Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oscar Wars | The Hurt Locker

I love the smell of roadside bombs in the morning

by Thomas Delapa

Should The Hurt Locker be awarded with an Oscar for Best Picture tonight, it will rank with The Departed as among the least deserving recent films to be decorated with Hollywood’s highest honor.

So here’s a big blue thumbs up to James Cameron’s Avatar—a.k.a. Bambi Goes to Outer Space—rather than ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow’s schlock-and-awe Baghdad action film. On second viewing, I still think Locker should be court-martialed for painfully impersonating the truth.

In the delayed trauma of the film’s stunning accolades (including Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics), a backlash surge is deservedly underway, starting with Iraq War veterans. Their comments have ranged from “ridiculous” to “absolutely sensationalized.” In Iraq and Afghanistan, the movie has even coined a backhanded salute: To “go Hurt Locker” is to go emotionally ballistic, exaggerating the situation way above and beyond the call of duty.

Critics have been so vanquished by the film’s overblown dramatics, you have to wonder whether Colin Powell gave them the same pep talk he used to strong-arm the U.N. back in 2003. For the record, no weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq. Not even in Saddam Hussein’s beard. And there’s nothing really explosive inside The Hurt Locker, except an endless string of made-in-Hollywood fireworks.

From the opening shots, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal light their fuses and push the audience’s buttons with the zeal of a mad bomber. In the middle of a 2004 Iraq “kill zone” (actually shot in Jordan), an elite Army bomb-disposal squad suffers the loss of its team leader (Guy Pearce) in the first salvo of the manipulative set-pieces. In his place struts the cocksure and reckless Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), an adrenaline junkie equal parts John Wayne, George W. Bush and Robert Duvall from Apocalypse Now.

Throughout her grade-B career (mined with several duds) since she switched from painting, Bigelow has always wanted to hang out with the boys, and has never let believable drama get in the way of kitschy machismo or juiced-up visuals. Instead of that bank-robbing Reagan mask from Point Break, James just picks up a helmet and transfers for a hitch with Bravo Company.

Setting aside the death-defying pyrotechnics, history and politics can be listed as among the film’s collateral damage. Just to make sure you’re always at attention, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd overloads the ersatz-documentary action with an onslaught of quick zooms, jump cuts and hand-held shots. While the good guys are marooned in this booby-trapped desert hellhole, suspicious, beady-eyed Iraqis jabber in Arabic and lurk inside buildings plotting their evil-doing plans.

For all its painful and reckless faults—including some of the worst war-movie dialogue since John Wayne’s The Green BeretsThe Hurt Locker does serve to remind us of a war every American wants to forget, even before it’s over. But if its gung-ho trifecta of paranoia, exploitation and xenophobia helps to explain its limited popularity, and if it conquers the Oscars, Bigelow and company will truly be able to march up to the podium and say, “Mission Accomplished.”

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