COVER STORY

Shoot Shoot, Bang Bang

The visceral cinema of Kathryn Bigelow ’79SOA has heady theoretical roots.

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2009-10
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“The movie is looking at the humanity of the conflict, and the dehumanizing, soul-numbing rigors of war,” Bigelow says. “There are soldiers who are either just numb, or who are so switched-on that they’re capable of anything.”

“You’re inviting the audience to walk in those soldiers’ shoes, to look at the conflict through those soldiers’ eyes.”

Switched-on. It suggests a high-tech adrenaline rush: a click, a spark, wattage to the blood. You then recall that The Hurt Locker begins with a quote from the New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges: The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.

“What switches you on?” you say. “As a filmmaker, what’s the drug?”

Bigelow gives a sporting laugh. “That’s tough,” she says, but she thinks about it for a moment. Then, with care: “I suppose it would be the opportunity to provide a text that is provocative.”

That opportunity arose in 2004, when the journalist Mark Boal was embedded for two weeks with an EOD unit in Iraq. Upon his return, Boal, who had worked previously Bigelow with  cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and script superviser Aslaug Konradsdottir in the Madaba Refugee Camp near Amman, Jordan. with Bigelow, related his Iraq experiences to her, and “we both thought it would make a great entry point for a film,” Bigelow says. Boal wrote the script, and when Bigelow read it, “I knew it was tremendous. No one had realized that the epicenter of the war was squarely on the shoulders of the EOD and that they were the war, basically. It was very timely, and I wanted it to be as expedient as possible.” The movie became a financial reality, she says, when Nicolas Chartier of Voltage Pictures offered to raise the money. “I think this was a brave and creative choice on his part given that I didn’t want to cast any major movie stars in the leads in order to preserve the naturalistic tone of the material, and to heighten the suspense.” Bigelow also wanted to shoot in the Middle East, “as close to the war zone as possible.”

To that end, she scouted Morocco. “Bomb disarmament protocol requires a 100- to 300-meter containment, so the sets were naturally quite large,” she says. “Morocco could not provide that breadth of set, architecturally speaking — it looked like North Africa, not the Middle East. Baghdad, where the story was set, was a war zone and off limits as a film location, so we scouted Jordan, where the architecture was virtually a perfect match. The Jordanians were very receptive.”

Bigelow now had a theater of operations — the capital city of Amman — that could pass convincingly for the war-rocked nation next door. As a bonus, the Jordanian military hardware — the Humvees, tanks, and armored personnel carriers — was American-made, and Jordan was also home to a community of Iraqi actors who had been displaced by the war. These resources, and the raw depiction of urban warfare, inject The Hurt Locker with the authenticity and immediacy of The Battle of Algiers.

It’s a sharp turn for Bigelow, most of whose work, like the brilliant vampire love story Near Dark (1987), and the visionary cyberpunk thriller Strange Days (1995), has been fiercely fictional.

“I’m almost more excited by reality in some ways,” Bigelow says. “Dealing with a conflict that’s real and ongoing provides the opportunity for the material to be topical and relevant. If you can cause people to think about that conflict as they walk out of the theater, then I think you’re really maximizing the potential of the medium.”

Bigelow’s mastery of that medium might be finally getting front-page attention (expect heavy Oscar action for The Hurt Locker this winter), but cinema hounds have been on the trail since her first feature, the art-house biker flick The Loveless, came out in 1982, starring leather-clad Willem Dafoe as the leader of a motorcycle gang that sojourns in a roadside town in the 1950s South. With its rebellious young bloods, simmering sexuality, and sherbet palette — the pinks and peaches of the women’s dresses, the lemon yellows and pistachio greens of the cars — it evokes Douglas Sirk, and inaugurates a succession of bold, genre-bending movies. These include Blue Steel (1989), about a female rookie cop who falls for a psychopath with a deadly fetish for her gun (“Death,” says the killer, “is the greatest kick of all”), and Point Break (1991), in which an FBI agent infiltrates a gang of bank-robbing surfers whose leader, a high priest of thrills, counsels, “If you want the ultimate, you gotta be willing to pay the ultimate price.”

Drawing inspiration from directors like Hitchcock, Peckinpah, and Fassbinder, Bigelow makes smart, violent, suspenseful, exquisitely photographed movies, shot through with grim wit and some of the most electrifying action sequences in the business: car and foot chases, shootouts, 100-foot walls of fire.

“There’s a maverick streak in her that enables her to handle these violent genres, but also to give them a very personal touch and deal with them in a very sensitive way,” says film critic and Columbia professor Andrew Sarris ’51CC. “I think The Hurt Locker is one of the best films of the year, and the best I’ve seen about the morass in Iraq.” Sarris also singles out Blue Steel as a favorite. “Her style is — I’ll use the word that Time Out used — seductive."

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