The Hurt Locker is a perfectly fine film. Better than adequate, even. I enjoyed it. But it would not be in the Oscar discussion in the vast majority of years. So why is it a co-favorite, along with Avatar, for Best Picture in 2010? And…why am I rooting for it to win?
2009 was a shitty year for movies, any way you slice it. I’m not sure any “great” movies were released this year. Inglourious Basterds comes closest, but even that couldn’t compete in a year like 2007 (No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood). Add to that the fact that many of the fall awards season hopefuls were vastly disappointing (Invictus, Nine, The Lovely Bones, The Road) and you see a summer movie that received everybody-likes-it-nobody-loves-it reviews build momentum. The Hurt Locker looks much better in January, after comparisons to those high-profile duds, than it did in July.
Once The Hurt Locker squirms its way into the conversation, it’s got a lot going for it: It’s a war movie, which pleases Hollywood’s liberals. It’s not overtly political, which allows Hollywood’s liberals to promote it without fear of a backlash from flyover country. It was directed by a woman, which allows Hollywood’s liberals to feel good about their open-minded, equal-opportunity ways. It was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, and the Academy loves nothing more than honoring a long-unappreciated, workaday director. It was directed by the ex-wife of James Cameron, which ties it to the success of Avatar and places it adjacent to the biggest story of the year.
With all that going on, the severe limitations of The Hurt Locker get overlooked. The movie is nothing more than a series of action set-pieces. They’re affecting and suspenseful, at first. Then, they grow repetitive and even boring. And the scenes between the main character and the darling Iraqi scamp that pass for character development are hokey and embarrassing. These are stock characters in stock action movie scenarios. The film’s well crafted but it’s not ground-breaking.
And as a war movie? Uh, I guess that in a democracy, we get the war movie we deserve based on the war we’re actually fighting.
Any two episodes of Generation Kill were more affecting and thought-provoking than The Hurt Locker, and often just as suspenseful. The Hurt Locker tells us nothing beyond “war is hard” and “soldiers have to be crazy” and “defusing bombs is nerve-wracking.” Maybe our international creative collective used up all its war-movie ideas on Vietnam and World War II and Three Kings. Maybe there’s nothing left for Iraq II. Because this? This isn’t a war movie. This is an action movie in fatigues, and there’s a big difference.
Unfortunately, though, if you’re not on Team Hurt Locker, that means you’re on Team Avatar. I am not on Team Avatar.
James Cameron already won a Best Picture Oscar for a mediocre film that broke all box office records. Let’s stop validating his behavior, people. Titanic beat L.A. Confidential, Good Will Hunting and Boogie Nights, among other more-worthy contenders. In an ideal world, I would love to see Inglourious Basterds win (although that still wouldn’t right the wrong of Pulp Fiction losing to Forest Gump), but in this world, I’ll take what I can get, so I’ll be pleased if The Hurt Locker beats Avatar. Finally, the U.S. military can gain its revenge on the Na’vi.
If it wins, The Hurt Locker will go down in history with Gladiator, Rocky and Oliver! as perfectly good genre films that were elevated to Best Picture status by a variety of external factors. In the history of the Academy Awards, wherein atrocities like Chicago and Crash also get their time at the podium, that’s not so bad. And in a shit movie year like 2009, a respectable genre film winning probably represents a best-case scenario.