WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘The Hurt Locker’
Scripted by war reporter Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker follows the story of a three-man US bomb disposal team during the Iraq War. It was shot on location in Syria, near the Iraqi border. Four handheld cameras were used to give a powerfully plausible newsreel effect, out of 200 hours of footage that was edited down to just 131 minutes.
The movie was praised for portraying a viscerally intense, real war experience, although detractors criticized its lack of a moral stance. Bigelow offers little or no comment on the purpose of the war; instead she focuses narrowly and sympathetically on the dilemmas and mental states of the three main characters. In doing so she in fact creates an anti-war movie more powerful than others.
A Deadly Addiction
The Hurt Locker opens with a quotation by US journalist Chris Hedges from his book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” The Hurt Locker shows how this addiction affects the human psyche. The narrative follows the three men through their year’s tour of duty, as they deal with unexploded bombs, snipers, and civilians used as bomb carriers. Their commander is battle-hardened maverick Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner).
His team, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), become so concerned by James’s recklessness when he acts without waiting for the bomb disposal robot and without wearing his protective suit, that they discuss killing him before he gets all three of them blown up. Yet, interestingly, they also seem to admire his craziness, and understand what is driving it.
The adrenaline of his death wish makes him feel alive. After a failed attempt to remove a bomb vest from an Iraqi civilian, Sanborn begins to unravel psychologically, admitting that he cannot cope with the stress. Once home in the US, James, on the other hand, does not cope with real life. He feels that his purpose is to be in the conflict zone, where the perpetual danger made his life meaningful.
The movie drew criticism for focusing on a bomb disposal unit: soldiers without the troubling duty of killing anyone on screen. Most, however, praised Bigelow’s feat in putting the viewer inside the “hurt locker”—a psychological prison of pain that comes from constantly being near explosions.
“As you get older, some of the things you love might not seem so special anymore.”
Sergeant William James, The Hurt Locker
The film was shot in Jordan, within miles of the Iraqi border, to achieve Bigelow’s goal of authenticity. Iraqi refugees were used for extras and the cast worked in the intense heat of the Middle East. The filmmakers had scouted for locations in Morocco, but director Kathryn Bigelow felt its cities did not resemble Baghdad. In addition, she wanted to get as close to the war zone as possible. Some of the locations were less than three miles from the Iraq border. She had wanted to film in Iraq, but the production security team could not guarantee their safety from snipers.
Principal photography began in July 2007 in Jordan and Kuwait. Temperatures averaged 120 °F (49 °C) over the 44 days of shooting.Often four or more camera crews filmed simultaneously, which resulted in nearly 200 hours of footage. The producer Greg Shapiro spoke about security concerns of filming in Jordan, “It was interesting telling people we were going to make the movie in Jordan because the first question everybody asked was about the security situation here.”
Her choice to film in the Kingdom met some resistance. In discussion, Bigelow found that her cast and crew shared stereotypes of the region from American culture. “Sadly people in America and Los Angeles have these perceptions,” she said. “But once you get off the plane you realise it’s like Manhattan without the trees,” she continued. As Iraq dominated discourse in America and across the world, Bigelow believed that filmmakers would continue to explore the conflict, making Jordan the natural place to film.
KATHRYN BIGELOW: Director
With The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director. Born in California in 1951, she began making movies even before graduating from Columbia University, with a short called The Set-Up (1987). Soon she was making action movies with Blue Steel (1989), Point Break (1991), and science fiction Strange Days (1995).
Her next movie, K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), was a submarine thriller. Oscar success came with The Hurt Locker, based on reportage of the Iraq War. Her movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) was acclaimed but also attacked for what critics saw as an apparent endorsement of torture.