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Director Kathryn Bigelow's 'The Hurt Locker' Shows What It's Like To Be A Bomb-squad Soldier In Iraq, With Help From A Baltimore-born Explosives Expert

July 17, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

The summer's best American movie, The Hurt Locker, opens in Baltimore one week from today. It's the culmination of a four-year process that began when journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal told director Kathryn Bigelow that he had an assignment from Playboy to be embedded with an Army bomb-defusing squad in Iraq.

Bigelow thought, "There's a movie there. I didn't know what he would come back with, I didn't know any of the details, but I was certain it was a film."

They went on to revive the once red-hot tradition of journalistic moviemaking. Boal not only put in his time at Camp Victory but also culled the wisdom of veterans such as a Baltimore born-and-bred expert on Explosive Ordnance Disposal squads, James Clifford, who retired from the Army as a command sergeant major. (There is no higher grade of rank for an enlisted soldier.)

The movie succeeds in "capturing the essence" of an EOD soldier's life, says Clifford over the phone from his home in Atlanta. "And," he adds, "the context of what an EOD soldier experiences."

As Bigelow stated in an interview in May, before the film's closing-night showcase at the Maryland Film Festival, "We all had heard about EODs and IEDs [improvised explosive devices], but you can hear about them without understanding how they work on a granular level."

The phrase "granular level" perfectly expresses Bigelow's ambition to create a movie that would engage audiences through their pores. The film itself generates an impact that resists easy formulation. Bigelow has become a filmmaker who prizes "the experiential" over formula or theory - and in this movie, her allegiance to reality pays off in thrills and revelation.

In our digital age, uninspired special effects can reduce apocalyptic phenomena to showy trivia. But with blood, sweat and just a few tears, The Hurt Locker brings genuine shock and awe to the close-up spectacle of soldiers toiling with pinpoint expertise while knowing their lives could end with the press of a button, the flick of a switch or the pull of a trigger. It's something you must see to believe.

In a rarity for screenwriters, Boal stayed with the film through every step of production. He even shared interview time with Bigelow in Maryland and other stops on the promotional tour. They met when she optioned an article he had written about an undercover police officer in a high school and helped produce it as a TV pilot.

What he learned from that collaboration, Boal says, was "you could take some of the values of journalism, which I love, and export them to this other medium that had a different kind of reach and a different set of creative parameters. There aren't that many people making films or television shows attempting to reflect something going on in American life. [Baltimore's] David Simon is an exception to that."

Boal sensed an opening in film for his skills and burning interests. And when Bigelow brought up doing a bomb-squad movie, he clicked to the project's "reportorial quality. It had a 'scoopy' quality, too, because most Americans are not familiar with the Army bomb squad. Most Americans don't know the role they play in the war." The news media had turned their attention from Iraq to other conflicts without nailing this story down. Boal had the field to himself.

For Bigelow, the idea of being "potentially topical and relevant was pretty exciting for a filmmaker." She was thrilled to tackle a subject that brought home the realization that "this is a war of bombs. What does that mean? Who fights that war? The EOD squads are the primary men on the ground that you need for this conflict." And Boal's material provided an "inherently dramatic" milieu. Boal's characters measure their lives in meters, whether they're approaching ordnance - or conducting negotiations at gunpoint in order to clear the area around it. No matter how outranked they might be on the field, they command each patch of ground that an IED has turned into a trouble spot.

Bigelow decided she had two roles in bringing these characters to the screen: One was "to get out of the way. The material didn't need to be trussed-up - it is pretty phenomenal." The second was to continue to be "reportorial and truthful and authentic to the men and to what a day in the life of a bomb squad was like," whether that meant adjusting the action to her locations (with Jordan doubling for Iraq) or drawing on the improvisational instincts of her actors.

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