Oscar 2009: For a Change, the Right Movie Wins

Kathryn Bigelow Oscar Kathryn Bigelow Tom Hanks Oscar Kathryn Bigelow Oscar

Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" is the best picture of the year and the best film made about the Iraq War.

In an unprecedented way, "Hurt Locker" won all the major critics awards, including the N.Y., L.A., National Society of Film Critics, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.  The movie then swept, also in unprecedented manner, all the major guild awards, the Producers, the Directors, and the Writers.
 
I am very proud to have played a small role in writing about and elevating this picture, which should become a classic, a movie for the ages, to be revisited and reexamined in the future. Unlike its main competitor, "Avatar," which fades from memory while you are watching it, "Hurt Locker" continues to impress and to haunt. 
 
For the record, "Hurt Locker" world-premiered at the 2008 Venice Film Festival (in competition), where it unfortunately received a bad, irresponsible review from Variety (my former affiliation).
 
It took some time for the picture to find a distributor, Summit. However, it opened theatrically, in June 2009 (as counter-programming to summer popcorn fare), "Hurt Locker" received rave reviews form most critics (Its approval rate is 97 percent), a genuine case of a feature that united critics of different sensibilities, the Paulette (Pauline Kael's followers) as well as the followers of Andrew Sarris, my mentor at Columbia. (Bigelow was also a student of Sarris at Columbia). 
 
I have no doubts that this revisionist war movie should be studied in various film classes, dealing with the war movie genre, montage and mise-en-scene, how to integrate actions sequences in an exciting way into the narrative, how to build up suspense and tension in a natural, realistic, non-manipulative way.
  
For one reason or another, most of the Iraq war movies have been artistically disappointing, including Brian De Palma's "Redacted," Paul Haggis's "In the Valley of Elah," Kimberly Pierce's "Stop-Loss." This year, alongside "Hurt Locker," there was another good movie about the war, Oren Moverman's "The Messenger." Hopefully, these movies will remove the curse of this sub-genre at the box-office.
 
Grounded in the specificities of time, locale and combat in Iraq, "Hurt Locker" is effective as a thriller, as a drama, and as a revisionist war film, centering on the work of a group of American grunts charged with defusing explosive devices in and around Baghdad.
 
The authentic screenplay is penned by journalist Mark Boal, who was embedded with a bomb squad in Baghdad.  In 2004, Boal spent several weeks with a group operating in a dangerous section of the city, following their each and every movement. His first-hand observations of the squad's days and nights disarming bombs became the inspiration for the script. 
The movie suspenseful as one minor false move might result in a loss of life, or many lives. Bomb squads have played pivotal but under-reported part in the war, and bringing their work to light served as primary motivation for writing the script and making the movie.
 
Bigelow succeeds in stripping down the codes of the classic American war epic, while broadening its issues to encompass a dissection of the limits of bravery and the very definition of heroism in variable fighting conditions.

"Hurt Locker" belongs to the sub-genre of military men in extreme, crisis situations. When the story begins, the company has only 38 days left in its tour of duty.  The ensuing movie tells the story of one particular squad, which "simply" tries to survive until the rotation deadline.

 
Bigelow has always been more impressive in her mise-en-scene, use of dynamic camera, and image composition than in developing a strong coherent narrative with dramatically engaging characters.   Structurally, the movie consists of seven set-pieces divided by pauses, during which we get glimpses into the psychology of the men and the sociology of the issues. The filmmakers are intrigued by the mental and psychological strategies bomb technicians develop on the job. What kind of personality is "comfortable" with extreme risks, living so close to death? Indeed, high pressures and life-risking situations are built into these guys' "routine" jobs, which involve cutting wires or waiting for the right angle to shoot during a sniper showdown.
 
There's representation of the adrenaline rush, the macho attitude of some soldiers, the strictly professional approach of others (let's do the job and get out of here), the conflict between relying on instincts (gut feeling) versus knowledge of and familiarity with the enemy's latest technology and tactics.
"Hurt Locker" concentrates on a small number of characters; even in the set-pieces, the dramatic focus is kept tight on three men, co-dependent on each other.
 
The soldiers manifest more personal characteristics than those found in similar movies, such as Ridley Scott's well-executed "Black Hawk Down," in which there was no characterization at all; wearing similar uniforms and under the helmets all the boys looked the same. By standards of war movies, "Hurt Locker" offers much more detailed profiles for its three central men than is the norm.
 
Take Sergeant James, the protagonist of the story, a mercurial, swaggering, expert bomb technician with a cheerfully anarchical approach to combat and a masterfully controlled skill-set, who shocks his new team members with his enthusiastic disregard for established procedures. Despite his peers' vocal misgivings, James refuses to modify his mood or change his behavior, representing the kind of all American hubris and spirited independence. He's the kind of guy who instills both fear and admiration. James also becomes the catalyst for the film’s dramatic conflicts. His solitary focus is on the bomb offers motivation for engagement and his very sense of being alive. He’s most at home when he’s working on a bomb and most out of place when he’s with other people. The movie highlights the price of his heroism, the isolation and loneliness involved.
 
While the Arabs in the picture are a faceless crowd, representing a menacing threat, be they merchants, civilians, or suicide bombers, at least one character emerges clearly. There's a wonderful scene, in which James becomes obsessed with the bloody death of young Arab who used to sell DVDs and goes on his own to investigate it, risking his life.

The attention-grabbing opening reel, with handheld camera, grainy lensing, restless cutting, rapid pacing, and striking sound effects, sets the right tone for the rest of the film, which sustains tension and attention throughout and only gets dramatically weak in the last ten minutes or so. Visually, the combination of handheld camera and more stylized slow-motion results in some stunning, almost surreal sequences. 

 
As always, Bigelow is good with the physical aspects of the production, showing panache for "pure cinema." Her ability to create a sense of menace energizes "quieter" scenes in which the men are silently watched by Arab civilians, who may or may not be bystanders.   Bigelow shows realistic sensitivity for the men as they engage in ordinary dialogue, acts of male-bonding such as fighting and brawling, trying to building mutual trust while negating doubts and suspicions. Throughout there's a good feel for how physical and psychological dangers affect one's character. This becomes clearer in the last reel: As the end of Bravo Company's rotation approaches, the men change in unexpected ways; James, for one, threatens to go off the rails. 
 
Bigelow and ace cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who also shot Paul Greengrass' viusceral movie, "United 93," build up suspense to levels of nail-biting and gut-churning extremes. Ackroyd's commendably textured cinematography conveys in graphic detail sessions that take place at day and at night. The filmmakers capture with multiple Super 16 cameras the tension of intricately detailed sessions of bomb disarmaments with visceral, occasionally poetic imagery.

Written March 7, 2009