Movie Review/Oscar Talk: The Hurt Locker

E: I admit it.  I’m a bit baffled.  I’m more than a little bit baffled, actually. Why is this movie going to win Best Picture, again?

Oh, sure, I get some elements of this “war as drug”/bomb squad as adrenaline junkie Iraq war flick. My heart pounded and my whole body tensed up during most of the action sequences – not least in the moments where famous actors showed up as cameos, because I knew immediately they’d be cannon fodder.  Otherwise, I would have known they were in the movie.  I liked some of the character development, and I liked that the movie made clear that war is not a drug for most soldiers.   I just didn’t enjoy it.

My Dad, who was a Marine platoon leader in the Vietnam War, says that a “hurt locker” is military slang for a bad situation – not necessarily one that relates to combat.  If you had a bad hangover, you might tell your friends you’re in the hurt locker.  The bomb squad followed by this film is in the hurt locker alright. Specialist Owen Eldridge (played by Brian Geraghty) is spooked and certain he’s going to die; he’s good at his job, but he’s also terrified by the need for constant vigilance.  The camp shrink, Cambridge, tries to talk him into a cheerier attitude, but Eldridge can’t get past the random nature of survival. Anthony Mackie’s J.T. Sanborn plays it by the book, rigidly following rules to cocoon himself in a fiction of security.  So when William James struts into camp as their new squad leader, a mere month before their tour is up, and tosses security protocols out the window, both Sanborn and Eldridge are convinced he’s going to get them killed.  They’re nearly right, many times over.  James, played with occasionally alarming intensity by Jeremy Renner, gets them results, but at what emotional cost?  He drags them into situations more and more dangerous to satisfy his need to feel alive.

Watching this film, it’s hard to imagine how any human being lives through a war zone.  Your nerves jangle after the first hour’s worth of unrelated defusings.  There’s a truly harrowing moment early on where James thinks he has the situation in control, but finds a wire leading from the incendiary he’s just defused.  The hair on your neck stands up when anyone extends out of a crouch during combat.  And you fear the faces in the windows, always watching, friendly or hostile, unknown, unknowable.  The city of  Baghdad is a terror.  I definitely find this all interesting in an academic sense.  The plight of the characters is interesting. And it was cool to watch with my Dad, who filled me in on ordinance, and the range of different caliber bullets, and what sort of training each man might have had, and where the soldiers ought to be looking for snipers.  It’s always nice to see movies with experts.  But after a while, the realism was too much.  I didn’t enjoy living in this world, and – for all the excellent writing and acting, for all the painstakingly re-created horror – I didn’t learn anything from it.  People do bad things?  Yeah, I knew that one.  Some people need the rush?  I could have watched a Gatorade ad to get that much.  

The Hurt Locker has been nominated for 9 Academy Awards, and stands to win more than a few.  I don’t pretend to be an expert on the technical awards, but one thing I can tell you: for some odd reason, Editing always goes to the eventual Best Picture winner.  The Hurt Locker has won the Eddie (the guild award for editing) which bodes well for it taking that prize, which again bodes well for its Best Picture chances.  As does, of course, winning the BAFTA, the PGA, DGA and the Broadcast Film Critics Award.  I don’t remember the score at all, however, and I just saw the movie last night.  That’s one I really hope it loses, especially since Up has such a fantastic score.  And it makes me growl a little bit, thinking of the music in The Last Station (among others) which wasn’t nominated. The jumpy, hand held camera work isn’t my thing (I get nauseous way too easily) but it certainly contributed to the movie feeling intimate and hellish and real.  Jeremy Renner has one of those “it’s an honor just to be nominated” nominations; for him, it’s the honor and the huge profile boost to his career that are his reward.  If anyone is going to beat out Jeff Bridges, it ain’t him.

To me, Mackie has the performance of the film.  I’m sorry he didn’t have more Oscar buzz, but I’m glad he’s gotten some attention and hope that he’ll get more.  He does fine work here.

Quentin Tarantino has a better shot at Best Original Screenplay than Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal, although – well, I’m not a fan of either movie, so I suppose I don’t care.  I am – as those who read this space already know – excited over the prospect of Kathryn Bigelow winning Best Director.  I like Bigelow, and have since she made Strange Days, an odd favorite of mine (and no, not just because Ralph Fiennes wears leather pants).  I’m thrilled by the idea of a woman winning this most Old Boy of all Old Boy prizes.  I just wish I liked her movie more.

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