Kathryn Bigelow – Masculinity through an Empathetic Lens

By Erica Richards 

War films have captured viewership from audiences consistently for many years. 

To fulfill the desire of the audience, but challenge the genre and status quo, popular and well-known directors, Kathryn Bigelow established her cinematic work in this unique war genre most notably in the 82nd Academy Awards Best Picture winner: The Hurt Locker. Bigelow also received Best Director at the Oscars for this film, and still remains the only woman to ever do this, and one of five women to have ever been nominated. Through the careful and considerate use of character development, mise-en-scene, and camera-work the film displays empathy, patriotism, and accuracy to convey its anti-war themes, focusing around the experience of war through one dynamic and conflicted character.  

Bigelow immediately throws the audience into the conditions of the war in Iraq. The opening shot of the film uses shaky and unsettling camerawork as it shows the perspective of the mobile robot  which carries explosives to hopefully detonate a possible IED in a crowded area of civilians to leave everyone unharmed.  Chaos, stress, and noisiness continue as we are introduced to the trio team war fighters. As the scene progresses, Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce) the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) realizes that he will have to dress in the heavy-duty bomb suit and travel to the IED after the robot loses a wheel and is unable to complete the mission.  The wide shot allows Bigelow to translate the sudden loneliness of a warfighter in Baghdad of Sgt. Thompson, just him and the bomb. Quickly back to chaos with quick close-up shots and shakiness—Sgt. Thompson’s teammates realize a local man near the area with a phone.  Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) attempts to get the man to drop the phone, but the phone man decides to detonate the bomb instead.  This results in the death of Sgt. Thompson. The effective slow motion to communicate the finality of the bomb and the finality of death; it happens so quickly, yet so slowly and painfully. The audience empathizes with the characters and truly absorb the moment of death, instead of the normal fast-paced movement already seen throughout this scene. 

“Bigelow immediately throws the audience into the conditions of the war in Iraq. The opening shot of the film uses shaky and unsettling camerawork…Chaos, stress, and noisiness continue as we are introduced to the trio team war fighters.”

Staff Sergeant Williams James (Jeremy Renner) arrives in Baghdad to lead the unit after the death of the former EOD leader, Sgt. Thompson.  Sgt. James is immediately viewed as a rebel by his team.  On their first mission together, Sgt. James proves to be different.  Sgt. James wears different color fatigues than the other soldiers on his helmet and chest.  This communicates to the audience that he is different in terms of the way he thinks, works, and functions internally and externally. The army print on his helmet and chest are an older design, which can be perceived by the audience that Sgt. James is more ‘old school’ in his way of combat and thus more patriotic in the eyes of the viewer.

Sgt. James smokes a cigarette as he assesses the situation: an addiction.  This use of a cigarette addiction plays back to the opening text on screen: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug – Chris Hedges”.  Bigelow chooses to fade out the rest of the text before we enter the film, even a stronger focus on the addiction of war and battle. Audiences of this film understand, however, that this man would not be this way if not for the war; he could be a different man, a family man if not for the addiction of war.  

Bigelow uses the juxtaposition of rebel and fatherly/brotherly tendencies in Sgt. James to accurately convey empathy.  In Sgt. James’ first mission with his new team he uses smoke to create a diversion; this causes tension for Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). The last time Sgt. Sanborn and Spc. Eldridge witnessed their leader in smoke, there was death. 

Bigelow challenges our perception of him and shows us a dynamic side of Sgt. James through the development of his relationship with a young Iraqi child, Beckham (Christopher Sayegh), and the progression of his relationships with teammates Sgt. Sanborn and Spc. Eldridge. Beckham is introduced as an eager child on base at the vendor station as he aggressively tries to sell DVDs to soldiers.  Sgt. James gives in and buys DVDs from him.  At the same time, he offers him a cigarette, but when Beckham goes to take one Sgt. James pulls back; tempting him with addiction/war and then protects him from it in an effort to teach him a quick lesson. Later, Beckham and Sgt. James play soccer together the same way a typical father/son duo would and Sgt. James jokes and teases Beckham as an older brother would. The lighting and the even composition of the shots are light and non-chaotic, peaceful–unlike the war. This character development by Bigelow shows the audience that Sgt. James is not a machine or a robot, and can empathize in his desire to make a connection with this child, as he is unable to connect with his own son at home in America. 

“Bigelow’s ability to create emotion in scenes and scenarios that seem so straight-forward and mundane create these special, unforgettable moments. Her work will continue to move audiences for years to come. “

Bigelow reiterates this theme of addiction at the end of the film, too.  Sgt. James has returned home to America and we find him in the grocery store with his wife and child.  A mundane mission he is unfulfilled in doing. The camera shows us via a wide shot, composed with Sgt. James in the far right of the screen as he stands in the colorful cereal box aisle. Sgt. James’ shopping cart is empty, as is his life without combat missions. He stands in front of multiple rows of cereal boxes, a prominent white line defined by a light on the ceiling signifies that Sgt. James is in the middle of a decision; faced with this option of a now colorful life in front of him with his child.  The camera then switches to a close up, then to a point-of-view through the eyes of Sgt. James as he scans the cereal options, which we can understand is him scanning his options for the direction of his life. The camera switches back to a close-up of Sgt. James: we see boxes behind him that say “Oatmeal to-Go” which signifies that in the back of his mind he knows he must go, he must leave his family again to chase the adrenaline rush of combat mission. As he exits the scene, the camera stays wide on the cereal aisle and the life he could have chosen but he walks away from it. Sgt. James swings his arm and hits an object dangling from the shelf.  Sgt. James cannot help but choose war over his family. Bigelow’s ability to create emotion in scenes and scenarios that seem so straight-forward and mundane create these special, unforgettable moments. Her work will continue to move audiences for years to come. 

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