"War is a drug."--Chris Hedges, journalist and war correspondent
And so aptly begins one of the most talked about movies of the season, The Hurt Locker, directed by filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow. This film has generally been accepted by the public as “the kickass war movie directed by a woman” but to any Ladybrain, such glib assessments are markedly deficient. In truth, the movie is not about war at all. It’s a complex and cavernous character study of men facing oblivion.
Set around 2004, Sgt. 1st Class William James (Jeremy Renner) assumes responsibility as bomb disposal specialist in Iraq with Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) comprising the rest of Bravo Company, which is currently stationed in Baghdad with 39 days left of deployment. It’s a slow and agonizing countdown of days as these three men of contrasting mentalities are all too aware that they must work together or die. Sandborn is as precise as the playbook he follows; believing his only chance of survival is to follow the rules. Eldridge is young, panicky, and ashamed of his own fear. But their new team leader James plunges headfirst into his bomb disposal duties with a cool and efficient intensity that alarms the rest of his unit. They don’t know that James is an artist, a genius, a connoisseur with eyes only for his craft. As the movie develops, it becomes apparent that, for the same reason the painter paints or the writer writes, James reaps an intangible fulfillment with each explosive he deactivates, sometimes at the expense and safety of his team. And so, the spellbinding heart of The Hurt Locker lies not in the explosiveness of war, but in the precise unraveling of these men as they exist in terrible danger; the exposure of human nature.
Now, that’s not to say that this film isn’t kickass (a technical term). The Hurt Locker is expertly executed, with exceptional combat sequences and explosions. Indeed, watching the pebbles fly during a super slow motion explosion makes this Ladybrain’s hair stand up on end, even on repeated viewings. Jeremy Renner is completely deserving of his Best Actor recognition as he expressly and seemingly effortlessly conveys an indefinable character. The steady and genuine pacing creates actual suspense that is a real treat compared to the hysterical exaggeration, false alarms, and trickery of recent cinema. The photography is stylistic and yet hyperrealistic, and coupled with the intimate portraits of the characters, involves the audience as if they, too, are in terrible danger as the fourth member of the U.S. Army’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit. Ultimately, The Hurt Locker is a profound and beautiful film, well beyond a simple exercise in craft by reaching new heights of cinema and human expression.
And it was directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow. Bigelow recently became the first woman to win Best Director in the Director’s Guild of America Awards earlier this year, and she could be the first woman to win Best Director at the Academy Awards in two days. There have only been three previous women nominated for Best Director in the history of the Academy: Lina Wertmuller for 1976's Seven Beauties, Jane Campion for 1993's The Piano, and Sofia Coppola for 2003's Lost In Translation. But just because a film is directed by a woman, does that mean it is inherently feminist? This Ladybrain thinks not. The Hurt Locker fails the Bechdel Test, as it is specifically about the human nature of three men. The only woman in the film (besides screaming bystanders) is James’s wife, who he resents for supposedly shackling him into a life of fatherhood and domesticity. Somehow this Ladybrain doesn’t think it was all his wife's fault.
But is it because there was a woman at the helm that this film, that it surpasses many others in the exploration of the human condition? Would a male filmmaker take the same material and inadvertently generate a more “kickass” rendition of The Hurt Locker with less of the complexity of humanity and more of the violence and war? While interesting to think about, these questions are generally unanswerable. Defining a filmmaking style by the filmmaker’s gender is a decades-old prejudice that is the reason why there are not so many prominent female directors out there today. It’s simply thus: Bigelow has made great strides for female artists out there, and certainly not in the “women can make war movies, too” sort of way. But rather, would The Hurt Locker have the severe impact it does without the direction of dedicated artist Kathryn Bigelow?
Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director at the 2010 Academy Awards!
Feminist grade: C
It fails the Bechdel test but is a huge boon for female filmmakers.
Moviegoer grade: A
An excellent example of the artistry of cinema.