World of Hurt
The makers of The Hurt Locker show us the ground war as no one else has.
You don’t need a particular political perspective—only eyes and ears—to see that The Hurt Locker represents the most technically accomplished filmmaking of 2009 so far.
The fact is, no one directs action sequences like Kathryn Bigelow, the auteur behind Near Dark (1987) and Point Break (1991). Not only is there never a question of where we’re located relative to the characters—even in sequences as elaborate as the centerpiece of Point Break, a chase through the backyards of Los Angeles—but there’s a real attempt to situate us in the action from a tactile, even philosophical perspective. “It all comes from character for me,” Bigelow told us last fall in Toronto, a day after The Hurt Locker had its first press screening.
What’s absent from the new film—and what throws many viewers for a loop—is a clear-cut statement condemning the Iraq War. Because the movie follows the experience of a trio of bomb-defusing technicians, most of the scenes take place after the majority of Iraqis have been cleared from the area. “I thought it was not the right opportunity to intellectualize,” Bigelow says. “I think this was a you-are-there, boots-on-the-ground experiential look at an underreported conflict, as opposed to maybe a bird’s-eye view with an intellectual overlay. I certainly think the futility of war and the helplessness and heroism of it permeates every frame.”
Subtext is something of a specialty for Bigelow: Her dystopian Strange Days (1995) looks back to the 1991 L.A. riots and forward to the age of instant gratification; Blue Steel (1989) reworks a Dirty Harry –style story for an era of frustrated feminism and Wall Street greed. Bigelow points out that K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), which reverses Cold War archetypes by telling a story of heroism on a Soviet submarine, carries a political charge.
Or as screenwriter Mark Boal, a journalist who embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq, has suggested elsewhere of The Hurt Locker’s politics: When you’re standing over a bomb, the cause of the war is irrelevant. “If you start from the premise that you’re going to make a really naturalistic movie, you don’t want to put stuff in people’s mouths,” he told us in Toronto. “I just don’t think that’s the essence of their experience.”
Star Jeremy Renner, who plays the most stoic and talented of the bomb squad, says the bulk of the research he did with soldiers was about getting inside their heads. “I’m not so curious about how to defuse the [bomb] so much as I was, ‘What are you thinking about right now?’” he says. “I don’t think people really ask questions like that.” Renner says it’s deliberate that his character, William James, shares a name with the father of modern psychology. Figuring out what motivates him is the central question of the film.
In showing us the ground war in a way that no Iraq film has dared to do, The Hurt Locker is, of course, also an action movie, as stunningly constructed sequences involving a car bomb, a nest of snipers and a body bomb—a human corpse that’s been filled with explosives—attest. But it’s the kind of action movie that could only be made independently. Bigelow can’t picture making a film like this—“if there ever was a film like this”—for a studio. “I can’t imagine in that context we would have been able to shoot in the Middle East, and my interest was to get as close to the war zone as possible,” she says. “All of our Arabic faces and speaking parts are Iraqi, many of whom are refugees from the war.”
Bigelow, who Renner says shot 200 hours of film, brought some volatility to the shoot simply through her technique. “Half the time we didn’t know where the cameras were, so that made it kind of exciting,” he says. “We called them ninja cameras. They were hiding out in trunks of cars and on camels. Sometimes Kathryn didn’t even know where they were. She’d say, ‘Where’s the fourth camera?’” Finding and disarming is all in a day’s work.
The Hurt Locker opens Friday.