THE HURT LOCKER won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2009, after drawing near-universal critical praise. Yet, perhaps reflecting widespread disgust and aversion to the US-led war in Iraq and the overall regional quagmire of lies, waste and destruction, the public only signed on for $49,231,000 worldwide, with just $17,018,000 of that plunked down in the States. The relatively lean expenditure of $15,000,000 was covered, but the taut and gripping story deserved better. War? Which one? Oh, yeah, well, whatever…who’s on American Idol?…
Set in 2004, the scenario follows a U.S. Army EOD unit in Baghdad. Handling the Explosive Ordnance Disposal are ‘Sgt. William James’ (Jeremy Renner), ‘Sgt. J.T. Sanborne’ (Anthony Mackie) and ‘Specialist Owen Eldridge’ (Brian Geraghty). Hoping to complete their perilous tour in one piece, the CYA-cautious Sanborne and mission-pessimistic Eldridge grow increasingly nervous working with the danger-inhaling James, whose uncanny expertise and remarkable record rest on a breezy recklessness that seems borderline unhinged.
Screenwriter Mark Boal, who also wrote Zero Dark Thirty, based the grim and incisive script off his experiences as a reporter who had been embedded with a bomb-disposal unit in Iraq. Directing, Kathryn Bigelow wanted to get at the psychological side of this sort of crazy but crucial combat job, along with delivering a rocket-propelled action thriller. As she put it “War’s dirty little secret is that some men love it. I’m trying to unpack why, to look at what it means to be a hero in the context of 21st-century combat.” Fittingly, the 131 tension-wracked minutes begin with a quote from veteran war correspondent (and valiant warrior for sanity) Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”
Start to wrap, it barely pauses for breath, the recreation of a shattered and ever-fluid war zone done through intense location filming in Jordan (120 degrees and suited up), with a palpitating soundtrack from Marco Beltrami undercoating Barry Ackroyd’s baking cinematography. Four Super 16mm cameras operating simultaneously were used to capture multiple angles, per Bigelow’s idea to sink audiences, as she put it, “into something that was raw, immediate and visceral”…”That’s how we experience reality, by looking at the microcosm and the macrocosm simultaneously. The eye sees differently than the lens, but with multiple focal lengths and a muscular editorial style, the lens can give you that microcosm/macrocosm perspective, and that contributes to the feeling of total immersion.” Editors then pieced the perspectives together from 200 hours of film. It took them eight months.
Headlong momentum, blistering action, pensive meditation, and some star-making acting, with a deceptively dynamic Renner catapulted from strong supporting roles to the big leagues. Bigelow took the Oscar for Direction, her win the first-ever for a woman (and a decade later the only one since) but also a “see?-look!” coup takeaway from her ex-husband, James Cameron, up for his ingenious piloting of Avatar, which grossed sixty-five times as much as The Hurt Locker. To his credit, he was enthusiastically supportive and magnanimous, saying “it could be the Platoon for the Iraq War”. Bigelow would follow up with the acclaimed Osama-hunt-&-raid story, Zero Dark Thirty.
Along with the big prize and Bigelow’s gold statue, Oscars went to the Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing. Nominations were up for Best Actor (Renner), Cinematography and Music Score. ***
With brief, bracing cameos from Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes and David Morse (scary) and further supporting work from Christian Camargo, Christopher Sayegh, Sam Spruell and Evangeline Lilly. The live-wire editing credits Chris Innis and Bob Murawski.
* It was the lowest grossing Best Picture winner since Oliver! in 1968. It did do $30,000,000 in DVD sales. Post-popcorn, the war/s drag on. Who’s next? Maybe we can all be in it? Isn’t that the end game, finally? Oh, right, it’s ‘democracy’ and ‘free elections’; how silly of me….
** A quote from Renner on the travails of working in Jordan’s 120-degree temperatures : “We were already pushed to the limits. People wanted to quit. All the departments were struggling to get their jobs done, none of them were communicating. There was a lot of fighting going on. The heat does something to your brain, and on top of that I was in this bomb suit and I had explosive diarrhea, so I was like: ‘Get this thing off me!’ I wanted to punch people. You could not pay me enough money to do it again.”
*** Good as it is as drama (and it is really good), riveting though may be as an action thriller, convincing as it feels for a window into the mind-warp of continual lethal stress— as a details-accurate document of how professional combat units function it’s still non-combatant make believe (of a high order, for sure), with it’s unlikely practices seconded as fictive by the backlash of criticism from veterans who did/do the real thing. Well-intended, certainly. Stunningly made, without question. Real?—get off the couch, sign up and find-the-f out. At any rate, a helluva movie.