With competition like the outstanding `District 9' and the visually stunning `Avatar' released in 3-D in 2009 (not to mention `The Blind Side'), it's difficult to understand how Kathryn Bigelow's film could justifiably be considered the best film of the year by the Academy. Life is full of surprises.
The Hurt Locker of the title refers to a box of bomb parts, fuses and detonators which Sgt William James, the main character at the centre of the story, keeps under his bed. These are souvenirs of all the bombs that almost killed him, but didn't. The film has a few plus points: building of tension, the realism of the environment (filmed in Jordan with Iraqi ex-pats playing Iraqi citizens and insurgents) and conveying the lethality and horror of the work the EOD team do. However there are too many shortcomings for this to be a great film, and classic status is an unlikely future.
First of all, there is no real plot or development of character and the story goes nowhere. From a straw poll of people I know who have also seen the film the audience does not easily warm to the three main players and frankly doesn't much care what happens to them. I certainly didn't. The characters are only one step beyond cardboard cut-outs.
Secondly, bomb disposal teams in the real world do not risk their own lives and those of colleagues recklessly by defusing lethal ordnance by hand when small robot vehicles are perfectly capable of doing the job, as shown in the first scene - not more than once anyway, without facing serious disciplinary action. The `maverick hero challenging staid authority' theme, a favorite staple of Hollywood, is pushed to incredulity here.
Thirdly, even a viewer who has not served in the military can see many of the anomalies which make the whole film look sloppy. Three guys in an EOD team repeatedly alone in a potentially hostile environment, with no supporting infantry or cover? Come on. The new pixelated uniforms are anachronistic for 2004, when the film is supposed to be set. When the main protagonist James - a serving US Army sergeant no less - hijacks a shady DVD-seller's car by holding a gun to the guy's head and orders him to drive to the house of a murdered young boy's family, well, at that point I'm afraid suspension of disbelief went too far. The whole scene was utterly preposterous, pure fantasy, unreal: the very worst of Hollywood is no less believable than this. The three's subsequent race through dark alleyways in Baghdad at night with flashlights on their helmets searching for suspected bombers (LIGHTED FLASHLIGHTS ON THEIR HELMETS FOR GOD'S SAKE!) well, Kathryn, you lost my interest. That's just plain stupid. Then the leg-wounded Sergeant Eldridge is evacuated in an ancient Vietnam-era Huey helicopter. In 2004. Yeah.
Why not get these details right? It's not difficult. Because these numerous gaffes are not compensated by plot, storyline, script or anything else to hold the viewer's interest, boredom and impatience set in so that the anomalies come into sharper focus.
Considering the relatively modest (by current Hollywood standards) budget the film does look gritty and real. It actually looks like Iraq. Competent direction and editing ensure the film is a white-knuckle rollercoaster of tension for much of the running time but because of insufficient episodes of light and shade the tension paradoxically starts to become monotonous and loses its edge. The hand-held camera work, used so effectively by Spielberg in `Saving Private Ryan' to convey chaotic, combat-urgent realism, is appropriate but hardly original and has been done better by others. And who were those Brits disguised as Arabs in the middle of the desert supposed to be? Mercenaries? Special Forces? We're not told. They seem to be featured to remind American viewers there are other foreign forces in Iraq and so it's confusing, and this particular crew's main function seems to be to get shot dead in the fire-fight to add to the drama.
On the positive side, the film is refreshingly apolitical and does not (unlike `Avatar') preach to the audience and tell them what they should think. The political views of the writer/director are not put into the mouths of the actors, and the viewer is left to make up his own mind what he thinks about the wisdom or folly of the conflict in a broader geopolitical context.
The short scene near the end of the film with James back home with his wife and young son, engaged with the banalities of everyday suburban life like cleaning leaves from rain drains and shopping at the supermarket, is understated and well, OK. However, we have no feeling of the relationship between James and his wife or why he should choose to leave his infant son and return to his lethal work in Iraq except the premise that `war/life-threatening danger is a drug, an addiction.' Yeah, profound. This could have been a rich and powerful dramatic scene if handled well but the opportunity is lost and the theme is not convincingly explored.
Dare one suspect the Academy's best film and best direction awards decisions were guided by sensitivity to the essentially worthy subject matter of `The Hurt Locker' and the feeling that to pass over this film might be seen as an insult to the serving soldiers in Iraq? That to award the Oscar to Bigelow's ex-husband's `Avatar' might be seen as confirmation that Hollywood is just about escapist entertainment spectaculars and simplistic, PC-driven new-age platitudes? Maybe the Oscar was awarded to Bigelow on gender grounds to have a female director win for the first time, even though the film itself barely deserves it. We can only speculate. Not a good decision on artistic grounds because although `The Hurt Locker' is not an outright bad film, it's not very good either. A better film with this subject matter might have been made. The other major war-themed movie of 2009, `Inglorious Basterds' although containing all Tarantino's violent fantasy-comic-book excesses, nevertheless has a tight and clever plot, strongly defined characters, superlative script, wicked black humor and an outstanding denoument which puts it way ahead of Bigelow's thinner offering as a satisfying viewing experience.