There are obvious similarities between Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and her earlier best picture winner. Both deal with individuals in high pressure war situations, and seem to focus on these individuals rather than the overall conflict. I reviewed that film back when it came out in the early days of the blog, and I don’t super remember it now. I think I liked this film a bit more because of its even more precise and laser-like focus on one thing, and while I greatly respect it for that, I also don’t think it will rise to the top of my favorites or anything.
The Hurt Locker tells the story of a bomb diffusion unit in Iraq. Their first leader gets killed by a bomb he fails to diffuse in the first scene, and the rest of the film shows us the unit under its new commander William James (Jeremy Renner). He is quickly shown to be taking very big risks while diffusing bombs and not always communicating with the soldiers under him who are supposed to protect him. He is clearly suffering from the “war is a drug” phenomenon introduced in the opening text. This angers his second in command, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who finds it increasingly difficult to do his job. Eventually, the group’s time is up, but James can’t bring himself to stay at home for long.
Some films are very open to interpretation, and others very concretely show you the director’s vision. Not that there aren’t some things to debate about in this film, but I do believe it falls more into the second camp. When a film lays out its thesis statement in writing at the beginning of the film, and then goes onto to prove it with its story line, the film better be pretty damn good or there’s not going to be much interest in what follows. The Hurt Locker, from my point of view, just barely pulled this off which is a pretty amazing feat. We see James go into impossible situation after impossible situation with little thought to his safety, and somehow Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are able to make it compelling each time. “War is a drug,” and James is living cinematic proof of it.
The Hurt Locker does show exceptions to this rule though, which makes James’s behavior even more terrifying. Sanborn is in tears by the end of his experience, wanting to survive at any cost. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is afraid of dying from the very beginning, even seeing a shrink (Christian Carmargo) who eventually comes into the field with them. These contrasts help throw James’ behavior into sharper relief; everybody responds to the situation differently and James’ response seems the most reckless, but it has worked for him so far.
If you look at the films that have won best picture, you can see what America (or at least the Academy I guess) has thought of each war we’ve gotten ourselves into from WWI to now. From All Quiet on the Western Front to Cavalcade, from Mrs. Miniver to Patton, and from The Deer Hunter to Platoon, the films it awards give each conflict a character. (Though I don’t think a Korean War movie has ever won best picture, M*A*S*H was nominated in 1970 and took home screenplay. I believe the consensus is that the Korean War is a stand in for Vietnam anyway.) Maybe because Vietnam has already totally changed how we as a nation look at armed conflict, no films (at least as far as I can tell) give a distinct character to the Iraq one. Maybe we just need more time to process it, or maybe its total lack of character is the way we process it.
That’s not to hate on this film, which I do really respect, and it’s fine that one film doesn’t try to sum up the narrative of a war and just tries to tell a personal story within it. Maybe that’s all any film can do, and any attempt otherwise is self-indulgent wishful thinking. I couldn’t tell you, but I liked the personal story that was examined here.
The film uses techniques you’d associate with desert warfare, lots of shaky cam and washed out color grading. Though shaky cam is still not my favorite, if you’re going to use it, it should be used as it is used here. It’s deployed during moments of high stress and chaos, and we’re given static locked down shots during quieter moments for contrast. It’s interesting that towards the end of the movie, the washed out color scheme is still present in James’ home in the US, perhaps suggesting this dull view is what he experiences always.
The Hurt Locker won six out of its nine nominations at the 82nd Academy Awards. It was the first year the best picture was opened up from five nominees to anywhere from five to ten nominees; The Hurt Locker beat out nine other movies for the best picture spot (Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, and Up in the Air). I was still in my movie-going infancy in 2009 (I was a freshman in high school) so it comes in that early 21st century blindspot I have (when I was alive but didn’t really think about the movies I watched too much). I might enjoy Inglourious Basterds a bit more, but The Hurt Locker is a good choice I’d say.
Bigelow also made history that year as the first woman to win an Oscar for best director, and I only hope others can replicate that feat in the coming years. Boal also won for original screenplay (I gotta say he deserved it), and the film also took home both sound awards and picture editing. Renner lost out to Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart for lead actor, the cinematography award went to Avatar that year, and original score went to Up. All in all, I’d say the Oscars made the right call in awarding The Hurt Locker.
“There’s enough bang in there to send us all to Jesus. I’m gonna die, I wanna die comfortable.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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