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Where the Hurt is

by Sarah Dawson / 11.03.2010

The Academy Awards are total bullshit. As an accolade, its function is to give the okay to bourgeois audiences to do some chin-stroking rumination with one hand, while they dig for dollars in the wallet with the other. It has nothing to do with the reality of global cinema, but rather the incestuous world of Hollywood boys’ club ego-fluffing and the perpetuation of its own delusions of grandeur – and, ordinarily, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass which person takes home which Golden Phallus.

Even a cursory glance at the anatomy of the awards reveals quite clearly how The Oscars is tied up with dodgy American imperialist, WASP-ish values. So to win an Oscar is something of a dubious pat on the back, when you ask yourself who’s doing the patting and why.

So in a certain way I was super chuffed that when Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker came up against James Cameron’s magnum opus, Avatar, she nicked all the juicy awards from right under her ex-hubby’s nose. Mostly because it meant that maybe some change is afoot. Perhaps it’s a sign that the tectonic plates under the Hollywood landscape are shifting, when a war film shot by a woman with a budget of $11m beats out the still-reigning Oscar king’s $320m epic on interplanetary colonisation.

Or, more pessimistically, it might mean something else: That The Hurt Locker, despite its humble appearances, is more of an “Oscar-worthy” (ie unwaveringly Americentric ) film than it might appear on the surface, and that us “outsider” types shouldn’t start popping the champagne quite yet.

The Hurt Locker

The mere fact that it focuses on the Iraq war makes distinguishing between these two possibilities a simultaneously complex and especially interesting activity, as the subject matter itself intrinsically divides American popular consensus. But is the film itself an attack or a celebration of American heroism? Does it shake the foundations of a musty old institution, or does it sit quite comfortably in the auditorium seats next to the supremacists and their Pocahontas-smurf friends?
It’s not at all easy to answer this question.

If you haven’t seen the film, (which you probably haven’t, since it only just got scheduled for theatrical release in SA next week, with all the Oscar buzz, despite having been first released in late 2008) it’s a gritty semi-realist piece revolving around three specialist soldiers in Iraq who comprise an elite bomb disposal unit stationed in Baghdad. Sergeant JT Sanborn (the frustrated pedant) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (the insecure softie) are joined by Sergeant Will James (the reckless cowboy) when their previous tech leader is killed dismantling a bomb in the street. They have 39 days left of service before they are rotated out, back to the USA. Will they make it till then?

With a local American audience so sensitive and divided over the issue, both a strong anti-war film, and valiant nationalist drama would have been destined for a flaming tailspin like most other Gulf War films. And while it’s possible to approach the subject intelligently and evenly, the sensitivity of the subject means that Iraq films will always be under the microscope for their political stance, therefore I’m not sure it’s at all possible to make a film about the ongoing war that wouldn’t be quickly boxed for either condemning or condoning. So how did The Hurt Locker manage to nab Best Picture? In other words, how did it manage to not piss off at least half of the academy, but actually garner a thumbs up above all the juicy competition this year? Well, I think its because, apart from its impeccable execution (excuse the pun), it does both.

Tick tick

It’s a bit of a schizophrenic film. It’s no fence-sitter, but rather it seems that it oscillates between political positions as the events unfold. It’s as though Bigelow’s characters exist autonomously, and as the narrator of their experiences, she buys into their perspective with a kind of floating conviction as they go through the various ups and downs of life as the occupying force: the moments of terror, the moments of ordinariness, the moments of relief, the moments of triumph, the moments of anger, the moments of despair, the moments of clear resolve. She keeps a kind of directorial distance, remaining separate but influenced by her own characters, almost as if it were a doccie.

For this, she has been criticised by some, inevitably, for not taking a stronger political stance and that by personalising the war, and therefore shifting the focus off the macro-politics, she is normalising it. By working on a micro scale, the film takes for granted events taking place on a larger scale. Perhaps this is a valid argument. Indeed an omniscient creative voice can be useful in providing external perspective, a reference point which might be needed in the case of the Iraqi war. But I haven’t really made up my mind. It certainly awards quite a lot of importance to the American psyche, and doesn’t really have much to say about anyone else.


Still, I found myself defending it against such an argument, despite its blatant national narcissism. Not because I believe it’s not narcissistic, but because, it’s innovative in its narcissism, and secondly that as much as Americans need to be taking the narratives of the Other into account, seeing them as legitimate, a little bit of earnest self-scrutiny is not the worst thing I can imagine for the nation. As long as it’s with a critical enough eye and, for a lot of the film, The Hurt Locker does this quite successfully. It deals with the complexity of the negotiation of an individual’s value system in relation to the broader ideology encapsulated in current US foreign policy, when it conflicts with a reality outside its own cultural borders.

The youngest of the crew battles continuously for a sense of rightness in what he’s doing, knowing that the pull of a trigger could be the difference between a senseless death and a justified death. His failure to act with lethal conviction early in the film results in the death of his team leader, and he is subsequently plagued by a series of scenarios in which lives are dependent on his own trigger finger. No easy solution is provided. His teammates consistently encourage him to, “do what he thinks is right”. When he regains his firing confidence, and makes a “good” decision to kill a “baddie”, this resolution is complicated soon after when he becomes the victim of one of his own team’s bad judgment, almost losing a leg. The film is too complex to explore in depth here. Needless to say, it will provide you with plenty “food for thought”.

Oscar Killshot

The skeleton of the film is really nothing but a handful of set pieces revolving around some highly volatile scenarios involving large amounts of explosives that must be dealt with by the team. But it would be hard to overemphasise how utterly gripping the film is. It sustains faultlessly, for the full two hours, the intense hyper-vigilant, paranoid state of a soldier at war. It’s one long game of Russian roulette, heightened by the simple yet ingenious device of setting a time limit for their stay in hell. You’re on the edge of your seat as the days count down, hoping at least most of them will make it out alive. I left the cinema with my nerves somewhat shattered.

Finding an answer to the question of how “Oscar worthy”, or how “shamelessly inward looking” the film is, is made no easier by asking what it was “meant to do”. Hunting for the “intentions” or “motives” of the creators is something of a flawed project anyway, since once it’s been distributed, it exists independently from what the director may or may not have been trying to communicate. What matters is what it does communicate. Nevertheless the ambiguous relation of the filmmakers to their creation is interesting to note. The quote that starts the film is by Pulitzer-winning journalist Chris Hedges, a vocal critic of the war, who caused controversy when he opened a college address with: “We are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige and power and security.” It is strange then to read the synopsis on the official site, which describes the film as something of an inflated ode to American heroism and war as a national pastime (note the word “jobs”). Perhaps this, as the chosen angle for the film’s PR, is the most revealing evidence so far. It describes the film as:
“A riveting, suspenseful portrait of the courage under fire of the military’s unrecognized heroes: the technicians of a bomb squad who volunteer to challenge the odds and save lives doing one of the world’s most dangerous jobs.”

Honestly, I don’t believe there is any single easy answer to this question. It is in fact a very complex film which provides arguments for both sides of the debate, which is certain to upset some people expecting more finite conviction. Those who are looking for one message find it, while those looking for another find theirs too.

Pulling the strings

Either way its success makes it an interesting artifact to illustrate and uncover the complex ambivalence present in the collective American consciousness. Perhaps it appeals so broadly because across all the internal boundaries of the superpower, the whole nation together is able to identify with three men who are alone in a land of foreigners, paranoid and unsure, all the time terrified of what might happen if they were to lose their tenuous grip on the power (to make war or peace) that they hold so dear.

But tellingly, Bigelow heroically dedicated her award to the “men and women in the military who risk their lives on a daily basis”, so perhaps we should agree, then, that this award is indeed theirs.

But, like I said before, the Oscars are bullshit.

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