break Into Two: With only 38 days left in their tour of duty, James’s team is deployed to evacuate civilians from the site of a potential car bomb. Even when the evacuation is complete, James remains fixated on discovering the bomb and disarming it. His success is praised by a Lieutenant, though he has endangered his team in the process.
B Story: A clear tension is emerging between Sanborn and James. Sanborn is primarily concerned with keeping his squad alive through their tour. James’ methods and goals, however, run counter to that end.
Fun and Games: On a mission in the desert, the squad stumbles into a firefight between Iraqi snipers and British contracted soldiers. The standoff is intense and drawn out, but ultimately concludes with the squad returning to Camp Victory… well, victorious. There’s celebratory drinking. There’s roughhousing. There’s soul-bearing; James tells the others that he has a wife and infant son waiting for him at home.
Midpoint: Now with only 16 days left, the squad is sent into a building that they must clear. They make a gruesome discovery: a “body bomb,” fashioned out of the corpse of a young boy James believes is one he befriended. His addiction gains strength; he calls off an order to blow the building up so that he can needlessly disarm the body bomb himself.
Bad Guys Close In: James’s most formidable “bad guys” are all within. He begins to lose himself, straying from the base and choosing blindly to go on a one-man mission to ferret out those responsible for the body bomb. It is fruitless.
All is Lost: In this dazed and scattered state, James leads his squad on an emergency mission to assess the site of a suicide bomb explosion. Speculating that the bomb may have been detonated remotely, he rashly takes his men into town to hunt down the imagined culprits. In the process, they come under fire and Eldridge is wounded.
Dark Night of the Soul: In the aftermath, James appears shell-shocked. Before the injured Eldridge is transported off the base, he calls James out on a basic truth: he risked the lives of his teammates so that he could get his “adrenaline fix.”
Break into Three: With only 2 days left before their duty is done, James and Sanborn are called out to a military checkpoint where a suicide bomber has experienced a change of heart. The two have no choice but to investigate the bomber up close. Hightower surprise? The bomb strapped to his body is on a timer, and it’s attached with steel locks.
Finale: James’ addiction takes hold, and even with the odds stacked against him, he attempts to disarm the bomb, waiting until the last possible seconds to flee from the blast. On the ride back to camp, Sanborn confesses that he is finished. His next mission will be to start a family. It is clear here-and in the subsequent scenes depicting James in his role as a family man-that he does not share Sanborn’s desires. In a heart-to-heart with his infant son, James admits that he loves only one thing.
Final Image: We are left with an image of James back in Iraq, back in his bomb suit… reunited with the one thing that gives his life meaning.
Filmed under the masterful direction of Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker is gritty, gripping, and remarkable in its authenticity. Powerhouse performances by actors Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty, plus whip-smart writing make this one to watch as award season is upon us. But for all its flash and bang, it’s good to note that The Hurt Locker takes a ground-breaking premise — and builds it around a solid story structure. The story is what compels us as an audience. After all, without it, wouldn’t we simply be left with 131 minutes of things going “boom”?