The Hurt Locker
Barry Ackroyd, BSC, uses Super 16mm and handheld cameras to lend intensity to The Hurt Locker, which follows a U.S. Army bomb squad at work in Iraq.
Veteran soldiers frequently describe combat as the most vivid, fully lived experience of their lives. Some get hooked on it. As former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges writes in his book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”
These are the opening lines of The Hurt Locker, a dramatic feature about the specialized soldiers in Iraq who dismantle homemade roadside bombs. The film follows members of Bravo Company in Baghdad in 2004, an early and bloody stage of the war, when the Army’s volunteer Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squads tried to hold the line against the enemy’s favored line of defense, Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs. Often called in 10 or 20 times a day, these soldiers lived a life of unrelenting intensity.
The story hones in on three characters: newly arrived squad captain Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), whose impressive record of disarming 873 bombs is offset by a reckless cowboy bravado; Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), a seasoned Army man who worked intelligence for seven years; and newbie Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who is looking for a role model. In structure, the film moves through seven missions—each a major, high intensity set piece—punctuated by moments of downtime at the Army base. Visually, it combines the jagged edges of war reportage with intimate close-ups of the soldiers engaged in life-and-death assignments, offering both a boots-on-the-ground perspective and nuanced psychological portraits. In addition, long-lens surveillance and rifle-scope images create the sense of watching and being watched in a hostile land.
The Hurt Locker was based on the accounts of embedded freelance journalist Mark Boal, who also wrote the screenplay. According to the film’s director, Katherine Bigelow, “We wanted to underscore the raw immediacy of [Boal’s] fictionalized but nonetheless observation-based material, trying to experientialize the result to the audience, so you feel like you’re the fourth man in the Humvee; you’re right there. But we also wanted to keep it different from a documentary, moving past that into something that was raw, immediate, and visceral.”
To achieve this kind of realism, Bigelow turned to Ken Loach’s longtime cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, BSC. “He comes from documentary, so he’s been able to move through that aesthetic,” says Bigelow, who was particularly impressed with Ackroyd’s work on Palme d’Or winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), Loach’s film about brothers on opposite sides of the war in 1920 Ireland, as well as United 93, Paul Greengrass’s real-time account of the fourth plane hijacked on September 11, 2001, for which Ackroyd received a BAFTA nomination. “In When the Wind Shakes the Barley, his attention to character and story is as important as the look of it,” she says. “If I had to describe him simply, I’d say he’s a true poet.”
For his part, Ackroyd considered Bigelow’s combat film a good fit. “My work has always got a political theme to it,” the British cinematographer acknowledges. “I’ve worked with Ken Loach for 20 years, and there’s a reason why—because our ideas coincide. All the good stories seem to revolve around political themes.” [...]
Published in the July 2009 issue of American Cinematographer.