Oscar 2009: Bigelow's Hurt Locker for Best Picture Oscar

Kathryn Bigelow's “The Hurt Locker” is not only the best movie about the Iraq War, but it's also her most satisfying work in a career spanning close to three decades.


Released by Summit, which picked up the film after its premiere at Venice and Toronto Film Fests, the film opened in limited release last month in few markets, such as New York and L.A., and is going nationwide on Friday, July 24.  Makes sure to see it.


I'll address Bigelow's chances to earn a Best Director Oscar nomination in a future article, but for now I want to sing the praise for her movie: “The Hurt Locker” should be a contender for the 2009 Best Picture Oscar.  Now that the Academy has decided to broaden the Best Picture category to include ten films, “Hurt Locker” stands a better chance to be included.  But how good a chance?


Though it's only July, I doubt if we we'll see many American films in the rest of the year that are so accomplished, fulfilling expectations on many level. “Hurt Locker” is a good suspense-thriller, a good combat war film, a good chronicle of men in life-risking situations, a good movie in which there's congruency between subject matter, narrative structure, visual format and style.

In a recent interview, Bigelow has said, “It all starts with the script, which in this case is the logic of bomb disarmament.” And yet, here is a movie which, despite it reliance on a previously published literary source, Mark Boal's book, is an expression of pure cinema, a work made specifically for the screen utilizing the distinctive properties of movies as an art form.


“Early on,” says Bigelow, “I realized geography would be central to the audience’s understanding of what the bomb squad does on a daily basis.” Indeed, with painstaking attention to detail, Bigelow and her team have chronicled what it means to be a member of that squad, the fears and anxieties, but also the thrillers and excitement.
Boal’s observations of one tightly knit bomb squad is a perfect fit to a filmmaker known for highly kinetic films that put their characters in extreme situations. “The fact that these men live in mortal danger every day makes their lives inherently tense, iconic and cinematic, Bigelow says.” And exactly the same words could be used to describe the movie, “”tense, iconic, and cinematic.”


Bigelow has made an independent movie that's intensely experiential, by placing audiences on the ground with the bomb squad.  Bigelow shot her film, which was entirely storyboarded, with four handheld cameras simultaneously.  Says Bigelow: “Everything about this movie—the directing, script, camera work, music, editing—was conceived from the beginning with the single goal of creating that heightened sense of realism that underscores the tension, without losing the layering of these complicated characters.”

Factors Working Against Oscar Nomination


Academy's Short Memory


“The Hurt Locker” is a summer release, and the Academy voters are notoriously known for having a short memory, and, as I documented in my Oscar books, the vast majority of Oscar contenders and winners have been released in the fall, particularly in the month of December


Female Director


In the Academy's entire history, only a few women have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar, two of whom of foreign origins, Italian Lina Wertmuller for “Seven Beauties” and Jan Campion for “The Piano.”  Even movies that win a spot at the top race, such as “Awakenings” in 1990 and “The Prince of Tides” in 1991, have denied Oscar nominations to their filmmakers, Penny Marshall and Barbra Streisand, respectively. 


The War Genre


With few exceptions, the war film has not featured prominently in Oscar's history.  Most of the Oscar-winning pictures have devoted equal attention to the battlefront and home front, such as Michael Cimino's “The Deer Hunter.”


No Facile Melodrama


Oliver Stone's “Platoon,” which won the Oscar award in 1986, may be the exception, though I suspect that what made his picture appealing to the Academy voters are not the fighting scenes in the jungle, but the central moral dilemma, and the triangle of characters that embodied it: Charlie Sheen, posited between two sergeants-fathers-role models, a good one (Willem Dafoe) and a bad one (Tom Berenger)


Too Small for Oscar


“Hurt Locker” is not a small movie, but it might be perceived as such, as too specialized, too narrowly focused.  Even so, there's always a room for one “small” film, though it tends to be British and acting-driven, such as Peter Yates' “The Dresser” in 1983, John Boorman's “Hope and Glory” in 1987, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” in 1994, Mike Leigh's “Secrets & Lies” in 1996, “The Full Monty” in 1997.

At the risk of sounding contradictory, I'd like to suggest that “The Hurt Locker” is an intimate (not small) picture made on an epic scale.  To understand that seemingly paradoxical label, you need to see the film.