Feminism and Realism in The Hurt Locker

Film War and Peace


Nine Academy Award nominations later, the media is buzzing about The Hurt Locker. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the film purports to present a deeper, more realistic portrayal of a soldier’s life in Iraq. The writer is Mark Boal, an American journalist who reflects on his experience of being embedded with a United States Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit in 2004, just after the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq. Critics are claiming that it is the best action film of the year, and that it is by far the best fictional depiction of the Iraq War. The Academy evidently agrees, as The Hurt Locker is up for both Best Picture and Best Director, among other categories. Although Bigelow did an excellent job of captivating us with a realistic progression of suspense, as well as inviting us into an array of human emotions of a warzone, it was hard to believe the audacity of our cocky, adrenaline-hungry protagonist, played by Jeremy Renner. Moreover, I could not help but wonder if a woman would actually stand a chance in winning an Oscar for Best Director, a feat that has yet to be accomplished in its eighty-two year history. I found it ironic that a woman could get so close yet so far, as her subject matter portrays hyper-masculinity at its best. 


The Hurt Locker leaves you feeling close to the action. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd navigates the Jordanian backdrop with several Super 16mm cameras, resulting in a shaky, yet realistically raw effect.  You feel as if you are part of the action, like a little fly privy to a secretly terrifying view of war, a simulation that is perhaps indicative of Mark Boal’s experience embedded with the soldiers. Yet, the film left me wondering about its accuracy of representation. Would a soldier who took such a brash approach to his mission, endangering both himself and all those under his leadership, really be allowed to keep his job?  Does someone like this even exist, or has Boal taken artistic license with his character? According to The New York Times blog, At War, written by Stephen Farrell, the answer to these questions is no. Farrell has posted several reactions by U.S. soldiers to his blog. Although the reviews are mixed, there is a general agreement that the film is not altogether accurate. While I appreciate both Boal and Bigelow’s effort in crafting a believable, yet engaging work of fiction, there are times when this seemingly realistic film crosses over the border into implausible. Once Renner’s character wandered off on his solo mission, they unfortunately lost me. Hiding the inaccuracies behind a style of cinematography made to evoke realism is merely a band-aid for a greater issue. 


Nevertheless, I am elated to see a woman nominated for Best Director. It’s just unfortunate that in order for one to enter the boys’ club, one has to follow the boys’ rules. The Hurt Locker, although directed by a woman, features all male protagonists playing a classic game of hyper-masculinity. Our story revolves around the innate cockiness of Sergeant William James. Moreover, Bigelow exposes us to the hyper-masculine, sometimes violent, coping techniques in reaction the horrific atrocity of war. Yet, fellow film blogger Melissa Silverstein from Women & Hollywood, asserts that the film is not a boys’ film, but, rather a “very good film about a war.” She continues by saying: “I think she hit it on the head by going down deep into what these guys are experiencing… She teases out things that maybe a male director might not have seen in the script.” 


While she makes a valid point, I’m still not convinced. From a Gender Studies perspective, the film subscribes to a gendered norm in Hollywood that, in turn, seems to inhibit variety and perpetuate action and violence. From a mainstream feminist perspective, an Oscar win for Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director would break a barrier that has existed throughout the award ceremony’s eighty-two year history. Such a win would effectively allow future women directors to aspire for recognition among their peers. In that respect, I can agree with Silverstein. We must remember that change does not happen over night, but, rather, is a gradual process that slowly progresses after what seems like a major upset at the time. A win for Bigelow would be groundbreaking. After that, we would still have much work to do in order to infiltrate the boys’ club that is Hollywood.