Ever since 1944 the Academy had been nominating five films per year for Best Picture or Best Motion Picture or Outstanding Motion Picture. From 1931/32-1943 the Academy was nominating between 8 and 10 pictures per year. They went back to that model in 2009, and we had a whopping 10 nominees for Best Picture, including the second time ever that an animated film (Up) was nominated for Oscar’s top prize.
The Hurt Locker, the first major film about the Iraq War, took home the Oscar for Best Picture on a night when Director Kathryn Bigelow surprisingly beat out her ex-husband James Cameron’s Avatar, which had only become the highest grossing film of all time and set a new standard on cutting edge special effects. Bigelow also took home the award for Best Director on Oscar Night, and the film would total six Oscar wins, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing.
I remember seeing The Hurt Locker right around the time it came out, and walking away underwhelmed. I’m not sure what I was expecting at the time, but I don’t think that I got it, and so it left me wanting more. Coming back this weekend and watching it for the first time since, I liked it much better than I did back then, but I still didn’t love it. Make no mistake though that this is an exceptional film that is one of the most intense and tension-filled films that I’ve ever seen. But at the end of the day, I feel that The Hurt Locker relied too much on that intensity and told a story that was episodic, disjointed and was lacking an overarching spine.
In fact my biggest issue with The Hurt Locker is the fact that it’s episodic. We are initially introduced to Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) as they’re on a mission to defuse a bomb with Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), who is the demolitions expert of the group. They all get along well, and this is a group that clearly works well together. They find the IED, and plan on using a controlled blast with a robot to drop charges on it, but the robot breaks apart over the heavy terrain, and Thompson is forced to put the charges on manually. As he’s being covered by Sanborn and Eldridge, Eldridge notices a guy nearby with a cellphone that looks like he’s getting ready to detonate. Eldridge can’t get a shot off and Thompson can’t clear the blast zone before the bomb is detonated and he’s killed in the explosion.
We’re then introduced to Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) who takes Thompson’s place in the group. He has a reputation as a maverick and he likes to do things his own way. This sometimes gets under the skin of Sanborn, who likes to run clean operations where everyone is on the same page. It also adversely affects Eldridge, who’s losing his will and is constantly thinking about how he’s probably going to be killed there. He periodically sees Col. John Cambridge, a psychiatrist, but his inexperience in the field doesn’t help Eldridge’s disposition, and James’ unorthodox tactics don’t do anything to ease Eldridge’s mental state either.
James makes waves on their first mission by not communicating with Sanborn and not following Sanborn’s advice which would have used Thompson’s protocol of using the robot to scope out the situation first. Instead James goes over the bomb, which turns out to be a cluster of bombs connected to each other and he disarms them after several very tense minutes. He also used a smoke canister to block Sanborn and Eldridge from being able to see him so that they couldn’t cover him adequately. He disarms the bombs successfully, but Sanborn and Eldridge are clearly unhappy with their new team member.
The next mission has James disarming a car bomb at a nearby embassy. This time he completely shuts off communication with Sanborn because Sanborn’s constant demands to know James’ location were messing with James’ concentration. James is ultimately able to diffuse the bomb, but he’s greeted when he gets back the Humvee by a punch in the face from Sanborn.
Their next mission takes them out to the desert to explode some ordinance they’ve captured. James tells them to stop because he left his gloves down there, and he drives down to retrieve them. While he’s down there, Sanborn wonders out loud to Eldridge if they could get away with killing him and make it look like an accidental explosion. Eldridge convinces him that it would be a bad idea, and James drives away before Sanborn can set off the explosives.
On their way back the base they come across an SUV with some British contractors and the team leader (Ralph Fiennes) tells them they have a flat. As they’re trying to repair it they come under sniper fire and the team leader and a couple of other contractors are killed. Sanborn is a good shot, and he manages to take out the snipers, who are in a structure several hundred meters away. As they wait for any movement, an insurgent prepares to shoot them until Eldridge sees him and fires first, killing the man before he can kill them. James tells him he did good but Eldridge is clearly not feeling good about himself.
Back on the base, James befriends a young local boy named Beckham who sells him videos and plays soccer. The kid is learning to be a con man, but James takes a liking to the boy. Unfortunately the next time the team is out they’re sweeping a bomb-making facility and they come across the bloody body of Beckham and a bomb has been surgically implanted in his body. Heartbroken, James puts packs on the boy’s chest to detonate him, but then decides to remove the bomb from the boy’s chest cavity and he carries him outside. Later on he tries to find the people responsible, but his search quickly goes nowhere.
Meanwhile, Col Cambridge has accompanied them on the mission and is trying to get people to disperse. James and the others get in the Humvee, but an IED goes off right where Col. Cambridge is standing, killing him instantly. Eldridge can’t believe it, but James assures him that Cambridge couldn’t have survived.
The next mission they go on is to investigate a blast zone that was possibly for a suicide bomber. Against the advice of Sanborn, James orders the team to go on a search, when that’s not what they’re really qualified to do. They get separated from each other and James and Sanborn reconnect to find Eldridge getting dragged away by a couple of insurgents. They give chase and kill the insurgents, but Eldridge gets hit in the leg in the cross fire. The next day, James and Sanborn go out to see him off, and Eldridge thanks James for saving his life, but then curses him for always recklessly looking for trouble.
The next day, James and Sanborn respond to a call of a lone man in a large plaza with a bomb strapped to him. Through a translator the man says he has a family and doesn’t want to die. James goes out to investigate and there is a bomb strapped to him with reinforced steel casing and pad locks. The bomb is complicated with a lot of wires and timed to go off in two minutes. Sanborn rushes out with bolt cutters, but there are too many locks, and James has to run away before the man explodes. He doesn’t get quite get out of the blast zone and is knocked unconscious.
The next time we see James he’s at home with his wife and young son. He tries to tell her stories of the war, but she doesn’t want to hear them. They go grocery shopping, and it’s nothing more than monotony to James. He loves his son, but this is a world in which James feels out of place. He is redeployed to Iraq and he has a slight smile on his face as we see him depart the personnel carrier.
Again, the tension in this film is unreal and at times it’s almost unbearable. The problem is that other than the sequence where he goes home, all of those scenes are interchangeable. You could mix up the order in any way you choose, and it wouldn’t change the film at all. There is no building of tension. All of the scenes are equally intense, which could be what Bigelow and Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal were going for, but it just isn’t cinematic enough for me.
Also there was no real growth in James as a character. Some of the characters changed around him, but he had no real outer goal or inner need other than just survival to allow the audience to empathize with him. He’s disconnected from his wife and child back home, so we don’t necessarily root for him to get back there, and he doesn’t really fit in with the people he’s surrounded with in Iraq. Perhaps if he had been counting down the days before he could see his son, then we as the audience would have some sort of empathy with him as we follow him on this journey. Unfortunately with no real goal for the main character, the film is left without a spine. It’s really nothing more than a series of highly intense sequences with a loose narrative that holds them loosely together.
With those issues in place, I find The Hurt Locker to be an incomplete film, and I find myself to be somewhat schizophrenic in my assessment of it. On the one hand it’s an intense film that keeps you riveted and on the edge of your seat. But on the other hand it has a storyline and characters that are so disconnected that it’s difficult to get emotionally engaged with what’s going on. That’s the big difference between this film and previous war dramas that won Best Picture like Platoon and The Deer Hunter. The characters in those films experienced a level of disconnect, but they had inner goals and needs that allowed us to empathize with them and root for them. If The Hurt Locker had been able to accomplish that, we’d be able to put it on the same level as those films. As it is now, it came up just short.
One side note as well is that Ralph Fiennes joined the “3-Timers” club. He’s only in this film for about 5 minutes, so I hesitated in including him, but he is appearing in his third Best Picture Winner (Schindler’s List and The English Patient).
Did the Academy get it right?
I was just really happy that Avatar didn’t win. I thought that Avatar was stunning visually. I saw it in 3D, and it truly was spectacular to look at. The problem with Avatar was everything else. It had a contrived narrative that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be Dances With Wolves or Pocahontas and it wasn’t as good as either. I felt that the story for Avatar overall was very weak and the characters were color-by-numbers stereotypes that were as unimaginative as they could be. I liked The Blind Side, An Education and Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, but I’m not sure if any or all of those would have been even nominated had the five picture limit still been in place. They all had compelling stories with amazing characters, but none of them feel particularly “Best Picture” quality to me. I loved District 9, and thought that was everything that Avatar was not. It raised compelling political issues, used special effects to enhance the story, and it gave us characters, even in the aliens, that we could empathize with. I also enjoyed Up in the Air. It was a dramatic film with great performances from George Clooney and Anna Kendrick, and it had a deep story about the downsizing of America and the toll that it’s taking not only on those being downsized but the people doing the downsizing as well. It’s a fascinating film. I’m not a huge fan of Up. Anyone who follows this blog knows that I’m an animation guy, and I’m a fan of PIXAR in general, but I think Up is great for the first 20-30 minutes and then it goes off the rails, especially in the third act. My favorite film of the year, though, and the one I would have voted for was Inglourious Basterds. I am a fan of Quinten Tarantino, and I would put this film just behind Pulp Fiction as my two favorite Tarantino films. I thought it was a brilliantly told story and the performances of Christophe Waltz (Best Supporting Actor winner), Brad Pitt and the other supporting actors were superb. I think it also had a much better script than did The Hurt Locker and it had a much more compelling narrative. While this isn’t one of the biggest travesties in Oscar history, I do believe that the Academy picked the wrong winner for 2009.