No one quite knows when it happened. But during the course of the past two months, somewhere between January's Golden Globe awards and February's Baftas, the puny, star-free Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker with a budget of US$11 million (Dh40m) suddenly became the little film that could. With the Oscar ceremony fast approaching, this movie - a propulsive, visceral account of one perilous tour of duty with a US army bomb disposal unit in Baghdad - looks set for a possible winning sweep of its nine Academy Award nominations.
Right across Tinseltown The Hurt Locker is the film that is causing the biggest stir. The gossip blogs are buzzing with the news that one producer, Nicolas Chartier, has been banned from the ceremony for lobbying other Oscar members. Or that military veterans are accusing the film of lacking accuracy. Or that one such veteran, Jeffery Sarver, is suing the filmmakers, claiming the movie is based on his own experiences in Iraq.
Seasoned industry watchers, of course, note that the frenzy of interest around The Hurt Locker merely reflects the movie's new status as the film to beat tomorrow night. Ever since its six-trophy haul at the Baftas - the ceremony that correctly prefigured last year's Slumdog Millionaire Oscar triumph - the essential perception of The Hurt Locker has shifted profoundly. This was once nothing more than a quirky media side story about how the film's director, Kathryn Bigelow, was formerly married - from 1989 to 1991 - to James Cameron, the director of the year's real champion and serious awards contender, Avatar. And yet now, Kathryn Bigelow's Hurt Locker simply is the story.
The director herself has remained typically tight-lipped about her film's progress, and has said nothing other than the fact that she is "amazed and humbled" by what has happened to it. Bigelow, 59, is a perpetually pleasant yet taciturn interviewee at the best of times. The director of Blue Steel, Point Break and Strange Days is normally loath to engage in introspection of any sort, including detailed analysis of her own movies. And with Hurt Locker more than any other, she has seemed, by nature of the film's highly charged subject matter and its giddy format, to have found herself occupying a quietly defensive position on its behalf.
Why, for instance, is the film so seemingly apolitical? This is the first and fundamental question that is asked of Bigelow, when discussing a film that charts with meticulous, visionary detail the synapse-splitting urgency of life within a three-man bomb disposal team in 2004 without ever once looking outside to the wider war, to the Blairs and the Bushes, to the context, to the motivations. "I think that we have told a very dramatic story about this particular conflict," Bigelow said recently, with the measured response of a politician under fire. "It's a real opportunity to provide an audience with a you-are-there, boots-on-the-ground experiential look at this conflict, and to actually come away with a greater understanding of, I think, some of the helplessness and some of the heroism."
Experiential is the key word here. For Bigelow prides herself, more than anything else, on the creation of a visceral movie experience. "I respond to movies that get in your face," she once said. "Movies that have the ability to be provocative or challenge you, that take some risks. I like high-impact movies. That's what I respond to as a viewer." She approaches films this way, too. From the outside in. She will concentrate on getting in your face first, and then worry about the story, the subtext and the politics later. She is, fundamentally, a director of sublime surfaces. She is a filmmaker who, when matched with the right story - Point Break, The Hurt Locker - is simply untouchable in her field, but one who, with lesser material - The Weight of Water, K19: The Widowmaker - can belly-flop with the best of them.
Her eye for the surface comes from her painting background. An only child, born in San Carlos, California, of a librarian mother and factory manager father, she says that she always intended to become an artist. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, and then in New York, at the Whitney Museum, under the tutelage of the feminist Susan Sontag. Of her art background she has said: "I think it helped me enormously, because it gave me an innate sense of space and composition."
She has been, famously, less vocal about her feminism, and indeed mostly refuses to be brought into debates about women and gender-bias in filmmaking. "I can't change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies," she announced, early in her career. "It's irrelevant who or what directed a movie. The important thing is that you either respond to it or you don't." While studying in New York, and under the influence of conceptual artists such as Lawrence Weiner, she moved away from painting and began making movies.
Unusually, there was no growth period, where she experimented, dabbled, and then found her feet. Her very first movie was a 17-minute short film that was one long elaborate fight sequence. After that, she has claimed: "The ideas just got longer, and I began to embrace narrative." She made a biker film with Willem Dafoe called The Loveless, and a vampire film with Bill Paxton called Near Dark. She followed these, in quick succession, with a police movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis, called Blue Steel, and the surfing bank-heist flick, Point Break. She was soon regarded as a pre-eminent action director, equal in prowess to her then-husband James Cameron, and a keen-eyed analyst of on-screen masculinity. She didn't then, or she doesn't now, talk about her relationship with Cameron (although he dedicated his Avatar Golden Globe win to her), and she is typically uncomfortable with her reputation as a guru of masculinity. "I make choices on an instinctual basis," she has said. "And my interest is in humanising the characters, rather than portraying masculinity."
There were failures along the way. Her $100 million submarine drama from 2002, K-19: The Widowmaker, was infamously nicknamed "The Career Tanker" after it made less than $65 million around the globe and sent Bigelow into filmmaking exile for six years. Her return, via the commercially poisonous subject of the Iraq war was seen as foolhardy. The films that had then been made about this conflict, from In the Valley of Elah to Redacted to Lions for Lambs, had all been either financial or critical disasters, or both. But Bigelow, together with Mark Boal, her scriptwriter collaborator, a 37-year-old former Playboy journalist who had been embedded with a bomb disposal team in 2004, knew what she was doing. With $11 million, a cast of unknown American actors, plus scores of Iraqi refugees in supporting roles, she arrived in Amman, Jordan (standing in for Baghdad), in late 2007, and over the course of 44 days (often in heat as high as 56°C) she filmed the first commercially and critically successful film made about the Iraq war.
And yes, similar to all Bigelow's hit movies, The Hurt Locker is a paean to the power of surface. Here, explosive plumes have rarely looked so beautiful. The shake of hand-held cameras has rarely created such immediacy. And sniper fire has rarely seemed so sinister. But there is more here, too. At crucial moments during a bomb defusion, Bigelow's camera will drift away and pick up a three-legged cat limping by, or an old man at a window, or a desert wind whipping up a dust devil.
Or at others she suddenly reveals unexpectedly tender depths in her protagonists - such as the scene when Jeremy Renner's cocksure Sergeant James suddenly softens for the terrified Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), and promises to lead him safely out of harm's way. It is these moments that reveal in Bigelow a director of new and startling maturity, and a filmmaker who has found, for now at least, genuine substance beneath the surface. And it is these moments, too, that transform The Hurt Locker into something superlative, and a film that is likely to boast a clean sweep come tomorrow night.
* The National