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The Hurt Locker Beat Sheet

By on January 18, 2010 in Beat Sheets

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:

mv5bnzewnzq1njczm15bml5banbnxkftztcwntk3mte1mg_v1_sx90_sy140_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”?


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  1. jin says:

    @naomi – i meant “on the nose” in the more colloquial sense, not the writerly technical one – i just meant ‘a movie about war during a time of real life war’. again, that’s why the other iraq war movies are anathema – they’re trying to talk about the military and war and peeps are just blaaaah about that kinda thing. too close. too obviously lacking in any perspective. clearly more propaganda (for and against) rather than a clear eyed artistic vision.

    yes, it would be ridiculous if characters stood around and actually talked about, “hey, isn’t the institution xxx really dumb?” but in all those movies that you mention, the examination is about life within a particular kind of group. what i mean is that it doesn’t just happen to be about life in a group, the examination of the movie is fundamentally about the group – and the ultimate commentary of the movie is a statement on the group.

    9to5 and office space are both great examinations of the foibles of modern work life. mash is a great examination of the folly and surreality of the war machine. the godfather is about the dues you have to pay being born into a mafia family.

    and i used the plural “action junkies” to mean that james is a representative of action junkies in life… in the movie, there does not seem to be another… even guy pierce’s character is markedly different and had the respect and trust of his men as a result – while james’ lunacy does not inspire such confidence.

    in fact, the only other character that does not think james is a nutball (or does but admires the nutballness) can be characterized actually as a great “mascot” (although as i’ve said on the forums, i think that’s a bad label that evokes images of guys dressed up as penguins on the sidelines of some sport – better term would be SIDEKICK) is david morse’s worshipful officer character.

    also, institionalized genre makes a STATEMENT about a group, it is not just an examination of the “day in the life”. it’s a commentary… that’s why it must result in one of the three endings – which one it is defines what the statement is.

    but in HL, you can’t really say that it’s ANY of the 3. he’s not burning his home life down – again, the institution of the movie is NOT about family. he’s not JOINING – he’s not acceding to the military. the military is just the vehicle through which he gets to play with bombs. it’s a merely a ticket. and the ticket itself does not particularly like him! he is not conforming to anything – either during the movie or at its conclusion. and certainly he is not committing any kind of suicide.

    so if you’re convinced it is I:

    1. what is the institution being discussed?
    2. which of the 3 endings would you say HL takes?
    3. what does that ending say about the institution in 1?

    i can’t get those 3 answers to line up so that i get I without inserting things into the movie that aren’t actually in the movie.

    anyhoo, that’s just my take. i’m not trying to make a definitive case or anything and there’s certainly room for interpretation… we’re just talkin’ shop about a cool movie… : )

  2. Anne says:

    Thanks all, for a great discussion!

    We have a new Beat Sheet uploaded today – Avatar is coming soon – as well as an upcoming contribution by our very own Naomi Beaty! You might recognize Naomi’s name, as she was instrumental in assisting Blake during the research and formation of Book Two, “Save the Cat! Goes To The Movies.” She is definitely the definitive Genre Cat!

  3. Like William James says,”I’m done here”. Here’s what I learned. The movie that I’m writing,I was sure belongs to the SUPER HERO genre is not. I’m writing a movie that better fits the Institutionalized genre and you helped this Cave Man make the decision to start all over. Oh I don’t have to lose any scenes or beats but it does affect every scene if I got the genre right. My movie is about slavery and a few who overcome. In the big “I”it will be easier to tolerate the absurdities because I can show how good people got around and manipulated the system. I’ll do a better job now. As far as HL goes,I think it could have been better written and therefore a much better movie. If it’s not “all it can be” we know why.

  4. SM says:

    Hey guys, Does anyone have a beaten up beat-sheet for American Beauty?
    Or other popular 00s[2000 to 2009] movies?

    Thanks.

  5. Mike Gibson says:

    I see this discussion has quieted down, but on the question of genre, I’d say it’s a blend. That’s not helpful, but it’s dominant strain is definitely Institutionalized. The one thing the addiction rite of passage has going for it is the theme stated in the Title card at the beginning of the movie: War is a drug.

  6. Mike Gibson says:

    Oh yeah, oddly, I think the film this story bares a strong resemblance to is Sniper with Tom Berenger and Billy Zane. Obviously HL is much better, darker, and subtler. But many elements seem parallel.

  7. zircon says:

    Perusing the comments, there seems to be a problem as far as a consensus of opinion on the genre of this movie is concerned. The problem, as I see it, is similiar to that of trying to fit a circular peg in an elliptical hole …it’ll fit, but there are those annoying unfilled spaces … dare I say ‘white spaces’… surrounding the peg.

    I have read my copy of Save The Cat multiple times and reference it often, but I do have a problem with trying to fit every film into a restrictive ten genres. Trying to construct a definitive list of genres …especially one with as few as ten items … is next to impossible. Genres, many of which have sub-genres, often merge and the line separating them becomes blurred. Robert McKee, in his book Story, lists twenty-five and even he states that this is not a ‘definitive or exhaustive’ list. If trying to pigeon-hole a film into a genre is your thing though, his list would certainly make it easier to categorize The Hurt Locker.

  8. showshooter777 says:

    It’s INSTITIONALIZED. I have read all the comments and agree that it treads near the borders of SUPERHERO but in my opinion, it is without a doubt INSTITIONALIZED. My simple reasons for this are two fold and simple:

    Right at the top of the film it is stated: WAR IS A DRUG. (and I think it adds that it is a powerful also)
    Then in the set up, it states the theme, and the draws up the playing field when James learns: the camp has gone from LIBERTY to VICTORY.

    This is not about being free anymore, but victory. And in this case Victory means war, war is the winner. As in the classic case of most addictions, most individuals never get out.

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