Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. In November we’re celebrating Kathryn Bigelow, the first female winner of a Best Director Academy Award, and her fascinating journey from indie genre films to blockbuster political dramas. Read the rest of our coverage here.
When Kathryn Bigelow emerged from her half-decade in cinematic purgatory with The Hurt Locker, a surprise sensation with a cast of mostly unknowns and an uncommercial subject, she seemed to be the right person at the right moment to tell the right story. At the Oscars, she beat James Cameron’s Avatar, the blockbuster about a futuristic war fought between warring species on a distant planet. She also triumphed over Quentin Tarantino’s self-aware World War II pastiche Inglourious Basterds, an exploration of the war stories of the past. The Ghosts of Wars Past and Future were made to stand aside for The Hurt Locker, which synthesized a new kind of filmmaking for a modern kind of war – The Hurt Locker was a look at our new war, the war of now.
The Hurt Locker was perhaps the first American film explicitly about the Iraq War to truly have a story to tell, that wasn’t just a regurgitation of Vietnam or WWII cliches. It is essentially a character study about a man with a highly specific profession: Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), an adrenaline-junkie American soldier who leads a bomb defusal team in Iraq, has a difficult time fitting in with his colleagues after replacing their beloved former leader. James is a rare kind of protagonist for a war movie. He’s neither a John Wayne-style Übermensch who eats enemy flags for breakfast and craps out bullets, nor a wounded innocent in the mold of a Charlie Sheen in Platoon. He is a skilled but imperfect soldier, an unpleasant and impulsive man with a seeming death wish and a relaxed cowboy demeanor.
The kind of warfare seen in The Hurt Locker is unlike any previous American war movie. James and his team cycle through a series of vignettes where they have to locate improvised explosive devices set up around Baghdad and surrounding environs. There are bombs in cars, bombs activated by cellphones, and most grotesquely, bombs inside human bodies. Unlike the overwhelming visual and sonic assaults of movies like Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down, this is an often quiet film about a man with one task: defuse the bomb. It is this deceptively simple setup that allows Bigelow to rewrite the vocabulary of the war movie. Rather than either heroics or horror, there is instead suspense, and Bigelow intensifies this suspense through the use of grainy 16mm film and handheld camerawork combined with jarring zooms and shifts in focus.
The Hurt Locker was perhaps the first American film explicitly about the Iraq War to truly have a story to tell, that wasn’t just a regurgitation of Vietnam or WWII cliches.
Though the audience is, in a clear-eyed evaluation, in the hands of a master filmmaker, it doesn’t quite feel that way in the moment. In the moment, while watching James and his fellow soldiers shakily defuse IEDs and sweat their way through hot days in the Iraqi sun, there is an unmistakable feeling of chaos and confusion. After all, the Iraq War was not fought on certain terms, against a clear enemy, on a demarcated battlefield, but was instead a self-made quagmire where American troops became destabilizing forces in cities and villages where civilians could become insurgents, cell phones could become weapons, and moments of calm become suicide bombings. As recognizable actors like Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes are killed off after one scene, and Bigelow finds more ways to ratchet up the tension, the viewer wonders what on earth could be next, where the next danger could be, and a feeling that there is no end in sight blankets the whole film. When one character exclaims “Let’s get out of this fuckin’ desert!” near the end of the film, it’s difficult not to nod along in agreement.
It is in the midst of this unending war that Sergeant James finds himself strangely at ease. His cool-headedness unnerves his fellow soldiers Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who deal with their own issues while being stunned by James’s rashness. It is not, though, adrenaline that James truly seeks, but clarity. His mission gives him a purpose within a pointless war; George W. Bush may be incapable of finding WMDs, but James can find a bomb in a Baghdad back alley, and that’s the way he likes it. At the end of the film, when all three members of the bomb defusal squad have ended their rotation and gone back home, the audience breathes a sigh of relief at being removed from the severity of Bigelow’s war, but civilian life offers, paradoxically, both too many decisions and too few stakes for James. In the final moments, James returns to Iraq to the sounds of blaring metal music, looking contented in his bulky bomb defusal suit. Before the credits roll, a caption reveals that there are 365 days left on this new rotation. The endless war of “Mission Accomplished” has a new mission, same as the old mission, and we return to the vision of battle that Bigelow has given us, feeling as lost in the fog of war as James feels found in it.