Mark Boal, OC ’95 and winner of an Academy Award for his screenplay for The Hurt Locker, visited campus on Sept. 19 as part of the Convocation series. The former Philosophy major joined Review staff and others at The Slow Train Café to talk about his transition from philosophy to writing, the success of The Hurt Locker, and the effect of the Oberlin mentality on his work.
You graduated as a Philosophy major from Oberlin. When did you know you wanted to do journalism? Was it when you were studying here?
I was thinking about it while I was at Oberlin, but I didn’t write for the paper. I wasn’t one of those guys who wrote for the high school newspaper either, but I pursued it more or less within a year or two after graduating.
What led you in that direction?
I loved journalism growing up. One of my fondest memories of my father, who passed away this year, was waking up in the morning and reading The New York Times with him and going over the sports pages. We would discuss the game from the point of view of whoever was writing about it: The Daily News or The Post or The New York Times. So I really grew up loving that whole world. That was a big part of it. I wanted to see if I could be a part of it.
Unlike other films that have been produced in recent years concerning the Iraq War (Stop-Loss, Brothers, Lions for Lambs) you have attributed the success of The Hurt Locker to the fact that it was more of a “war movie.” Can you explain what you mean by that and why you think this was such a different kind of film?
I think one of the main differences, and there are many, is that The Hurt Locker is primarily a combat movie. It depicts the struggles of the daily lives of the men on the front line of the war, and most of the so-called Iraq War movies that have come out prior to that focus on aspects of the war like the home front, the return of soldiers, the re-integration into society after a war, the role the intelligence community played leading up to the war, things like that — but none of them, with one or two exceptions, play into the heart of the genre, which is the existential struggle of the men under fire. Hurt Locker is certainly not the first movie to do that. There’s a great tradition of war movies that recently goes back to things like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon or Apocalypse Now, and you can go back even further. Literary approaches to that subject are long and storied as well. We felt like we were trying to work in that vein, but at the same time, hopefully, in a contemporary way. There was an attempt to look at that genre and try to bring it forward in a way that hadn’t quite been done.
Here at Oberlin, I think we like to consider ourselves politically aware and active. Do you think that mentality has affected your work, especially in regard to what you choose to focus on?
I do think Oberlin shaped my political point of view to some degree, although I will say it was even more shaped by the people I met in the course of life once I graduated. I think what I really took out of Oberlin was a kind of intellectual skepticism, which I attribute to the Philosophy department—specifically, a skepticism towards big overriding ideologies that like to pretend that reality can be fit into a particular analytical frame. But as far as what my politics are, I think they came more out of firsthand experience with politicians covering Washington and with reporters and editors who trained me as I came up through the ranks. There was an editor at The Village Voice named Richard Goldstein who had been very active in the ’60s in the student movements and was one of the first guys to really take all that stuff seriously, and he was a mentor to me for many years. There were dozens of people who were professionally involved in politics who I learned a lot from. That was really where I developed my point of view, more so than when I was in college.