Opening this Friday at the Egyptian, The Hurt Locker has earned director Kathryn Bigelow the best reviews of her career. She's been making the festival rounds with her film, including SIFF last month, when we sat down to talk.
Unlike just about every prior Iraq War movie or documentary, The Hurt Locker eschews politics and context. This was her intention as she collaborated with her screenwriter, a former Village Voice reporter who was embedded with a bomb-disposal squad in Iraq. "It all began with Mark Boal and his embed in 2004," says Bigelow. "It began as a piece of reporting. We thought a lot about it. You know that old saw--there's no politics in the trenches. You're not talking about various ideologies. You're just trying to survive and make it to tomorrow."Bigelow continues that the goal, as she and Boal conceived the project, was "to keep it observational, to keep it reportorial, and give the audience....a look at this particular conflict through the eyes of a bomb tech. The reason the bomb tech was interesting was because bombs are the signature weapon of this particular insurgency. They are the war, in many respects."
Somewhat confusingly, the guys who disarm IEDs (that is, improvised explosive devices) planted by Iraqi insurgents, are members of the Army OED squads; that stands for Explosive Ordnance Disposal. The Hurt Locker centers on two members of the same team: the gung-ho yet unflappable Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) and the disapproving, more orthodox-minded Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). Since it's a given that TV news cameras aren't going to be allowed close to OED teams while performing their ultra-dangerous work, I ask Bigelow if she herself, or filmgoers, had much prior idea of their duties.
"The general public is fairly unaware of this," she answers. "You think you have a rudimentary understanding, but you have none.
Thus, Boal was her reporter from the scene, the guy who took notes and observed details while bombs were actually being defused. Says Bigelow, "He came back [from Iraq], and my feeling when he was telling me these stories was that it was a really rich subject for a film. He was also writing the article. Then we began to shape it as a work of fiction and entertainment. It's not supposed to be a documentary. But at the same time, it's got to be honest, and authentic, and realistic.
"These men arguably have the most dangerous jobs in the world, yet it's a volunteer military. That's an interesting paradox, in and of itself. They've chosen to do this--to walk forward to what 99.9 percent of the world's population would run from. The idea was looking at a day in the life of a bomb tech. What's a day at the office like?"
Here she paraphrases a line from another journalist, Chris Hedges: War's dirty little secret is that some men love it."
Sgt. James in particular loves his wartime vocation. No matter how dangerous, it defines him. Says Bigelow, "It's a job. They're proud to be there. It's very different from the Vietnam era-trope of the resentful troops. This is the opposite, the antithesis of that. It's all about the work." And back home, The Hurt Locker makes clear, he's somewhat lost without the adrenalin fix--quite literally unemployed.
Even during the downtime in Iraq, between missions, says Bigelow, her protagonists can never truly be relaxed. "It's a 24-7 threatening environment. You could be in the Green Zone, asleep in your bunk, and a mortar round comes in through the ceiling. It's total immersion. You're looking at a really unique psychological profile, that can somehow accommodate or sustain that degree of fear."
For her, Sgt. James gets from war "a sense of purpose and meaning that nothing else can compete with. And that's really where the attraction lies. It's that awful inning between boredom and terror, boredom and terror. How do you sustain that? You basically turn terror into boredom."
Put differently, defusing bombs becomes like an assembly-line job, blue-collar tedium that can kill you in an instant. And though The Hurt Locker forgoes any economic context to Sgt. James decision to enlist in the Army, what career options he might have back home (where a wife is waiting), we know that real assembly lines are closing. Working as an OED tech is by contrast a dangerous safe job.
When it comes to the job of moviemaking, Bigelow's production was independently financed, so she opted to shoot "as close to the war zone as was physically possible, going to Amman, Jordan," she explains. "One of the great bonuses to our shooting there was that all of our extras were refugees from the war. So they're all Iraqis. Many of whom were pre-war actors. My understanding is that during the previous regime in Baghdad there was a fairly thriving theater community. We were the beneficiaries, sadly.
"That was one of the great surprises of shooting in the Middle East. Giving the cast and crew total immersion, 24-7...it's a kind of collision of cultures, not unlike the soldiers in Baghdad. So I think that contributed to the degree of realism. At the end of the day, you go back to the hotel and you're still surrounded by an Arabic community. It isn't like you go home from the set in New Mexico."