It won. This narrow, simplistic, disappointing little film won the Oscar.
No, I’m not shocked. Nor am I disappointed with the Academy — though it has been on an admirably strong run in this century (No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire), this is also the group that elevated both Shakespeare in Love and Titanic to the pantheon. But I am annoyed that such a flawed movie has managed to achieve this amount of acclaim, and that The Hurt Locker is, even more gratingly, regarded now as an “important” film. It is not important – not in the way, at least, that great works of art (cinema included) are capable of being.
Let me pause to deliver some compulsory words of mitigation. No, the film is not all bad, and indeed in some aspects it is quite good. The strongest of these is its portrayal of a sniper battle in the desert outside Baghdad. The American explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) unit that is the focus of the movie runs across an undercover team of British special forces soldiers or mercenaries (it is never clarified which), fronted somewhat surprisingly by the under-employed but always enjoyable Ralph Fiennes, who brings a jaunty cynicism to the three minutes of life his character has before being suddenly killed by an extremely skilled insurgent sniper.
As Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner) and Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) take over the defense from the now leaderless and implausibly helpless Brits, we see through James’ telescope that the insurgents are firing from a blockhouse that seems shockingly far away. Small dark silhouettes in windows swim in the heat, and as James and Sanborn fire a heavy-caliber sniper rifle back at their attackers, the viewer has time take in a full breath while waiting in silence for the round to reach its target — which it does with a puff of debris, but not a whisper of sound. After long minutes, punctuated at an early point by a desperate struggle to make a magazine of ammunition workable again by cleaning a dead soldier’s blood from every single round, the Americans seem to win the fight. But there is no cheering or back-slapping. James and Sanborn stay where they are, staring through the scope at the blockhouse until the sun starts to set, watching all this time for the movement that will tell them their enemy has in fact survived, and has been out-waiting them.
As a realistic depiction of one of the many faces of human combat, this scene must rank up there with the Omaha Beach landing in Saving Private Ryan.
Other virtues that the film possesses, however, turn out to be double-edged. Cinematography is one such. It is artful and perfectly-controlled in most of the scenes, and certain shots — like one that focuses on the levitation of sand grains and gravel in the blast radius of an exploding IED — even achieve an undeniable kind of slow-motion beauty. Yet this same high quality cinematography, this same control over colour palette and visual design, are what robs the film of much of its edge. Yes, there’s blood and dirt and dust and garbage. But it’s all presented too perfectly to feel quite real. In fact, it makes the viewer feel at some subliminal but convincing level that war is its own unified and choreographed world — not a violent, jagged-edged disruption of people’s normal and everyday lives, but a different state of being altogether. Perhaps even a better one.
Where the visuals are intended to shock and jar the viewer, the film crosses over into the realm of the pedantic. Insurgents daisy-chain their IEDs together; bombers hide explosives in dead bodies; terrorists detonate oil trucks near civilians. All of these episodes are presented as shocking revelations, yet anyone who has read the weekend papers even occasionally over the past seven years knows perfectly well that all of these tactics have been used by various factions in the Iraq insurgency at one time or another. Director Kathryn Bigelow seems to want to use these revelations in two ways: first, to tell Americans who don’t read the weekend papers what war against an insurgency is really like, and second, to set the virtue of American soldiers against the perfidy of Iraqi bombers.
This rather unchallenging moral comparison is unfortunately symptomatic of the film’s worldview and central flaw. Through Bigelow’s lens, there are American soldiers — people who are good-hearted, if sometimes fearful and confused — and there are Iraqis — people who are (a) passive citizens victimized by their more vicious brethren, (b) suspicious-looking people who peer from windows and speak inscrutable things into cell phones, or (c) ruthless, faceless murderers. The one man foolish enough to attempt to engage with Iraqis while on patrol is a naive Ivy League chaplain, who gets immediately blown up for his pains. The Iraq of The Hurt Locker is hardly more nuanced and authentic than the Vietnam of The Deer Hunter, and indeed, both movies share an unwavering and wholly sympathetic focus on those whom they apparently believe are the real victims of war: American soldiers trying to do good in exotic lands peopled by cruel and cynical foreigners.
Viewed solely in this light, The Hurt Locker is an important movie, arriving as it does at the “poor us” stage of this latest U.S. war: it gives American civilians the chance to mourn their losses (physical, yes, but especially psychological) and to rue the day that their soldiers ever set foot in an ungrateful and uncivilized country — both of these being essential steps in drawing a comfort blanket of denial and self-forgiveness over an anticipated military retreat. The Deer Hunter and The Hurt Locker are both important as mytho-political works that neuter the psychological impact of defeat and allow the nation to move beyond its wars with its self-image intact, but as works of art they are shallow and solipsistic. We know which matters more to the Academy. Which should matter more to us?