Much has been made of the lack of success -- both at the box office and artistically -- of the topical movies that have come out since the American invasion of Iraq.
"The Hurt Locker," a full-tilt action picture directed by Kathryn Bigelow that also ruminates on the psychology of combat, is looking to buck that trend.
The people behind the film, which screens today at the Toronto International Film Festival, feel that their picture has some major differences.
"The most important distinction that was in our minds is that none of the movies that have come out so far, or were in development when we were in development, were combat movies," said writer Mark Boal. "They were all either political polemic, or they were home-front, domestic dramas. And we felt what distinguished us was nobody was really doing the in-the-trenches, soldier's-point-of-view kind of classic war film. To me, that's a big point of difference."
"The Hurt Locker," Boal said, is a soldiers' term for "a place of ultimate pain."
The film follows a three-man explosive ordnance disposal team as the trio finish their tour of duty in Baghdad, dismantling bombs in combat conditions day in, day out. Two of the soldiers (played by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) have worked together for some time, and they are immediately put off by what they see as the needlessly reckless and dangerous behavior of a new bomb technician (Jeremy Renner).
'This is the war'
Improvised explosive devices "are the centerpiece of the war. They are the key weapon of the insurgency," Boal said. "So, to me, the bomb squad is right at the heart of the war. To not make a movie about the bomb squad would be like making a movie about Vietnam that doesn't take place in the jungle. This is the war."
Bigelow and Boal first met when they collaborated on the short-lived television series "The Inside." When Boal told Bigelow -- best known for her sharp, smart action pictures such as "Point Break" and "Strange Days" -- that he was going to Iraq to be embedded as a journalist with a bomb disposal team, her initial response was simply to hope that he got home safe. When he returned and told her what he had seen, she thought of something else: a film.
"Mark had such incredible firsthand observations," Bigelow said. "The opportunity to make this movie as realistic as humanly possible became not only a challenge, but a personal directive.
"I wanted to put the audience inside the Humvee and to ask you to walk around on the desert floor for a bit. And really not only experience, but also appreciate, what these men are doing all day long."
They began working on what would become "The Hurt Locker" in early 2005. Though Boal and Bigelow knew they wanted the film to have a you-are-there style to make it a gritty and gut-wrenching experience, they weren't immediately certain how to go about doing so. Rather than a conventional plot -- there's no heist or busload of kids that needs saving -- they simply stayed with the soldiers and let their interactions drive the story.
"To me, there's a kind of inverse relationship between plot and realism," said Boal, who had previously written a magazine article that became the basis for "In the Valley of Elah," on which he received co-story credit.
"It was, to my mind, more realistic to just show soldiers confronting their everyday issues of survival and friendship and whatever psychological dilemmas they have, than to have a guy stand up and deliver a polemical speech. That sort of only happens in Hollywood. When I was in Baghdad, I don't think I had a single political conversation with any soldier there. It's just not what they think about on a day-to-day level."
Although the main trio of actors may look familiar to audiences even if they are not yet exactly stars -- Bigelow calls them "stars in the making" -- there are a few who pop up along the way who are definitely well-known, including Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly and Guy Pearce.
As characters come and go, and the most recognizable faces don't always stay on-screen long, a sense of unease creeps across viewers' minds, a feeling that in this environment anything could happen.
"I wanted to early on create the ground rules for this film, to basically create as much tension as possible," Bigelow said of the casting choices. "You don't immediately have a response as to who will live and who will die. And I think there's an interesting tension that comes from that alone."
The film was shot over 44 days from July to September 2007. Working with "United 93" cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and four camera crews often shooting simultaneously, Bigelow ended up with more than 200 hours of footage. (The film's final running time is just over two hours.)
Although Bigelow scouted locations in Morocco, she eventually chose to shoot most of the movie in Jordan because of its close proximity to Iraq. Authentic vehicles were provided by the Jordanian military, and some of the locations used were less than three miles from the Iraqi border. All the Iraqi roles in the film were played by displaced Iraqis, many of them trained actors who had been forced to flee their country.
"The Hurt Locker," which is in search of a distributor, conveys some sense of the transformative power of war, the ways in which, to borrow a phrase from "Apocalypse Now," it "puts the zap" on many soldiers, in particular those in a volunteer army who choose to fight. In one of the film's most quietly harrowing scenes, having conquered the mean streets of Baghdad, a soldier is overwhelmed by a supermarket cereal aisle after returning home.
"I think that war exerts a really powerful pull on people," Boal said. "War is one of the most profound, meaningful, intense, scary, exhilarating, horrifying, horrible experiences anybody can ever have. The thing nobody talks about when they talk about war, which is just so striking to me, is that a lot of men find it pleasurable. And that's just the way it is."