Last night I watched The Hurt Locker, which I acquired for 10 RMB at the Silk Street Market DVD store just above the subway entrance.
In short, I thought it was a powerful movie with excellent directing and camerawork. The strongest point, however, was that the acting did not get in the way of establishing the mood and the story, which is what sets it wholly apart from most other war movies. There is no hero, no villain, no deus ex machina, and you find yourself not expecting any of these. Watching The Hurt Locker therefore makes you feel as if you are just a fly-on-the-helmet of the soldiers who do one of the most dangerous and necessary jobs in war. I think it will be looked upon in the future as an accurate and artistically notable look into what it was like to actually be there, in Iraq, being paranoid of every pair of eyes and every window you could see as you ventured in your bomb-suit with your fingers crossed towards unexploded ordinance.
I was initially turned against the main character of the film, Sgt. First Class William James, for being antagonistically reckless and not giving his teammates any explanation for his strange actions. I have never been to war, but I still found it inexplicable that he would take such brazen actions and even stop listening to his teammates who were trying to watch out for him, since who knows what lurks in each window and around each corner. I tried to put myself in the shoes of his teammates, Sgt. JT Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge, and thought about how I would react to James angrily removing his communication headphones while surrounded by watchful Iraqi eyes from minarets to rooftops to windows. It made me angry that when a colonel asked James how many bombs he had defused and he heard the answer (over 800), he admiringly called James a “wild man,” while his pissed-off teammates listened to the praise.
However, I later became sympathetic to him when he comforted a frightened Eldridge and helped out Sanborn by foregoing what little drinking juice they had during the amazing sniper stand-off scene. That same scene, when they come upon some PMCs in the desert and most of them wind up getting sniped, is exemplary of why the movie is far better than other war fare. All of the deaths are very close-up, none of the war-cries and mass of bodies being mowed down by jingoistic commandos or nightmarish foreign “sub-human” hordes. It is really like watching someone next to you dying, unexpectedly, right there. Like you could actually see these things happen.
Another favorite scene is when they are surveying the damage from a nighttime tanker bombing inside the Green Zone. The pitch-black of night makes the scattered red fires all that more intense, and those same fires provide almost the only light in the whole scene. It is a combination of hell and a nightmare all at once, and their personal frustrations that it will be impossible to find any evidence in that mess adds to the heavy tension in the scene. There were just some amazing scenes overall in that movie which will stick with me, and I suspect they will stick with many other viewers.
The final part of the movie makes it clear that James is able to do what he does so well because he is basically an adrenaline junkie who is totally addicted to the unknowing and the thrill of defusing those bombs, certainly more than “doing his duty” to his country. That is what separates him from Sanborn, who breaks down at the end and admits that the war has broken him as a man. At this point the rest of the movie gains a new focal issue: Sanborn’s anger with James stems ultimately from his jealousy and bewilderment at how well James can handle his job, while it breaks and terrifies Sanborn. Sanborn manages to hide that until this point, but the damage is all the same. In war, James is the wheat, Sanborn and Eldridge the chaff. Great argument against the draft, although these men signed up of their own accord.
Did the movie deserve the Oscar for Best Director? I haven’t seen every movie on the list, but I can agree with this choice. There are some scenes that are much more powerful than the entirety of 85% of the films I have seen in the last couple of years, not only shot-for-shot but also on the whole. At least four scenes come to mind that are truly stand-out in an already stand-out film: the first scene in which James is in charge of Bravo Company’s bomb disposal unit, the scene where James is defusing the bomb outside the UN building while his partners grow ever more paranoid at the Iraqi filming from afar, the sniper-standoff desert scene (this was my favorite), and the nighttime bombing scene.
But did The Hurt Locker deserve “Best Picture?” That one I am not so sure about. It was a very good film. I just am not able to gush over it as much as some pictures. Avatar, though it didn’t deserve Best Picture, actually would have made more sense to receive the award when you consider the technical advancement and overwhelming immersion the film creates. If Titanic deserved Best Picture, then Avatar certainly did, because it did so much more for film-making. I would have been much happier with an Inglourious Basterds win in the end.