Well done, Kathryn Bigelow.
I loved Point Break back in the day (and even on DVD last week, nearly 20 years since I first saw it in the cinema and felt completely exhilarated). And I thought she did a superb job with the under-appreciated Strange Days (what a brilliant and ghastly concept! Angela Bassett an inspiration! and has Tom Sizemore ever been more sinister?? – this was pre-Heat, of course…). As much as I hate to play the “Go women directors!” angle, she sure can produce a good action flick – no question about it.
So then she was suddenly nominated for an Iraq war film, best director and best picture Oscars among others, up against her ex-husband, the polarising James Cameron. He was up for Avatar, as we know all too well, and the inevitable taking of sides began. I hadn’t seen The Hurt Locker (we only just got it here in the last couple of weeks) but I knew Avatar sure as heck wasn’t deserving of Best Picture, and so (playing the “Go women directors!” angle) I was happy to support Bigelow, sight unseen. After all, since when does the Academy reward truly excellent films or superlative film-making anyway? not often of late…
Well, I’ve seen it now. And let’s put aside the Best Picture and Director wins for the time being. The Hurt Locker is a good, well-made film – it’s gripping, gritty, well-acted, the script is largely simple and non-sentimental, the characterisation is sufficiently engaging that you do care about whether the bomb disposal team live or die, and there are some pretty exciting cameos from Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes (the latter eliciting a *gasp* of recognition and a frisson of excitement from this viewer – mopey Ralph, all tanned, tough and Alpha-Maled up!!).
Jeremy Renner is our main guy throughout, a slightly caricatured devil-may-care kinda soldier Staff Sergeant William James (well, that’s my 2 favourite boys’ names right there). Will clearly relishes his role as the most successful member of the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) squad – he’s defused 873 bombs in his short career – and his attitude to the task at hand makes for incredibly exciting viewing. Leave the fear and apprehension to the others in the team (a particularly nice performance from the little-known Brian Geraghty) – Will is seemingly fearless, preferring to discard the special armoured suit in favour of working in shirt sleeves once he establishes there is a high likelihood of failure anyway, so he’d rather die comfortable.
The set-pieces are all superbly crafted. The photography juxtaposes close-ups of the actual bombs, so that we understand the intricacies of removing wires and detonators, with wide shots that bring home the context of each suspenseful situation – local Iraqis watch from their balconies with curiosity rather than fear, people go about their commerce in the streets, while the EOD team stands tense, alert, mindful of the potentially devastating outcome. To its credit, the film doesn’t overdo the jerky, handheld camerawork now emblematic of the Bourne school, yet the movement still brings you right into the action. Needless to say, the trick is in the editing – and to that end, every deployment keeps you gripped until Will James sits back in the truck and lights a cigarette, signalling all is well.
The film’s one difficulty is its ending. I sympathise somewhat with the writer – short of blowing up your protagonist and leaving us at a military funeral, how to round off over 2 hours of such drama? The answer is: drag us from the dusty heat of Iraq and throw us into Will’s claustrophobic rainy world “back home” with his wife and new baby. He struggles to reconcile the endless aisles of breakfast cereal with what he’s experienced at war, and following a slightly cringy and disappointingly banal monologue to his infant son, we see Will re-deployed to the Middle East, patently happy to be back doing what gives him purpose.
But Best Picture? Annoyingly, the Academy upped the shortlist to 10 films this year, not really leading the charge for separating wheat from chaff, but there you go. I was just so glad Avatar (in all its technical splendour, but laden with a rubbish script, story, characterisation, and all the other things that should really a Best Picture maketh) didn’t win. And given The Blind Side was also a nominee, clearly we weren’t shooting for the stars in 2009. The Hurt Locker is not quite Best Picture material in the way that No Country for Old Men, The English Patient and (my favourite) Silence of the Lambs were over the last 2 decades. But in the context of previous winning films, it’s actually pretty in keeping with the Academy’s taste. And I can’t honestly put one of the other 9 nominees as my preferred choice, so I guess I’ll just have to enjoy the film for its own merits, and hope for a more exciting, worthy Oscar race next March.