The Best Action Film and the Woman Who Directed It

With a white-knuckled new movie about an American bomb squad in Iraq, director Kathryn Bigelow proves once again that if women ruled the earth, it wouldn’t necessarily be a peaceable kingdom.

The Hurt Locker, an ultrasuspenseful movie about American soldiers who defuse bombs in the streets of Iraq, is by any measure an extraordinary piece of filmmaking that keeps you in a state of extreme tension for two hours as you wonder who might be blown apart next. Giving us the point of view of constantly endangered soldiers, the film is both a taut psychological thriller and the best war movie to appear in recent years, fiery with action that never calls distracting attention to its sophisticated camerawork. And among its dozens of rattling explosions, one is actually welcome. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker explodes the simple-minded myth that women don’t make great action directors, and the even more persistent delusion that if ladies ran the world we’d all live in some peaceable kingdom. Bigelow is as tough-minded as they come, unrelentingly realistic and unsentimental about war, and I mean that as a huge—even a feminist—compliment.

Even a glance at the message board on Bigelow’s IMDB page offers up the subject line, “Can females direct a good horror film?”

Set in Baghdad in 2004, the film follows the bomb squad day by day, and at times minute by minute, as the men go through the precise, terrifying act of trying to outrace the bombs—some in places as familiar as cars, others in unexpectedly horrifying locations, like the dynamite strapped to the chest of a man who no longer wants to be a martyr. Danger is everywhere and Bigelow doesn’t prettify its results. Just as people really die in war, we learn early on that no character is safe in this movie, however important he seems to be (and this is an all-male squad).

Character has never been Bigelow’s strength, and frankly it’s not the strength of Mark Boal’s script here, but the actors breathe more life into their types than we have any right to expect. The breakout-worthy star, Jeremy Renner (who also starred in ABC’s just-canceled but terrific cop series The Unusuals) plays the squad’s leader, Staff Sgt. James, a rebel addicted to danger, who takes even greater risks than he has to. We know he’s being a fool, and endangering his men, but Renner makes him as likable as he is exasperating. Yet we also understand and sympathize with his colleagues, notably the equally brave, more sensibly cautious Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie).

The film doesn’t take political sides or even resort to war-is-hell cliches because we are so deeply immersed in these soldiers’ psyches; they are not, after all, likely to be sitting around parsing the nuances of foreign policy. Instead, the film unfolds in what feels like a constant adrenaline rush.

In that fierce context, James’ friendship with an Iraqi boy—they like to kick a soccer ball around together—does not come as some sappy kneejerk touch. It’s a deeply emotional episode with shattering results. Its feeling has been earned because it breaks through James’ self-protective swagger, a shield as hard as any piece of equipment.

Bigelow never did have a taste for warm and fuzzy anyway. Her smart, idiosyncratic genre movies go all the way back to the sly vampire flick Near Dark in 1987. If she has never had the major breakthrough, it’s partly because her films are so odd and original, like Strange Days (1995), a sci-fi conspiracy thriller with Ralph Fiennes, set on New Year’s Eve 1999. She tried something more commercial in 2002 with the nuclear submarine movie K-19: The Widowmaker, which flopped. And whenever she has tackled action, she has been dogged by the gee-whiz-she’s-a-girl response. Forget the critics; even a glance at the message board on Bigelow’s IMDB page offers up the subject line, “Can females direct a good horror film?”

Directing any movie requires supreme authority, and an action/war movie like The Hurt Locker must have called for an extra-firm hand. There are stunts that can go wrong, the logistics of tanks and jeeps and guns to manage, the simple endurance test of shooting in the heat and dust of the Jordanian desert. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it, but that’s not a girl thing, that’s just me. I’m guessing guy directors like Woody Allen or Judd Apatow might not want to either.

If you were to watch The Hurt Locker without any idea who directed it, you might call it an exceptionally macho film, which is a liberating label to put on it. Let’s not call Bigelow a terrific woman action director; let’s just say she is one of the sharpest, most fearless moviemakers around, who has given us an unforgettable new experience of war.

Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Marie Claire and The New York Times Book Review. She was a film critic, chief television critic and critic-at-large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew.