The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2009 and five others, Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman winner), Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. The other nominees for Best Picture were Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up and Up in the Air. Amazingly enough, I have seen none of them as yet (this was not a year when I watched the Hugo finalists). The Hugo that year went to Moon, and the Ray Bradbury Award (replacing the Nebula) to District 9.

IMDB lists it as a 2008 film, 13th on one ranking and 19th on the other. However Oscar procedures took it as a 2009 film. The other 2009 films that I have seen (so far) are Watchmen, Star Trek, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Coraline, and I think that’s it.

Here’s a trailer.

I found a couple of returnees from previous Oscar winners, the most visible being Ralph Fiennes as the short-lived British officer. He previously had the title role in The English Patient, and played the lead Nazi in Schindler’s List.

Anthony Mackie, now of course more famous as Falcon, is Sanborn here and was Shawrelle in Million Dollar Baby.

And we have a Doctor Who crossover: Sam Spruell is Contractor Charlie here, and was Swarm in last year’s Flux season of Who.

This is yet another war film. I knew nothing about it going in, but my heart sank as I realised that it was about American soldiers in Iraq; Platoon is my least favourite Oscar winner of them all, and I braced myself for another two hours and eleven minutes of sympathy for soldiers in an occupying army, unleavened by much consideration for the people they were shooting at. In fact it was not quite as bad.

As usual, I’ll start with the things I did not like about the film. As with Platoon, the presence of American soldiers in hostile territory is presented as an unfortunate accident of circumstances which puts our protagonists in danger, rather than the deliberate result of US government policy. (That’s as far as the script goes; but see below for a caveat.)

The US Army is shown as multi-ethnic, with Mackie’s Sanborn the second lead. But apart from the football-loving, DVD-selling kid, the only perspective that we get from actual Iraqis is that they are terrified of the Americans, or trying to kill them, or both. In reality, Iraq is a real country, with real people in it, but you would not know it from The Hurt Locker.

Given that it’s a film about bomb disposal, there is a lot of gore, including a particularly unpleasant scene with a booby-trapped corpse which may have been dramatically necessary but which I found very unpleasant to watch. Lots of shooting and a couple of beatings.

As with many (but not all) war films, it is very male. There is an Iraqi woman who is terrified of the Americans and says so loudly. The protagonist’s wife, played by Evangeline Lilly who deserves much better, appears in the last few scenes as someone for him to talk to. She has a total of one minute and thirty-seven seconds in the movie.

I’m sufficiently familiar with the methods of military bomb disposal to wince at the procedural inaccuracies as portrayed on screen. Sure, our hero is a maverick, but there are a number of basic safety things that we learned as kids in Belfast and were drummed into me again in Bosnia that you just don’t do, even as an expert. This spoiled some of the most suspenseful scenes for me.

What I did like, rather to my surprise, was the fact that the protagonist, Sergeant First Class William James as played by Jeremy Renner, is a real asshole. I think most of us have worked at some time or another with people like him – determined to be the hero, and/or the clown, and/or the rule-breaker. This transposition of a very familiar workplace dynamic into the horrors of a combat zone actually did a lot to humanise the story, more so perhaps than any of the other war movies that I have seen in this sequence. James is not a naïve young man sucked into a conflict that he cannot comprehend; he is a hardened and unpleasant veteran, who is transformed by the suffering that he witnesses, and sometimes causes.

I also really appreciated the filmography, and I am a little surprised that few other reviewers seem to have picked up on this. The whole thing was filmed on location in Jordan, literally next door to Iraq, and the urban scenes in particular conveyed what the script did not: a society devastated by conflict caused by outsiders, with a traumatised population doing their best to pick up the pieces. The desert scene with the British soldiers was a bit gratuitously Lawrence of Arabia, but well done for all that. The effects were also impressive, when I could bear to look at them.

So I’m putting it just below the three-quarter mark in my ranking of Oscar winners, in 63rd place out of 82, just below Ordinary People and just above The Departed.

The next Oscar winner is The King’s Speech, but before that I will look at District 9, Moon and Inception.

Winners of the Oscar for Best Picture

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021) | Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)