Bullets In His Head

Author, movie critic and gun aficionado Stephen Hunter takes some of his best shots on paper -- and in a new movie

March 11, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun Reporter

STANDING INSIDE THE SHOOTING gallery of On Target in Severn is like crouching inside the mouth of a mythical beast. The ceiling and walls are covered with jagged rocks resembling teeth, and the floor is littered with something that appears to be cracked seeds. On closer inspection, the "seeds" turn out to be spent shell casings, and they emit small, seductive flashes of gold.

Stephen Hunter picks up a fresh cartridge and loads it into the magazine of his Glock 9 mm. "These put holes in things," he says.

Indeed, they do. And, so does he.

Hunter is the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for The Washington Post and, formerly, for The Sun. He has spent his lifetime shooting off his guns and his mouth.

It's an urge he has spent 61 years trying rather heroically to control. He's not trying to squelch that drive, mind you, but to command it -- to decide when, where, how often and with how much force to unload. His rage, he says, is the result of growing up as the son of an alcoholic, abusive father -- a father who was murdered in 1975.

Now, it's Hunter's turn to volunteer for target practice. The critic, and his work, are about to be critiqued.

This month, Paramount Pictures will release Shooter, a new film based on Point of Impact, one of 13 thrillers Hunter has written and published in his spare time. He has seen a rough cut of the film and, so far, is thrilled with the film's accuracy. He expresses his pleasure with typical exuberance.

"Shooter is by far the best sniper movie ever made," he says. "I tried to bring to that book what it takes to make a shot, and I think the movie captures the essence of the art form.

"Shooting is an intellectual and an integrative process that requires discipline, physical stamina and attention to micro-details, such as the humidity level and the earth's rotation. The movie is extremely attentive to that process, and that makes me very happy."

Just as the Maryland novelist Tom Clancy is known for his expertise on submarines, Hunter is acclaimed for the accuracy and precision with which his books discuss firearms. Point of Impact, for instance, was praised by both The New York Times and a unit of the Green Berets.

In the film, actor Mark Wahlberg plays one of Hunter's most popular characters, a former sniper named Bob Lee Swagger, who is called out of retirement to thwart an assassination attempt on the president. It turns out to be a set-up, and soon Swagger is on the run -- but not before uncovering a conspiracy with links to Big Oil and a mass grave in Ethiopia.

If writing and shooting are Hunter's twin preoccupations, his novels are where both worlds come together. Both activities are refinements of the art of paying attention.

"Whenever I'm with Steve, I see things I wouldn't have seen otherwise," says John Bainbridge, one of the film critic's hunting buddies and a former Sun journalist. He and Hunter wrote a non-fiction book together about the assassination attempt on President Truman. "He takes in the scenery. He notices things, and he notices them very quickly. It is what makes him a superb shot."

Writing and shooting are both narcissistic (the author or gunman continually monitors his own perceptions) and self-abnegating (he seeks to understand something outside himself). And both contain more than an edge of aggressiveness.

"When I'm writing and when I'm shooting, I can get into a very deep level of concentration very quickly," Hunter says.

"It's not about power. It's not about sex, and it's not about ego. If anything, it's a sense of anti-self. When I'm in the zone, I'm sort of working on liberating my subconscious. It's a vacation from being Steve."

The Steve that Hunter wants to leave behind is a large, round man who looks a bit like the wild boar he once tracked. Hunter's chief weapons (in this case, his wit and at-times lacerating humor) are, like tusks, potentially lethal but displayed right out in the open, where anyone can see them.

His eyes are small, and when Hunter listens, he literally narrows his focus, cocking his head and squinting slightly, as if to eliminate all that is extraneous.

As the Big Bad Wolf once said to Little Red Riding Hood: The better to see you with, my dear.

Antoine Fuqua, who directed Shooter, describes Hunter as "a strategic thinker and a strategic listener."

The author spent a day on the movie set in October, when camera crews were filming in the District of Columbia.

"I kept trying to get him to look in the monitor at was going on," Fuqua says. "But Steve wanted to step back and watch all the people. He sized us all up right away."

In the cross hairs

The thing about Hunter, both as a writer and as a shooter, is that he cultivates merely the appearance of being a wild, unstoppable force of Nature.

Consider, for instance, the beginning of a review that Hunter wrote about a justly forgotten film called Milk Money:

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