March 8, 2010


"The Hurt Locker" won big at the Oscars, a total of six awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Film Editing), making history in the process: Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman to win in the "Best Director" category. Did it deserve it? And what is the Academy trying to say by this sweeping bestowal of accolades?

First of all, "The Hurt Locker" is a fine movie with bold sound, "you-are-there" cinematography, and some incredible acting, not only on the part of the main character, SSG William James (Jeremy Renner, nominated for Best Actor), but also his two comrades-in-arms: Sgt. J T Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, who could have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor), and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), the scared, stressed soldier in therapy between missions. Although the movie is placed in the buzz of war, there's really only these three characters, so when you think about it, this is a small movie in a mid-size war. It reminded me immediately of a movie about three other soldiers in the First Gulf War, "Three Kings," but without the surreality. And for all its gritty, meticulous re-creation of scenarios that have become familiar even to us back home, HL is not a strict re-enactment of anything. It is a fictional drama, a sophisticated Hollywood movie, plopped down in the midst of America's long war.

Part of Bigelow's genius and artistic vision is that she slowed down much of the action to very long, yet tense and riveting scenes that require our full attention and appreciation, and from which we cannot look away.

The story begins by cutting deep into a day in the life of a specialist detonating IEDs. He is dressed in a protective outfit that looks like something from "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." He doesn't make it and is promptly replaced by SSG William James--a crack, reckless and preternaturally-gifted bomb-dismantler. (HL is not a violent explosion or gorefest as I thought it might be.)

There have been several other Iraq/Afghanistan War movies made, but none have captured our imaginations until HL. Why? Perhaps because HL doesn't seem to be saying anything "political," doesn't seem to be taking "sides." Some criticize Bigelow for not overtly condemning war with her movie, but she defends herself by saying her movie shows what war is and what it does to people on both sides. I found that she did portray the Iraqi people as real characters, and although the audience is "embedded" with our troops, we are made to feel very much that we are obviously and unavoidably in someone else's territory. There is an acknowledgment that a different people thinks and lives somewhat differently than we do. Nobody's life is "realer" than anyone else's, everybody's life is precious. No one is demonized, no one is canonized, and yet the moral framework of every situation, every decision to be made, stands tall. What doesn't stand tall is the overall question of war, and this particular war. But perhaps it is no longer politically correct, patriotic or polite to ask these questions. But maybe what is more insane than war itself is NOT asking "Why?"

James is a not a typical or orthodox soldier. But at the end of the day, he's a very good soldier, one of the best, which makes one question what it takes to be a good soldier. As has been said in other reviews, James is a creature of war. But I thought he'd be portrayed as a little crazy. But he's not. He's perfectly sane. And kind to all. After all, his job is not combat, it's protecting lives. My fear and complaint about HL is primarily a visual one. Although James is not a combatant, is he not still the image of the immortal, invulnerable American warrior? His heart in the right place in a war without end, a war with endless resources? SPOILER ALERT: No one we get to know, no one we have come to love and care about in HL gets killed.

As John Paul II says, "War is an adventure from which there is no return." Perhaps war is also a lie: a man is wired to answer the call to defend family and homeland, but the call to war takes him far away from family and country, and he deprives his wife and children of what they need most from him: his presence. Warfare and his buddies become his life, and he is often rendered incapable in mind or body (or both) to ever return to his hearth.

With all due respect to Jeremy Renner, I thought Anthony Mackie was a slightly better actor who never, ever slipped out of character for even a whisper of a nanosecond. One of the times that I felt Renner did this was probably not his fault. It was towards the end of the film when James sums up the whole theme of the movie in one exposed-like-a-wire, on-the-nose statement. If you haven't seen the movie yet...wait for it. We really didn't need that. We get it.

Was HL deserving of all this praise? Yes, although not as consistently excellent as "Precious." And what are the Tinseltown powers-that-be telling us by this choice? Hollywood—at first unsure about our present wars--has come around to a kind of unmitigated support of them. Do they feel guilty? Grateful? Or are they just saying that HL is high-quality entertainment? Can war be entertainment?

HL raises lots of questions and so do its awards.


--As a story, there's really not much to HL. It's more a "slice of life," "day in the life" type of experience. The characters barely have an arc (except for quick switch at the end for Sgt. Sanborn). Our main character changes not a whit. We are so caught up in the fantastic filmmaking and character study that we might fail to notice this. But maybe this stasis, this tautology, speaks loudest of all. Have we, as Americans in particular, accepted, made peace with a "permanent state of war"? Why are we not asking the big questions we asked at the beginning of the war(s)? (Like: What does Iraq have to do with 9/11? What about international law?) Are we afraid to denigrate the sacrifices of our service men and women? Do we not want to clarify and understand what they ARE sacrificing for? What happened to being pro-soldier (pro-all human beings, pro-life) and anti-war?

At the end of every movie, we are supposed to ask: "So what?" What would it matter if this movie were never made? What have I gained from seeing this film? Or at least, what does the journey of the movie mean for the characters? If they made a journey.

--Was the choice of name "William James" connected to the fact that American philosopher William James (my fellow Bostonian) was a pragmatist? (Pragmatism--as a philosophy--is considered to be a truly American philosophy.)


  1. My objections to The Hurt Locker are twofold: artistic and moral.

    On an artistic level, I did not find the film captivating. I was not impressed by the shoestring plot, and the camera work was horrid (when will Holloywood stop acknowledging the hand-held camera and go back to the track?). I would agree that the actors playing Sanborn and Eldridge were more on the mark than Jeremy Renner (Mel Gibson or Russell Crowe could have easily played the same part in my opinion).

    As far as morals go, I was not happy with the positive light it shines on war - and was hoping for a better ending. For instance, I would sit through the war and violence of Avatar because the payoff at the end was worthwhile: peace. But the ending here, not to spoil anyone, was a let-down. I would have liked to have followed Sanborn on his way home from war, because in his final speech, HE got it - HE understood the futility of this war. His is the story I want to know more about, not the disturbed SSG James.

    When Hurt Locker walked away with all its awards, I was disappointed in the Academy. Is this the film 2009 should be remembered for? Is this the movie we should be pointing towards for years to come? Is this the one people will not stop talking about? Or will it be forgotten like many of the other recent Oscar winners over the past decade? In my simple and humble opinion, I sure hope so.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Paul! I agree that some of the handheld camera work was very unnecessary in HL (and took me out of the film). I added some comments under "Other Stuff" about the whole statement or non-statement HL makes about war in general.... Is this a "tribute to the troops" film or an attempt at a-moralizing and neutralizing the horror of war?

  3. Interesting article on how U.S. military sees "Hurt Locker":