Wednesday, February 24, 2010
In an attempt to arouse audience interest in the Oscars, the Academy expanded the number of nominees for best picture this year from its usual five to a new total of ten. But in keeping with the Academy’s long-honored tradition of doing everything in an incompetent manner, it failed to expand beyond five the number of nominations in other categories, including best direction. This leaves us with a two-tier nominating phenomenon: best picture candidates whose directors were likewise nominated for best director, and those that were not. It would be a major shocker if any of the films in that latter category – The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, A Serious Man or Up – walked off with the statue for best picture. They’re there really for show. As it is, Jim Sheridan’s Brothers isn’t up for anything, and it’s easily better than at least 8 of the 10 “best picture” nominees, and its lead actor Tobey Maguire is far better than any of the best actor nominees, even including Jeremy Renner, who should win the Oscar, or Jeff Bridges, who probably will.
Renner’s film, The Hurt Locker, is up for best picture & best director, Kathryn Bigelow being only the second female ever nominated in this category (the first was Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation). Bigelow has already won the Director’s Guild of America award & the BAFTA & deserves the Oscar strictly on the merits. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is the only other film that even warrants serious consideration here. It, The Hurt Locker & Brothers are on a completely different tier this year.
All three are also about war, a genre I’m not keen on, tho each treats it in a radically different manner. Tarantino’s film is the most ground-breaking, a comic imagining of what should have befallen the Nazis, as gleeful an orgy of revenge as one might imagine. Brothers is about the impact of the war on the warrior, especially once he returns home. The Hurt Locker covers that moment as well, but does so in about five of its 130 minutes as its chief character, Renner’s William James (!) runs back to Iraqi bomb squad duty as fast as he can, feeling far more at home amongst IEDs than he does at a big box grocery where the cereal aisle alone overwhelms him.
At the beginning of The Hurt Locker is an epigraph taken from Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning:
The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug…
That is pretty much the premise of this film & Bigelow is none too subtle about it, reiterating that last phrase on the screen before we arrive at the first scene, a small robot slowly approaching a bundle of plastic bags on a Baghdad street. Quoting Hedges is an interesting choice, in that his views of war (and the American right) can be nearly as strong in kind as those of Sy Hersch, but his distance from the American left is just as great, his own perspective having been forged while in the seminary. Bigelow is careful throughout The Hurt Locker to underscore the uselessness of the misadventure in Iraq without making an anti-war film, and her capacity to do so really shows the intelligence she brings to the project. As does the film’s key emotional event, the discovery of a bomb-factory in a school, complete with the corpse of a 12-year-old boy whose body has been armed as a “body bomb.” Watching Sgt. William James, who is sure he knows this kid, have to fish around the dead boy’s innards looking for the explosives is an appalling touch that I doubt a male director would have imagined. It’s done in real time & quite graphically, realistically enough that my son wondered aloud “how did they pull off that stunt,” a question that I believe was as much about neutralizing the visual impact as it was about the cinematic process.
Likewise, Bigelow is careful to make this a film about “ordinary people.” None of the three main actors, Renner, Antony Mackie or Brian Gerharty, was at all well-known prior to this film, tho Renner starred in the title role of Dahmer. Name actors abound at the fringes of the story – Guy Pearce, David Morse, Ralph Finnes, Christian Camargo & Evangine Lilly among them – but not one is onscreen for more than five minutes & three of the aforementioned are very quickly dead.
Instead what we see, almost exclusively, is how these three young men do their jobs & process the results. When the team’s first leader is killed in the film’s opening scene, the two remaining members are appalled at the recklessness of his replacement, who throws away his headset when the base team talks too much or strips out of his protective wear when the amount of explosives are so great that the gear won’t make a difference. They think James is suicidal – in love with death would probably be more like it – but from his perspective (and my only serious criticism with this film is that it isn’t clear enough about this), it’s really about focus. Far from being the “wild man” David Morse proclaims him to be, James is a monk whose practice entails “disarming the det.” When he is confronting an IED, he is absolutely riveted on getting the job done. When he’s not, the flood of thoughts & emotions overwhelm him. Although Bigelow hints at this throughout, the scene in which this becomes most clear is the one instance in which James cannot disarm the bombs (plural) before the timer is set to go off. They are strapped to a man by means of a metal vest & there are more padlocks to break than the two-minutes James has in which to work can handle. James’ apology to the father of four that he cannot save him as he puts his helmet back & runs for his own life represents the absolute contradiction of his occupation. 40 seconds later, nothing remains of the victim but a crater in the street.
James’ teammates have very different perspectives toward him. Gerharty’s Owen Eldridge sees only the consistent need for risk & excess &, as he lifted onto a chopper out of combat, gives James a final fuck you. Mackie’s JT Sanborn, a sergeant who spent many years in military intelligence before volunteering for the bomb squad, sees the method in James’ madness & wonders instead if he is capable of the same. James, after all, has disarmed nearly 900 IEDs & other explosive devices. James’ only concern is the next one. He keeps souvenirs of his IEDs in a half-size milk-crate under his bed, the closest thing in the film to an actual hurt locker, but he keeps his wedding ring in there as well. Asked to describe his relationship to his wife, he can’t really do it. Actual life is too messy & too full of grey areas. The high of his job is that it is exactly not that.