'Hurt Locker' Star Jeremy Renner Aims to Pass Muster With Military Audience

Renner stars as a GI who disarms bombs.
Renner stars as a GI who disarms bombs. (By Kristina D'ambrosio)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 11, 2009

Jeremy Renner is anxious. The 38-year-old star of "The Hurt Locker" has delivered the breakout performance of his career as Will James, a cocky, complicated bomb technician working amid the chaos and carnage of the Iraq war. The film, which made its premiere last year at the Venice Film Festival, has received unanimous raves from critics (it opened in Washington yesterday) and might be poised to break the curse of so many Iraq movies that have died like dogs in the desert.

But at a screening Thursday sponsored by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), the USO, the GI Film Festival and Slate, Renner would have to face what may prove to be his toughest audience: the active military, veterans and family members who are "The Hurt Locker's" ultimate BS detectors. "I'm nervous," Renner admitted a few hours before the film screened at the Navy War Memorial auditorium. "I'm thinking: 'Please don't pick it apart. It's cinema.' I just hope they breathe with it and just go through the experience and let it be what it can be. It can be a wonderful tool to connect civilians and military."

It's especially important for the filmmakers of "The Hurt Locker" to pass muster with military audiences. Its screenwriter, Mark Boal, based his script on interviews he conducted while embedded as a magazine writer with U.S. troops in 2004. Although "The Hurt Locker," directed by Kathryn Bigelow, offers a nearly nonstop series of episodes that possess a sense of taut, only-in-Hollywood drama and suspense, Boal notes that most of the encounters have their roots in stories he heard secondhand from soldiers and contractors downrange.

In one scene, a specialist played by Brian Geraghty frantically tries to wipe blood off bullets that have been sticking in a gun's magazine. Boal says he took that from "a somewhat notorious battle in Fallujah, where guys ran out of bullets and had to go back and clean off the blood from bullets that belonged to their fallen comrades."

The filmmakers' devotion to realism extended to the production itself, which involved 44 days in Jordan. There, the cast and crew contended with heat, sand, wind and, for Renner, a 100-pound protective suit that his character wore to dismantle the roadside bombs that became the grim signature of the Iraq conflict. "You lose about 25, 30 IQ points after keeping it on for so long, you're so exhausted," Renner says of the suit. "And that's without squatting over something that's going to kill you."

Before the shoot, Renner had spent time at Fort Irwin in California, working with members of the Army's elite Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad, who are in charge of investigating, disarming and detonating improvised explosive devices. "Physically, they're all over the map," he says. "They're 4-11, they're 6-7, fat stomach [or] massive linebacker shape with muscles the size of my head. But all of them have that mental ferocity. But they have to. They're playing with life and death."

Although Renner couldn't bring himself to watch "The Hurt Locker" in its entirety at the Navy Memorial screening, he did sneak in for the last 40 minutes. What he found was an audience that quickly apprehended the film's wry sense of inside humor. A scene where a psychologist tries to convince a specialist that the war "doesn't have to be a bad time in your life" was met with guffaws. But by far the biggest laugh came when James lies about going to a brothel and an MP promises to let him go if James will tell him where it is. In between those scenes, viewers could be seen leaning forward in their seats; at one point, during a sniper sequence, an audience member whispered, "Oh, sweet" when an American soldier shot his moving human target.

When the lights came up, Renner took the stage in front of the screen to enthusiastic applause. When he started to answer the first question, about what research he did for the role, Renner paused for several moments, trying to gather his emotions. "It was really, really important for me to portray [men] who to me are heroes," he said, "and how tragic it is that no one knows who the hell they are. I hope I could capture a fraction of what is real."

"Sure did," came a voice from the audience, which burst into applause again.

Kimberly Dozier, the CBS correspondent who was critically injured by an IED in 2006, stood up. "There were a couple of scenes that were dead-on," she said, citing a sequence set in the aftermath of a car-bomb explosion at night. "I've seen those nighttime scenes where you've got the screaming, the crying, the flames, the huge crater. And just the way you portrayed the troops -- those are the guys I met."

She did have a few questions, however. "How the heck did they get alcohol [on to the base]?" she asked to general laughter. "No way!"

Both TAPS Chairman Bonnie Carroll and Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, a physician and director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, commended "The Hurt Locker" for helping convey to military families and civilians a glimpse of the reality the armed services are facing. "Never before in the history of the republic has so much been put on the shoulder of so few, on behalf of so many, for so long," Sutton said. The film "really gives a window into the heart and mind and spirit and the courage of our troops who are in harm's way and who do this kind of work."

Later, Steve Voland, a bomb technician and an executive at EOD Technology, a private munitions response company, shook Renner's hand. "I came in a skeptic," he told the actor. "But you got it." (At another point he added, "The only thing you couldn't tell was the smell.")

Renner was relieved as he joined the stragglers filing out of the auditorium. "I couldn't be more ecstatic," he said. "All the fear is squelched, and now I feel even more adamant about getting the movie out there."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company