Kathryn Bigelow is an exceptional director, period. Such is the idea advocated by Manhola Dargis in a June 18 interview piece in the New York Times, responding to the conventional wisdom that Bigelow — the muscular director of such action fare as Near Dark, Point Break, and Strange Days — is a solid female director. And Dargis is right: Gender isn't what separates Bigelow's action flicks from similar movies directed by men. No, Bigelow's movies surpass her peers through the intelligence displayed in both her filmmaking and subject matter.
That intelligence marks her latest movie, The Hurt Locker, not only one of her best outings, but also the only Hollywood movie about the Iraq war that doesn't stoop to simplistic emotional blackmail. It follows a three-man Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, in which Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghy) secure a perimeter and stand watch as Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, in a towering performance) dons a heavy bomb suit and walks toward and defuses IEDs, car bombs, suicide bombers, and many, many other explosive devices. It's an unconventional war movie in that its action scenes are quiet, meticulously measured out, and intimately sphincter tightening. War for these men is not firefights and desert skirmishes; it's trying to prevent a bomb from doing the only thing it was designed to do.
We spoke to Bigelow when Locker closed the Maryland Film Festival back in May. Tall, lean, and distractingly attractive, the 57-year-old Bigelow firmly credits screenwriter Mark Boal for Locker's verisimilitude and accuracy. Boal spent seven weeks with a bomb unit in Iraq as an embedded reporter for Playboy, and his experiences there informed and shaped the story and characters portrayed in Locker.
When did you get in involved with this project?
From the beginning. I knew that when Mark came back from Iraq and had these extraordinary stories and information that I wanted to keep it as reportorial as possible — to keep it raw and immediate and visceral, to give the audience the opportunity to be inside this company, to be a real boots-on-the-ground look at combat.
It's a rather unconventional look at this war, not presenting the usual images we've seen in other movies or even on TV news. Is that what attracted you to it?
I think the heroism of these men, the fact that these men have arguably the most dangerous job in the world, and it's a voluntary military, so they're actually choosing to walk toward what 99.9 percent of the human being on the planet would run from, so that was a particular psychology that I thought was really fascinating and rich material for a film. And an opportunity to shed light on what I would call unsung heroes.
Where did you shoot?
In Jordan. In Amman. It was wonderful. It was hot, in the summer. Shot on 16mm for the dexterity. Probably the biggest challenge was putting Jeremy in the bomb suit, which is probably about 80 pounds — in the summer, in Amman. The average day was 110, 115 degrees. Inside the suit was probably an extra 10 degrees hotter. And just being very careful with his physiognomy during that time.
One of the great bonuses was the opportunity to work with Iraqi extras and bit players. In Amman at the time, there were 2 million refugees from the war, some of which were actors in Baghdad. And then they were in Amman. That was one of the great benefits and surprises — all of the extras and bit players, like the suicide bomber, were Iraqi nationals. And we didn't know that going in. When we scouted `locations` we scouted Morocco and Jordan. I would have shot in Iraq if we could have got access.
Did you work with Jeremy Renner to develop the character of James? It's very internalized, very subtle, and very subdued — very unshowy, not the sort of character you're accustomed to seeing as the hero in a war film.
The character was, I would say, fairly well defined on paper. I mean, I really feel that the script was extraordinarily strong. And that character was — for his bravado, his swagger, his profound skill set and, at the same time, the innate danger that comes with that bravado, so that was the wonderful juncture at which that character lived. It was something that was very intriguing for Jeremy naturally, because there's a quality he has that's a bit like James. There's a kind of recklessness that comes with being tremendously confident and competent at what he does. He's a really, really talented actor. So I think there was a nice chemistry there, and then the script really allowed him an opportunity to, I'd say, up his game.
Also unconventional are the movie's action set pieces, which are quiet, often void of gunfire, and yet incredibly, incredibly tense. Uncomfortably tense, even. And that's just the blunt fact of these guys' jobs.
That really, again, I defer to the script. The methodology and the process of it was innate and inherent in the subject. The subject itself is already a gripping narrative. And then being able to refract that story and experience of what goes about when disarming a bomb — as a filmmaker, you kind of just want to step aside and let the process speak for itself. It takes balls — courage and heroism and stamina and being able to make split-second decisions under more stress than I think most human beings can even imagine.
Bret McCabe is the Arts Editor of Current sister publication Baltimore City Paper.