Monday, August 5, 2013



In 2009 Kathryn Bigelow's war film finally ended the hold male directors had on best picture winning films (Bigelow also won a best director award, another first).  It was also nice to see a low budget independent film winning the award instead of the mega budgeted sci-fi hit AVATAR, which was, ironically enough, directed by James Cameron, Bigelow's ex husband, and who also pushed her into directing THE HURT LOCKER in the first place.
The idea for the film came from reports by journalist Mark Boal, who was embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq during the 2004 invasion. Boal had worked with Bigelow before, and emailed her about his experiences in Iraq often.  A year later she and Boal worked on a script; up until then, Bigelow was known for directing glossy action films like 1991's POINT BREAK, but she wisely went for a more realistic feel for this film.  For the three leads she cast actors that were mostly unknown (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Garaghty) who all trained with the military before shooting began.  The film was shot in the country of Jordan, just a few miles from the Iraq border, and actual Iraqi refugees were cast to play the various Iraqi characters  in the film.  Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd used multiple hand held cameras often shooting at the same time to catch all the action, and a whopping two hundred hours of film was shot before editing.  Despite the sweltering heat, the film was finished quickly on a budget of around $15,000,000; it's gross in the US would only be slightly higher than that, and in fact, if you adjust for inflation, its the lowest grossing best picture winner ever.  (This may have been due to the film's September release date, long before Oscar nominations could have helped at the box office.)

Set in 2004, THE HURT LOCKER is about three American soldier bomb squad members in Iraq: William James (Renner) the new leader, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldrige (Garaghty).  William is brought in to replace the team's original leader (Guy Pierce) who is killed by an explosive in the film's opening scene.  William, a hardened veteran who had perviously served in Afghanistan, has a tendency to take chances, which upsets both of the other men; Sanborn even openly considers killing him with an explosive and making it look like an accident.  Eventually, the men bond and survive several dangerous experiences that harden all of them.  At the end of their tour,  Owen is wounded, and Sanborn admits he can't take the war anymore.  But when William returns home to his wife and son,  he misses the excitement of duty.  At the film's end he returns to Iraq.

Anthony Mackie and Jeremy Renner

Upon the film's release, some actual Iraq war veterans criticized the film's realism, finding various flaws in tactics and character actions.   (Considering that 1978's best picture winner THE DEER HUNTER had many openly surreal scenes involving the Viet Nam war, that probably wasn't a big problem for the Academy).  Having never been near a battlefield in my life, I can't really comment on that, but the fact of the matter is that the film feels real, and that it brings home the Iraq war in ways that news broadcasts and reports can't totally capture.  One of the film's real strengths lies in the almost constant tension that arrises in the many combat scenes; the sense that a gunshot or explosion could come from almost anywhere, and that innocent looking person walking towards you could be trying to kill you.  The jerky camera work and intense performances capture all the difficulty of modern urban warfare.

Although we occasionally hear the soldiers complaining about their situation (Owen Eldrige says at one point "Pretty much the bottom line is, if you're in Iraq, you're dead."), it's obvious that Bigelow and Boal didn't want to make a political film; so there is no conversation of the rightness or wrongness of the Iraq invasion, instead the film just plunges us into the middle of the conflict and shows us the day to day dangers that the American soldiers on the ground were facing.  I think this is the right decision; since the war was still raging while the film was being made, any kind of politicking could have been  outdated by the time of the film's release, so it's better to just show the chaos of the war to the audience and leave the speeches to others.

The Stunning opening bomb blast

Along with showing the violence in Iraq,  the film also looks at the mentality of the natural born soldier.  The film opens with a quote from war correspondent Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug."  And the audience understands that addiction through the film's gripping action scenes, which are exciting to us even as we fear for the lives of the characters (the slow motion explosion that opens the film is both horrifying and strangely beautiful). We also understand that addiction through the character of William James, a man who willingly puts himself into dangerous situations, defusing bombs that could  explode any second and pursuing possible enemies into unsafe territory, because he clearly loves the rush of adrenaline.  And he doesn't care how he gets that rush, openly threatening the lives of Owen and Sanborn with his reckless ways.  Even when he engages in some good natured wrestling with Sanborn, it inevitably ends with him going too far and Sanborn pulling a knife on him.  We can almost understand why Sanborn openly considers killing him at one point; such men are dangerous.  Like many addicts, William himself can't seem to understand his own addiction; in one of the film's more powerful moments, Owen rages at William over the fact that his recklessness has resulted in Owen being badly injured.  William's response to Owen's anger is just blank silence, because he knows there is no answer.  And when William briefly returns home to his wife and child, he realizes that he should be satisfied just being around them, but it isn't enough for him;  he has to return to Iraq.  In many ways he is the embodiment of the "real Americans" who "love the sting of battle" that General George S Patton so memorably talked about in the 1970 best picture winner PATTON.

Not everything in the film works: although some scenes with William befriending a local Iraqi kid that he dubs "Beckham" (Christopher Sayegh) are nicely done and show William's more tender side, they lead to an odd series of events.  First, while inspecting a suspicious building, William finds a body that he thinks is Beckham's, which angers him so much that he goes alone and out of uniform in the Iraqi city to try find who's responsible.  In the film's strangest scene, he winds up in a room with an English speaking Iraqi professor(Nabil Koni)  who says he's glad to see him, and assumes he's from the CIA.  But before the two men can talk, the professor's wife comes home and verbally berates William until he leaves and heads back to the base.  The scene seems to be trying to reach some meaning that it doesn't seem to get; even more unusual, William later discovers that the body he saw was not Beckham's, which renders his whole trip into the city pointless.  While I don't think the film needed this whole sequence, it does give the audience a chance to see the city outside of just being a combat zone, with normal Iraqi people going about their business, so on that level they're interesting if not necessary to the film's plot.


While 2009 gave us a very different (and wildly entertaining) war film with Quentin Tarantino's WWII epic INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, I think that Bigelow's visceral war film was the clear best picture winner of that year.