CHICAGO — Opening Friday, the gripping war film “The Hurt Locker” is the first narrative feature to make full, unnerving dramatic sense of the war in Iraq, and it does so without polemics or speeches or phony melodrama. It’s a period picture (set in Baghdad, 2004) as specifically grounded in its time and place as “The Best Years of Our Lives” was in 1946.
That film, a home front story, happens to be one of director Kathryn Bigelow’s favorites in a loosely defined genre. Bigelow’s drama goes home only briefly. Rather, it is a battlefield procedural, putting us in riveting proximity to a (fictional) U.S. Army staff sergeant and bomb technician William James, portrayed with perfect, rough-edged swagger by Jeremy Renner. He is both a hero and an addict, hooked, as Bigelow sees it, on “the most dangerous job in the world.”
James is a composite of several men, including Explosive Ordnance Disposal experts, chronicled by journalist and screenwriter Mark Boal when he was an embedded reporter in Baghdad during the worst of the war. The film’s title refers to the world of pain these EOD bomb techs re-enter, over and over, voluntarily.
This is Bigelow’s first feature since the commercial disappointment of “K-19 The Widowmaker” seven years ago. “The Hurt Locker” made its world premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival; since then, the accolades have been relentless and the early, limited-release box office figures are promising.
Bigelow seems assured of an Oscar nomination. Her work here isn’t as overtly stylized as her earlier, pulpier screen efforts. Or rather, it’s stylized differently, as a documentary-style fiction film, shot in Jordan, using four hand-held 16 mm cameras in blasting heat and adverse conditions.
The 57-year-old director has long gravitated to thrill seekers and obsessives as subject matter. Her resume includes the startling vampire/Western hybrid “Near Dark”; the cult hit “Point Break” and the bleakly futuristic “Strange Days.”
“It seems to have touched a nerve, no matter which side of the aisle you’re on,” Bigelow says of “The Hurt Locker.” She visited Chicago recently, along with her colleague, screenwriter and producer Boal.
She has never been a polemical filmmaker. “My job is to communicate; it’s not my position to judge or dictate policy. I find it annoying when a film takes a superior attitude and doesn’t provide the information in order for me to make my own decision. I don’t want to be told what to think.”
Boal’s experiences with the bomb techs in Baghdad ended up the focus of a long Playboy article. As Boal talked through a fictionalized screen version with Bigelow, he realized immediately his friend wanted the same thing he did.
“She didn’t want to sensationalize or lose the reality of life in Baghdad,” Boal says.
“We didn’t want an inauthentic, melodramatic narrative. And we didn’t want any of the main characters to come to any neat or uplifting conclusions about themselves or society as a result of what they were going through.”
Independently financed, Bigelow’s project took 44 days to shoot. While the cast includes such well-known actors as Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce in supporting roles, the meat of the movie belongs to relative unknowns: Renner and co-stars Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, who play the soldiers nearing the end of their year-long rotation, unsure whether James is savior or reckless egotist or both.
Iraq, Bigelow says, “is an ongoing conflict, and we had an overriding concern to be responsible to it. The film had to be realistic, even at the expense of some kind of plot twist that might’ve shaped it in a different way. The process of going out 10, 15 times a day, not knowing what you’re discovering when the coordinates are called in, what’s in that suspicious rubble pile. ... These men go from event to event to event, a little time off, and then back to event to event to event. A conventional formula wouldn’t have served this story. We wanted to preserve reality, yet it’s not a documentary.”
She pauses. Bigelow clearly has spent some time explaining what “The Hurt Locker” is not.
“Let’s put it this way,” she says. “We tried to balance entertainment with substance, and to make sure there’s integrity in that balance.”
Renner, who was filming the undead thriller “28 Weeks Later” in London when he got the script, says Bigelow’s stamina was formidable during the grueling shoot. (Bigelow is a diver as well as a serious hiker.) “I think any director should be able to direct in one sentence,” the actor says, by phone from Los Angeles, “just to keep the momentum going.” Bigelow’s self-professed “light hand” with actors suited Renner just fine. “She made us all feel like we knew what we were doing,” he says.
Bigelow grew up in South San Francisco, the only child of a Fuller paint factory manager and an English teacher turned librarian.
“My father was a closet cartoonist,” she says. “I think that’s why I was infected with the desire to be an artist. Lovely people, both of them. My father was the dreamer, my mother, a very stoic Norwegian Lutheran. ‘Art? You’ve got to be kidding me!’ She was panicked about me going to art school. My dad was more like, ‘Don’t worry, she’ll be fine.’”
Bigelow attended the San Francisco Art Institute. Unbeknownst to her, a teacher sent slides of her canvases to the Whitney in New York, and Bigelow was accepted into the Whitney’s newly formed study program.
From there she segued into Columbia University’s graduate studies in film, as well as a wider Lower Manhattan world of art and performance. Working outward from abstract expressionist canvases, she dove into other mediums, focusing eventually on video and film.
All through her career, Bigelow has overseen production budgets of various sizes, laboring under varying degrees of studio support and studio interference.
“There are great benefits to that world,” she says of the Hollywood machine. “The Hurt Locker,” one of the strongest American pictures of the year, is likely to make access to that world easier again. “It’s exciting to have all the tools and the toys and, I suppose, a higher profile.
“But with this film, we wanted to protect the authenticity. It needed to be a kind of hermetically sealed translation of Mark’s reporting. And I think it’s the right material at the right time. With the troop drawdown imminent, let’s hope, it’s a good time to re-examine this conflict at eye-level.”
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
Prediction: Kathryn Bigelow will be the overdue fourth.
Come Feb. 2, 2010, the name of the director of “The Hurt Locker,” which opens Friday, will be one of five best director nominees for the 2010 Academy Awards (honoring 2009 films). And her film will be one of 10 best picture nominees in the newly expanded top category.
So far, across the entire boys-club history of the Oscars, a measly three women have been Oscar-nominated in the director slot. They are:
Lina Wertmuller, “Seven Beauties,” 1976. The Italian director’s impudent black comedy became a worldwide success.
Jane Campion, “The Piano,” 1993. New Zealand-born Campion’s a nomination possibility for next year as well, for her lush period drama “Bright Star,” a popular success at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Sofia Coppola, “Lost in Translation,” 2003. Coppola is the sole American female director to have been nominated.