by Jeffrey M. Anderson
In the great tradition of tough-guy filmmakers like Howard Hawks, Don Siegel and Samuel Fuller, Kathryn Bigelow is one of the finest living crafters of male-bonding genre films. It may seem an odd fit, as the beautiful, elegant, highly intelligent 57 year-old woman was educated at the San Francisco Art Institute with a background in painting; she's hardly the eye-patch-wearing, cigar-chomping type like her Hollywood predecessors. When I asked her about this duality in 2002, she responded with genuine puzzlement. Why would a woman want to make muscular action films? Frankly, why not?
Bigelow's latest, The Hurt Locker—easily one of the year's best films, based on journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal's interviews and experiences—revolves around the lives of three Army bomb techs (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty) in the last days of their Iraq tour, circa 2004. Yes, it's yet another right-here, right-now Iraq film, but it doesn't hurl any messages in our faces about the horrors or futility of war. It's not dreary, somber or self-serving. It's not about politics or politicians, wives or families, insurgents or Iraqis. Rather, we're presented with a sturdy combat film with lots of thrills and explosions and summertime-friendly action. It dares to suggest that, sure, war is hell, but it's not without its pleasures.
Can you please talk about this notion that war can be fun?
It has so much to do with the fact that Mark [Boal] was on an embed. Also, this is a combat film. This isn't about re-integration into the homefront. So you're there and he was there, and all of his observations, his terror, his experiences on a day-to-day basis, that was what we both wanted to preserve. Some of these guys are enjoying what they're doing. Some don't. You're given an opportunity to look at it through many different lenses. This was somewhat influenced by Chris Hedges' book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. He talks about how it's a volunteer military. When Mark went over on his embed, he fully expected that Vietnam-era trope of the disgruntled soldier. But that's a draft military. These are men who are there by choice. Some guys liked being there! He was shocked and surprised. As he tried to unpack it further... he talks about the allure—not for everybody—but there is an attractiveness to combat.
Which is why there are so many war films.
War is the ultimate canvas in a way. It defines, sadly, history in that there's always been war. Obviously, that's a comment in and of itself. Apart from that, I suppose it's a genetically encoded desire to reaffirm your humanness. There's not a better test, or crucible, by which to make that evaluation. All your survival neurons have been switched on in order to live through an experience like that. Chris Hedges makes the case that, once all that is switched on, it creates a potent transformation. There's a hunger to replicate it outside the war zone, and it can't be replicated.
One difference between this and other Iraq movies is that you feel like you're there.
That's the distinction I was trying to make. Those others are not combat movies, though I'm not familiar with everything that's been made on the subject so far. Not that Mark engaged in combat, but he certainly ducked shrapnel. He was over there. And because of that first-hand observation, it gave me an opportunity to put you in the Humvee. I wanted you to walk out of the theater and wipe the sand off your pants. There's a real visceral, raw, immediate immersion into a day in the life of a bomb tech. You're also looking at it from the soldier's perspective. You're not changing to, let's say, the perspective of an insurgent. They don't know if the guy on the balcony on the third floor looking down is hanging out his laundry, or is calling in your coordinates for a sniper hit.
I love that the film is in segments. It reminded me of Sam Fuller's The Big Red One.
That really had to do with Mark. These guys would go out 10, 12, 15 times a day. It's something like you're 48 hours on, 24 hours off and 48 on. So it's day-night-day-night, it has that nature. It's both repetitious and potentially catastrophic, simultaneously. You never know what you're going to encounter. It's so dangerous. When he was over there, there were maybe two or three other embeds. That was it. It's just too dangerous. Because he was reporting for Playboy, they let him in. He said he'd be standing next to the bureau chief of the New York Times, and the soldier would be like, "When do you want to go out?" He was like, "I don't have any of the girls with me!"
There's a brilliant, show-stopping sequence in which your characters are stuck on a ridge for what seems like hours, in a long-range face-off.
That was inspired by this rooftop fight in Fallujah. I certainly wasn't aware of these 50 caliber sniper rifles, whose range is 800 meters. You can shoot somebody a mile away between the eyes. These guys have to breathe a certain way to even have the potential for a degree of accuracy. They're such powerful weapons. I think it's an effective sequence because of the idea that that kind of distance is actually possible. It's a pretty extraordinary piece of equipment. I'm sorry it had to be invented.
Was filming in Jordan your first choice?
I would have gone to Baghdad if I had access, but it was hard enough to find a crew to go to Jordan. I don't think I could have found any followers in Baghdad. I actually scouted Morocco at first, but it paled in comparison to Jordan. The architecture's perfect. You could shoot 360 degrees. But the great bonus that I did not anticipate was the refugees. There were hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, many of whom are actors because there was a fairly thriving cultural community before the occupation. These refugees are all living in Amman. All of my background extras and some of the speaking Iraqis, like the professor or the suicide bomber, are all Iraqi.
It's as close to the war zone as you can get. At one point, [cinematographer] Barry Ackroyd and I were about five kilometers from the border and I said, "Let's just go across, so we can say we shot in Iraq," and he said: "Too many snipers." They couldn't guarantee our safety. Also, the film commission is very effective. It's a monarchy, and the royal family was very supportive of this production. I started this trainee program. There's a film school there, and I enlisted various students in all the departments. They loved it! It ended up being a very hospitable and logistically productive place to shoot. But rolling into a neighborhood, it's really densely populated. We're rolling Humvees in, we've got American soldiers carrying M4s, but people were fascinated and intrigued and supportive. I loved shooting there.
[The Hurt Locker opens today in New York and Los Angeles, and in select cities on July 10. For more information, visit the official website.]
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