The Honorable Discharge of “The Hurt Locker”
(Note: I wrote this article for the Atlanta Free Press for their Oscar Bound feature a couple of months ago. You could find it here.)
“Ferociously suspenseful” and “a near-perfect film” are a couple of the apt descriptions that have been bestowed upon director Kathryn Bigelow’s eighth feature film, The Hurt Locker. It has been garnering praise from critics and audiences since its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2008. Now, this release from Summit Entertainment is pressed as a front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar in March.
The Hurt Locker is a bit of a departure for Bigelow. Best known for the surfer mystery thriller, Point Break, and the Russian submarine action film, K-19: The Widowmaker, she has been working on the fringe of Hollywood since her feature film debut, The Loveless in 1984. She strictly works on independently financed action-oriented films where she has optimal creative input. Today, she is the talk of the town with Oscar buzz surrounding her.
The components of making this groundbreaking film are as fascinating as what Bigelow has captured on super 16mm. Its genesis came from her chance meeting with writer and war photojournalist Mark Boal in the winter of 2004. Boal talked about his experiences embedded in a bomb disposal unit in Iraq and Bigelow decided she wanted to make a big-screen fictionalized account of it.
In the film, three soldiers, the maverick Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner), the withholding Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and the anxious Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), dismantle roadside bombs over the span of 38 days. Boal’s accuracy and Bigelow’s keen eye make the audience wonder about the motivations of the characters. The typical action hero does not make mistakes or rash decisions. These characters do. You might not understand the intentions of Renner’s James, but you could sympathize with him.
Bigelow is a hands-on director who goes outside the studio system by filming on locations instead of sound stages. The $11 million-budgeted movie was shot over 45 days in the summer of 2007. Both cast and crew endured 115-degree weather and sandstorms in Amman, Jordan. Jeremy Renner as James wore an actual bomb suit made of Kevlar and ceramic plates weighing close to a hundred pounds. Bigelow wants everything to be as authentic as possible.
As a director, Bigelow wanted to make the film feel like a documentary, using a dozen cameras hidden at the bomb sequence locations. It makes the film more organic because the actors did not know where they were placed. She wants the audience to be transported to Baghdad circa 2004, from the battlefield to the streets and inside humvees, watching out for potential insurgents as if they are present with the characters.
The final product is a testament of perfect pacing. The smallest detail is not overlooked. There is cinematic poetry in a recently fired bullet falling to the ground and the slow motion of a roadside bomb detonating. The tension is palpable.
Kathryn Bigelow may not be a household name, but with the critical success of The Hurt Locker, she is poised to compete for the Best Director Oscar this year. She received a Directors Guild of America nomination for her work, competing against Lee Daniels, Jason Reitman, Quentin Tarantino and her ex-husband James Cameron. Cameron, who has described the film as “the Platoon for the Iraq War,” recently won Best Director at the Golden Globes for his sci-fi action spectacle, Avatar. Accepting the award, he disclaimed, “I’m not well prepared because frankly I thought Kathryn was going to get this. She richly deserves it.”
Bigelow’s Hurt Locker is the first movie about the Iraq war conflict that does not beat the audience over the head with an obvious political message. It immerses you in a world that has never been explored. This could be the year when, for the first time in Academy history, the Oscar for Best Director goes to a woman.