When a skilled but reckless sergeant takes over a bomb disposal team in war-torn Iraq, his weary crew must struggle even harder to survive the last 38 days of their tour.
The story introduces the two weary members of the bomb disposal team first. In the 1st ten minutes of the film, their team leader dies in a disposal mission that goes south. This establishes the status quo: the team is engaged in extremely dangerous work; every mission is a matter of life or death.
Enter their new sergeant: his insouciant disregard for safety and proper procedure on next outing is the inciting incident. At the end of Act 1 (page 31 of the script) the two weary men lay down the marker of the ticking clock:
Eldridge: It’s just thirty-nine days.
Sanborn: Thirty-eight. Assuming we survive today.
Eldridge: Tick-tock. Tick tock.
But the sergeant, Will James, is not counting down the days. War is not hell for him. It’s the source of one drug-free high after another. In contrast to them, he relishes the risks. He’s a war-junkie, addicted to the adrenaline rush, the dopamine spike, the serotonin release and euphoria that comes from surviving another life-or-death situation.
The script and film start off with a quote: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug”. (Chris Hedges, “War is a Force that gives us Meaning”)
The screenwriter, Mark Boal, named the war-junkie Will James — an homage to the American philosopher and psychologist William James. His essays on the psychology of war, such as “The Moral Equivalent of War” and “The Energies of Man”, deeply inform the story.
So the plot is driven by a main character who makes an already perilous situation even more so. His behavior raises the dramatic question of the film: Will they all be able to survive 38 days of his reckless leadership?