Seeing Through Mr. Tough Guy

By Stephen Hunter
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 14, 2009

How does SHE know so much about HIM?

You'd never think it, to see her sitting in the gray late-afternoon light of a sublime Georgetown restaurant. She is slim -- imperially slim -- fashionably dressed, startlingly beautiful. She has big eyes and big hair and is the sort of woman who looks good in restaurants, on the fantail of a yacht or on the cover of a magazine. Anyone remember Martha Gellhorn? What about Slim Keith? What about Lauren Bacall? In our time maybe Lara Logan -- the extreme beauty, the aristo's grace, yet a kind of character-driven toughness, and all that damned talent. So unfair to us of the normal tribe.

Anyhow, to continue with the purple stuff, everything about her speaks of refinement and class: She has a salad and a latte, easily exchanges mots bons and not so bons with a reporter. She has the great listener's ability to focus and seem to weigh a response. She nods, possibly laughs, her eyes alight with engagement. Ugh, she's so damn perfect it's quite annoying. She can probably hold her liquor, discuss art, socialize with senators and duchesses, shoot skeet and dance an incredible rumba.

So how would she know so much about HIM? He's a knuckle-dragger, a curser, a drinker of shots and cans and bottles with worms in them. He hurts people; he blows things up; he breaks things and takes things. He knows about guns. He's part animal, smells like a hog and couldn't tell a teacup from an athletic cup. He's driven by a duty he can't articulate, and if you give him snark, he'll take your teeth out without an uptick in pulse rate.

That's the question: How does the extraordinary movie director Kathryn Bigelow, 57, know so much about the alpha male, the Universal Soldier, Sgt. Rock, Joe Palooka, John Wayne, what have you? Clearly she does and her career, remarkable in the canon, is intertwined with his sweat: She probes him, puzzles over him, tries to understand, even love the fellow many women would dismiss as a dinosaur, that hulking chunk of testosterone on the hoof called the Hero.

And she's made what is certainly her best and one of the best movies on the subject of the guy: "The Hurt Locker," which is about one such specimen who could be cop, paratrooper, Navy SEAL, bank robber, fighter pilot or running back, but happens to be a bomb disposal technician in Baghdad during the hottest days of the late war, when things were blowing up all over the place and it was up to a guy with the nerves of a bullfighter to disassemble the intricate, lethal gizmos called "improvised explosive devices." Or die trying.

"I suppose I'm drawn to them," Bigelow says. "It makes sense when it's all connected -- " she's talking about her other alpha vehicles, like "Point Break," "K-19: The Widowmaker" and "Blue Steel" -- "into some kind of pattern. But at the time I didn't think about it."

It's really been an extraordinary career, maybe not quite fully realized until "The Hurt Locker." Originally a painter so good that she studied for two years on scholarship in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, she segued into filmmaking via the low-end horror route, unusual for a woman. Her first film to attract major attention has become something of a cult classic: "Near Dark," which adroitly combined biker and vampire genres. The studios beckoned, and she made two more films with genre stylizations, the previously mentioned "Point Break," about an FBI agent infiltrating a surfer/robbery crew, and "Blue Steel," about a guy morphing into alpha by exposure to a beautiful, charismatic, heavy revolver. While both did well, more was expected of her collaboration with then-husband and soon to be ex-husband, James Cameron, the millennial sci-fi detective thriller "Strange Days." Equally disappointing for the director was her last film, "K-19: The Widowmaker," about a heroic Russian sub crew trying to survive a meltdown in the reactor. Nobody was interested in heroic Russians.

What the films seem to have in common is a flair for violent action and male archetypes. She did diverge from her own type in a small independent movie, "The Weight of Water," with female stars and derived from a novel by Anita Shreve.

As she tries to explain her attraction to the bad boys, she returns to her beginnings: "As a painter, I was drawn to gesticular canvases within the overall framework of abstract expressionism. Maybe it's the same thing, and what I like about film is how experiential it is. I like extreme relationships."

"Extreme relationship," indeed. The core of "The Hurt Locker" is exactly that as it chronicles how, under the press of the mission, the three men of a small unit of disposal technicians get along, which is not too well. They flash all over the insurrectionist city to deconstruct the cunning jihadists' infernal machines, nests of wire and detonators and switches twisted into the nose cones of stolen artillery warheads. They do it to save lives, property and American dignity, and somehow, under all this pressure, they have to get along. The problem is that two of them are normals, who want to do the job as safely as possible and make it back, and the third is your basic hero type, the guy seemingly without nerves or doubts who clearly gets a thrill out of the game aspects of it all and loves to test his mettle against the bombmaker's. It's just that the more he tests, the more metal his two colleagues might catch in the guts at 1,800 mph.

So the movie isn't just about the alpha; it's about how the alphas and the betas get along, and what it costs vs. what it gains. It's really a study in etiquette. Do you kiss the guy's ring finger or wait till he turns his back and dump a magazine into him, because his bravado is surely going to get you killed?

"Kathryn," says her collaborator (co-writer and producer), former journalist Mark Boal, "is so good at this because she's the ideal referee. She doesn't have a dog in the fight."

Boal should know. "The Hurt Locker" is based on a piece he did for Playboy (he apprenticed at the Village Voice) based on his experiences embedded with a disposal unit in Baghdad in those very same hot days.

"The good news," he says, "is that I didn't do something stupid and get blown up. The bad news is that you never come home from something like that."

It was an agent who got the two of them together for conversations that led, a few years later, to collaboration on the script and collaboration on raising the money and, finally, the film, which has acquired that rare spontaneous pre-release buzz based on festival screenings, generated largely by the intensity of its central performance by a largely unknown actor named Jeremy Renner in the role of Staff Sgt. William James.

The whole story is pretty amazing. Bigelow and Boal were put together by the agent who saw in his work -- the willingness to go under fire in the most dangerous city in the world for a byline -- something that the agent thought would ignite her passion, and it did. She read his piece; they had conversations; they decided to write a movie together.

"I was a little bit familiar with the screenplay form, and we had an ideal. We tried to be a spontaneous and lifelike as possible. If there was anything too 'poetic' we'd cut it. We tried to keep it real. I tried to capture the 'workplace' aspects of it. They're defusing bombs but it's still a workplace. They joke about the job, they tease each other, they have their little squabbles. I suppose I originally wanted to see them as victims, but that concept isn't right anymore. This is a voluntary professional army. They want to be there. The last thing they want to do is sit on a post in the States for 20 years and never see any action. It's like they realize, 'You know, this isn't half bad.' "

They made a special attempt to avoid war movie cliches: There's no "enemy bombmakers," there's no romance with a local gal or a nurse, there's no mess-hall pie fights, there's no scene of al-Qaeda planners speaking in heavy Hollywood accents about sending the infidels to hell. Instead, the structure is chronological, the countdown as the small, elite unit's tour nears its completion. The narrative is episodic, like a soldier's life; there are no hills to take, no headquarters to be bombed, no broken romances back home. There aren't heavier ideological points being made: There's no villainous commanding officer made to look like Bush or Cheney and spout jingoistic speeches, the Iraqis aren't sentimentalized as childish pawns, the Americans don't torture or waterboard. Though the details appear to be perfect, it's almost pure myth as it studies the men who fight the wars and deal, privately, with the humor and loneliness of the job.

It gets one thing so right it almost beggars the imagination: how brave these young guys are, how they are without a lot of drama and how smart they are.

So at a certain point, Bigelow and Boal had a script and a concept -- a no-politics look at how the war was fought by the professional military, to be filmed in digital as close to the real action as possible, without any "war-movie cliches."

They just didn't have any money.

"We raised the money," says Bigelow. "It took a year, and we didn't raise much, but every penny is on the screen."

Boal, one of those young, intense 30-something types, who seems less the Hemingwayesque war correspondent blowhard than the earnest NYU scholar of early Dostoyevski, with his intellectual's goatee and wavy head of hair, makes a face that projects a memory of discomfort. "It was like going to Vegas," he says. "You just hold your breath and hope for luck. Looking back on it, I don't think I'd ever take that risk again. We ended up shooting it in Jordan, five kilometers from the border. I would have taken the show into Iraq if they'd have let me. But I think the proximity helped enormously, and I think the use of Iraqi refugees as extras and bit players was also enormously helpful."

The next issue was casting, and someone teases them about an incorrect Internet report that the movie was originally planned to feature Colin Farrell and Willem Dafoe.

"That was the whole point," says Bigelow. "When you use stars, you set up expectations. You know that Colin Farrell isn't going to die, or if he does, he won't die till the very end. I didn't want that in the movie; it's not real. We made a point of picking unknowns so that the expectational level wasn't stirred."

She almost plays this for a joke, by casting a well-known performer in a cameo. In the first moments of the film, we see him dealing with an IED and because he's so famous you think, gee, I didn't know Star X was in this mov -- and then there's a very large explosion and Star X is no longer in the movie.

For the two junior members of the team, a sergeant and a specialist, they chose Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, both of whom are magnificent, but it is Renner who will likely emerge as a star when the movie has finished its run. His Will James is an amazing concoction of cocksure bravery and technical expertise, yet at the same time a man of human dimensions, not a movie-type psycho and not haunted by any pathologies, but a man who is clearly addicted to the adrenal surge of intense danger, maybe lethally so.

"I had seen Jeremy in the TV movie 'Dahmer,' " says Bigelow, "and I thought he brought something amazing to that. He managed to elicit sympathy, really humanized it. It was an extraordinary performance. He is one of the great actors of his generation. And no matter who I looked at, I kept coming back to Jeremy."

Renner had attracted considerable attention, almost a cultlike following from performances in otherwise forgotten films. He was the SWAT guy turned villain in the Colin Farrell film "S.W.A.T." as well as one of the gang members in the brilliantly acted "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."

"I direct with a light hand," Bigelow says. "I kind of nudge it. You create a visual language -- I can do that -- and trust the actors. We used Super 16 Digital, extremely dexterous, constantly in motion. Using that technique underscored the reportorial element."

In the end, when conversation has died down, the table is left with the shadow of a man, not easily resolved. We're still trying to figure out HIM.

Bigelow says, "I don't see a lot in common with him. But there were surprises. There were a couple who had a tenderness inside. A very rich character: reckless, with tenderness inside. They're constantly switching up on you."

"What we learned," says Boal, "is that courage isn't the absence of fear. It's maintaining humor in the face of fear. They crack jokes, they make fun of each other. That's how you get to where you have to be."

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