It’s a man’s world

And in ‘Hurt Locker,’ director Kathryn Bigelow tells another muscular story by focusing on members of an elite Army bomb squad

By Lynda Gorov
Globe Correspondent / June 28, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - Director Kathryn Bigelow is about to leave, but there’s one more question. An obvious one, to be sure. By this point in the interview it seems, well, silly - condescending even - to ask it. Bigelow’s been so forthright, so outgoing and inquisitive in her own right, that she seems to have answered it already:

No, Kathryn Bigelow, 57, didn’t get where she is because she’s a woman or in spite of being a woman. She got here by sheer force of all 5 feet 11 inches of her, and that’s not in heels, which she wears to make for an even more impressive presence.

Right now, here is an ocean-front hotel room with a sad view of gravel rather than the beach. But Bigelow’s had her share of sand. Her latest movie, “The Hurt Locker,’’ is a tense visceral ride alongside a bomb squad stationed in Baghdad. Bigelow will attend a July 2 screening at the Harvard Film Archive. The movie opens in local theaters July 10.

Filmed in Jordan with four handheld cameras, sometimes just hours from the actual action, “Hurt Locker’’ is a 360-degree look at the Army’s elite but little known Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad. If it seems particularly personal, it is: The movie is based on writer Mark Boal’s own experience being embedded with a bomb unit for a magazine article.

“What you see in the movie, when Mark went out with these guys, it was probably 10 to 12 to 15 times a day, and they’re doing it all day long,’’ Bigelow said. “I thought it was really extraordinary, riveting and inherently dramatic. . . . These men have the most dangerous job in the world and it’s a volunteer military, so it’s a really interesting psychology to examine. The lure and attractiveness of combat, how does that factor in?’’

“Hurt Locker’’ focuses on one bomb squad and its new leader in particular, a daredevil who puts everyone in jeopardy with his cowboy behavior but still saves lives almost every day. While his squad mates are counting down the days remaining in Baghdad, he’s defusing bombs for the adrenaline rush he craves. There are quiet moments, rest notes, that allow the audience to catch its breath, if never for long.

“[Kathryn will] kill me for saying this, but if she brought anything to making the movie better as a woman, it was because as a woman she doesn’t have a dog in the fight in terms of masculinity,’’ Boal said.

“She’s brilliant and she’s smart, and it’s not to take away from that. But she was willing to say you don’t have to have a hero who is brave in this cookie-cutter way.’’

Bigelow, a trained painter who preferred the gesticular, physical presence of abstract expressionism, has been telling muscular stories for two decades, and intensity and action are nothing new to her. She was behind “Point Break,’’ with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, a cult hit on DVD, and, more recently, “K-19: The Widowmaker,’’ with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. She’s done episodes of the TV show “Homicide: Life on the Street.’’ She’s also had flops. “Strange Days,’’ with a script by ex-husband James Cameron (“Titanic’’) kicked off a dry spell that temporarily landed her in a moviemaking desert of another sort.

Now “Hurt Locker,’’ starring largely unknown actors with a startling cameo by Ralph Fiennes, is opening among some small summer films such as “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’’ and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.’’ Bigelow and Boal, who previously worked together on an unsuccessful TV show also based on his reporting, know they’ve got their work cut out for them. But they say they’re hoping a movie that puts the audience on point and places moviegoers in the frightening position of not knowing whether someone is calling in quadrants to a sniper or simply hanging laundry, will appeal to the crucial male teenage crowd as well as adults.

“Hurt Locker’’ is nerve-racking. And, without giving anything away, it’s fair to say that all bets are off within the movie’s opening minutes.

“I wanted to preserve that reportorial feel all the way through: Boots on the ground, fly on the wall, you are there whether you like it or not,’’ Bigelow said. “It’s very visceral and immediate, just like it would have been for Mark.’’

Boal said he found Bigelow “unusually collaborative for a director of her strength. . . . She has a very strong vision but she’s not one of these people who’s ego driven about her vision. And that’s pretty unusual in this town. . . . It was her expertise that I was really leaning on in that she has such a knowledge of cinema and cinema structure and I’m basically a reporter who knows a lot about the bomb squad.’’

Boal acquired his knowledge firsthand during a 2004 weeks-long embed, when he was one of a few Western reporters in Baghdad. The assignment was his first foray into a war zone. The result was an 8,000-word article for Playboy magazine, where he is a writer at large, and another collaboration with his friend Bigelow. (An earlier article he wrote became the basis for “In the Valley of Elah,’’ Paul Haggis’s follow-up to “Crash.’’) But first he had to survive the experience.

“The first day I went out with the troops - I remember this very clearly - I was in the Humvee, and you don’t know where you’re going and you don’t know what’s going on and you get out to the Humvee and it’s this feeling of complete disorientation,’’ Boal said. “You see how teeming the city is and it’s like five guys standing on a corner with this giant metropolis wrapped around you. I remember thinking this is so strange and so scary. I thought, people have no idea how insanely unpredictable the environment is here.’’

During even the most harrowing moments, Boal, with his non-regulation beard and long hair, was right there beside the soldiers, trying, as he put it, “not to do anything totally stupid.’’ As a producer on “Hurt Locker,’’ he was right there with Bigelow too, able to tell her on the Jordanian sets how it was in real-life rather than just in a script writer’s imagination.

Another bonus, according to Bigelow, was discovering Iraqi refugees with extensive acting experience in their homeland. She cast them in the movie. The more realism, the better, although of course dramatic license was taken by the filmmakers.

“It was one of those pinch me I must be dreaming, this can’t be happening, moments,’’ Bigelow said. “These actors were stranded from their home and haven’t been able to work in their medium. . . . So not only were we shooting in the Middle East, where the locations are perfect, where we’ve got the punishing elements of heat and sun and sand and wind we need, but you had these extraordinary actors.’’

During filming, Bigelow instituted a training program for students to work on “The Hurt Locker,’’ learn moviemaking skills, and get jobs on other crews that come through Jordan. Bigelow doesn’t seem to have war politics so much as people politics, although she can and does speak knowledgeably about the former. In conversation, she focuses on the heroism of the troops and says she has come to realize they are not there to fight but to save lives. She does say, however, that making “Hurt Locker’’ brought her to conclude that America’s ongoing involvement in the conflict in Iraq is futile.

“My feeling is, if we can be as realistic and authentic as possible, it would provide a kind of window onto a conflict of which we know very little,’’ Bigelow said. “There’s also something universal about the psychology of these men. . . . And our lives are better for certain individuals making these sacrifices and choices.’’

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