Season 2, Episode 9: Kathryn Bigelow Takes Us to the "Trenches": 'The Hurt Locker' & 'ZDT'
This is mostly about us reacting to the films and their relevance, but we have a few notes.
The Hurt Locker Release, Box Office, and Critical Reception
The Hurt Locker was first publicly released in Italy by Warner Bros. on October 10, 2008. Summit Entertainment picked the film up for distribution in the United States for $1.5 million after it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Hurt Locker was released in the United States on June 26, 2009, with a limited release at four theaters in Los Angeles and New York City.[39
The film's final gross was $17,017,811 in the United States and Canada, and $32,212,961 in other countries, bringing its worldwide total to $49,230,772. It was a success against its budget of $15 million.
The Hurt Locker received widespread acclaim, with Renner's performance receiving praise from critics. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 97%, based on 290 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 8.5/10. It was the second highest-rated film of 2009, behind Pixar's Up.
The critics' consensus: "A well-acted, intensely shot, action filled war epic, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is thus far the best of the recent dramatizations of the Iraq War." Metacritic, which assigns a normalized score, gave the film an average score of 95 out of 100, based on 37 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
Zero Dark Thirty Release, Box Office, and Critical Reception
ZDT premiered on December 19, 2012 and made a shit-ton of money. They really rushed to make it because Bin Laden was killed in 2011.
On a budget of 40-50 million, ZDT earned a worldwide box office total of $132,820,716.
On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 91% based on 302 reviews, with an average rating of 8.60/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Gripping, suspenseful, and brilliantly crafted, Zero Dark Thirty dramatizes the hunt for Osama bin Laden with intelligence and an eye for detail." On Metacritic the film has a weighted average score of 95 out of 100, based on 46 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". It was the site's best-reviewed film of 2012. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A−" on an A+ to F scale.
IMDB one sentence synopses:
Hurt Locker: During the Iraq War, a Sergeant recently assigned to an army bomb squad is put at odds with his squad mates due to his maverick way of handling his work.
Jeremy Renner as Sergeant James
Anthony Mackie as Sergeant Sanborn
Brian Geraghty as Specialist Owen Eldridge
Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.
ZDT: A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L.s Team 6 in May 2011.
Jessica Chastain as Maya
Academy Awards: Best Sound Editing
I will also say that these aren’t BAD FILMS per se. They are well-made, artful, thoughtful films with, I think, a lot to say about the problems with American society and our relationship to war AND violence.
Controversial statement but I don’t actually think either of these movies are saying anything useful about the realities of the American Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although they do shed some light on what Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal think about these wars at the end of each film, to me, they’re not exactly critiquing these wars — not directly or in a distinguishable indirect way either — it’s more that they’re critiquing the conditions that make it possible for people to become obsessed with the circumstances that are created as a result of war and mass violence. They want to position themselves as heroes and risk takers because of ego and personal ambition. I think that’s why they’re so hyper-focused on INDIVIDUALS as opposed to the masses of people who make war possible.
The Hurt Locker shows us how the U.S. military requires no real form of emotional maturity or psychological excellence. They will give you a job — like defusing bombs — and turn you into an expert in that field. And if you’re the kind of person who gets off on the danger of the work you’re doing, you’re going to want to do it forever. It’ll turn you into a John Wayne type of character who’s constantly searching for the next thrill, the next chance to ALMOST die and then beat death.
Zero Dark Thirty is barely a war film. Actually, it’s a police procedural more than anything else, and that adds to its focus on a person’s individualized struggle to achieve some level of justice. Zero Dark Thirty quite literally shows the way someone’s psyche and moral code are transformed because of their obsessive desire to “punish.” It’s an incredibly carceral film in both the sense that they are actively and concretely seeking some sort of punitive justice, but also in the sense that as a result of the draconian nature of the environment she’s thrust into after she’s recruited to the CIA straight after college. ZDT is, essentially, a vigilante story dressed up as a national achievement.
The CIA sends her directly to Pakistan, where the CIA is conducting torturous interrogations of people they suspect are involved with 9/11.
At first, she just wants to get the job over with, then her character turns: she wants revenge for having to give up her life to this, for having to witness so much violence, for losing a friend, etc. etc.
In the end, Maya realizes it’s all for naught. She sees that killing this one man doesn’t do justice for the thousands and thousands who have died because of the actions of and search for this one man.
Both films are intentionally ambiguous on their politics up until the final scenes, which I think is what connects them.
In The Hurt Locker, the final scene shows Jeremy Renner’s character, Sergeant James, walking into another bomb-filled location presumably after signing up for another tour of Iraq with Ministry’s Khyber Pass playing as he marches down. The lyrics to Khyber Pass are very short, and they go like this: Where's Bin Laden, Where's Bin Laden, He's probably runnin', Probably hidin', Some say he's livin' at the Khyber Pass, Others say he's at the Bush's ranch. If you consider this scene with the movie’s tagline “War is a drug,” it’s easy to see what Kathryn Bigelow and scriptwriter Mark Boal are trying to imply…Sergeant James doesn’t give a shit about the people who are impacted by these bombs or even the U.S. military/government and he’s not addicted to the thrill of being a hero but of being one in a small group of people who can do this highly specialized job without blowing himself up.
In Zero Dark Thirty, the final scene shows Jessica Chastain’s character, Maya, boarding a plane after she positively identifies Osama bin Laden’s body as being the person that was killed during the raid on his compound. The pilot asks her where she wants to go and she doesn’t answer. Instead, she straps herself in and cries. Cries because it’s over, maybe, but I think we’re supposed to gather that she realizes how bin Laden’s death ultimately does nothing to make her (or anyone else) feel better about 9/11 or these two useless, fucked up wars. The time she’s dedicated to this obsession is lost forever…she can’t ever get it back.
For sure, Bigelow and Boal’s thoughts on the usefulness of these wars are crystalized in these scenes, but I also think that these scenes work to show how it’s not really about THESE wars in particular. It’s about how, no matter who you are, you cannot escape the influence of our war-loving, carceral, violent society unless you are actively fighting against. Neither Sergeant James nor Maya fight back against the violence that surrounds them, so they become it, they embody, they use it to their advantage.
For me, that is a more devastating truth than the reality of war.
François Truffaut said, “There’s no such thing as an anti-war film” and you know what? I think he’s right. I generally avoid war films because I think they’re bleak as fuck and make me feel like shit, but when I do watch them, I can’t help but think of the rest of the audience. What I think Truffaut meant by this is that when you’re showing the horrors of war to a mass, mixed audience of people, you’re going to, inevitably, get some viewers who revel in the horrors. And in the U.S., I think there’s an even larger risk of this because Americans are so nationalistic and obsessed with violence and war as it is.
I know that the Bigelow and Boal wrote these movies as nuanced pieces of cinematic art, but the problem with nuance is that not everyone is going to fucking get it!! And you can tell that’s true about these films with just a cursory search of the responses to them on the internet.