Kathryn Bigelow’s long been known as the most bad-ass chick in the action movie boys club, a superbly kinetic filmmaker whose work has ranged from the vampire horror-Western “Near Dark” to the brawny surfer heist cult favorite “Point Break” to the dystopic visions of “Strange Days.” Her new film, “The Hurt Locker,” treads into the most daring territory of all — the cinematic no man’s land of the current Iraq War, where a U.S. bomb squad struggles under the overwhelming pressure of putting their lives on the line day after day.
Written by journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal, an embedded reporter in Iraq whose 2004 Playboy story “Death and Dishonor” became the basis for the 2007 film “In the Valley of Elah,” “The Hurt Locker” is no didactic slog through the conflict’s well-discussed political mire. It’s instead pulse-poundingly experiential, dropping you into the unstable head-space of a trio of men — ably played by Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty — who in the face on constant peril have turned to breakdowns, violence and almost sociopathic bravado. It’s a tour de force, and one that has a rare opportunity to unite the cinephile and cineplex crowds in acclaim. I got a chance to talk with Bigelow and Boal at SXSW earlier this year, as the film finished up a festival tour that started in Toronto in 2008.
I was going to ask you what I’m sure is a variation on a question you’ve gotten in every interview, about the Iraq War and how loaded it’s become as a topic for a film. But I realized there really aren’t many films that are actually set in combat, that they all tend to be about–
Kathryn Bigelow: Reintegration into the home front — right. So I look at it as — there hasn’t really been one, and there’s sort of zero competition. We’re setting the bar.
Mark Boal: We made the movie because we thought it was going be a good story and, hopefully, an intense cinematic experience. We just hope people like it as much as we do, and then leave the market to those who specialize in counting beans.
In the best way possible, “The Hurt Locker” is very much an action movie. And sometimes there’s a sense that the Iraq War’s not supposed to be represented as exciting in that fashion, that doing so is somehow ethically problematic…
KB: Well, it’s really based on firsthand observation, the observation being Mark on an embed. So that’s the purchase. And under the aegis of true fiction, we tried to look at it as accurate, authentic and realistic. It’s not a documentary; it’s a character study of a volunteer soldier and of men who, arguably, have the most dangerous job in the world. What is the psychological chemistry of that individual that gets up in the morning and walks toward what a rational human being would be running from? You can politicize that or non-politicize it.
MB: There’s no politics in the trenches, is the old saw. And it’s kind of true. We just tried to make it realistic, naturalistic and exciting — exciting is probably the wrong word. But it’s naturally tense. It’s a bomb. It could go off. It could kill you. If we could show that, then we did our job. And leave the politics to the politicians.
KB: And not glamorize it. That was something very important to me, to not mediate it. This is an extraordinary facet of this particular conflict. There’s a natural dramatic narrative to bomb disarmament. It doesn’t need any other kind of framing. Personally, I think it’s extremely heroic. But it’s there for you to make your own opinion.
I thought Jeremy Renner’s character James was pretty remarkable — Mark, while you were embedded, did you come across people who were similarly addicted to that rush of danger?
MB: It’s a movie — I probably shouldn’t generalize about the psychology of soldiers because it’s a broad, complicated question that would take years to answer. But it’s definitely true that we’re dealing with an all-volunteer army, not a draft army, and we wanted to show what that meant in a cinematic way, and not show yet another Vietnam-era view of war.
Not to say there’s anything wrong with those movies. But that was a different war in a different time. I think Kathryn did a great job of taking that type of movie, a war movie, and reinventing it in a contemporary way to be very intense and edge-of-your-seat and, second of all, to reflect the new psychological reality of an all-volunteer army, which is what we have. It’s a job. They choose to do it. Good or bad, it’s just a different situation than people that are drafted.
Was that part of the appeal in choosing this particular aspect of the war?
KB: The appeal for me — and it’s like this in all the projects that I’ve done — starts from character first, and then moves outward.