Byline: Seth Colter Walls
It's unfashionable to carp about Hollywood's motives in handing out the Oscar for best picture. Savvy filmgoers are, at this late, cynical date, surely aware of the industry politics afoot, even if we reserve the right to howl privately about the worst offenses. Each awards season we are reminded that, in 1981, golden-boy Robert Redford's Ordinary People beat out Raging Bull by Martin Scorsese and The Elephant Man by David Lynch--a fact that, by itself, could suffice as a prosecuting attorney's closing argument in any civil action against the Academy. Yet this year an issue beyond taste is raised by the Oscar race: the cineplex's tortured response to the nation's ongoing war in Iraq. It's a howler that's actually worth bitching about.
This weighty complaint is prompted by Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, a sure-thing best-picture nominee set in 2004-era Iraq. Staff Sgt. William James (played by Jeremy Renner) is the recklessly brave, reliably effective bomb tech who defuses the IEDs that have plagued soldiers, and ordinary civilians, during the war. Like that of an old-school cowboy, the hero's manner of communication with colleagues and loved ones is either inarticulate or inchoate. He stands alone, guided by the purposefulness of his work instead of by feelings. Not that this is a choice; he simply knows no other way. Dedication to the pulse-quickening moment is all.
Taut with the suspense of back-to-back bomb-neutralization scenes that are each filmed with a hot-cheeked technique, Bigelow's picture has been celebrated for its eminently watchable qualities--after all, Locker is a deft fusion of modern suspense editing and the focused emotional range of a generic Western. Bigelow has acknowledged that she didn't intend the film to be a piece of political commentary, but because an Iraq War film that commands you not to think about the complexity of the Iraq War can still lead people to think about Iraq, it's natural that many detect gravitas where it doesn't exist. Pro-war viewers can see a portrait of a sure-footed soldier saving the day over and over again, if they like. Antiwar folks can fill in their own narrative of imperial hubris and confusion in the scenes when James takes an ill-advised trip away from his base. Both readings are defensible, since neither section of the film is committed to anything like a particular understanding of Iraq as a country riven by multiple, overlapping conflicts. (Swap the booby traps of choice, the language used on the signs, and the sand with some jungle vines, and it could have been a Vietnam picture.) The most direct argument for the film's virtues along these lines was put forward in The New Yorker, which claimed both that The Hurt Locker was "the most skillful and emotionally involving picture yet made about the conflict" and that "American audiences worn out by the mixed emotions of frustration and repugnance inspired by the war can enjoy this film without ambivalence or guilt." Elsewhere, critic David Edelstein lent the same paradoxical duality some credence when he wrote of the film's selling points: "Last but maybe foremost are the politics--or lack of them."
Feeling worn out by politics is one thing. (Who isn't?) Celebrating their erasure is another. In asking whether Iraq War stories without ambivalence--or with politics that go unspoken--are really such a great accomplishment, it's worth remembering that it hasn't always been this way. Back in 1999, we could go to the movies and see Three Kings, a
gripping entertainment that also made some effort to embrace the uniqueness of its wartime setting. In that film, something happened on the way to looting a pile of Saddam Hussein's hidden gold after the 1991 Gulf War: the soldiers played by George Clooney and Ice Cube couldn't help but notice that the minority Shiites America had encouraged to rise up against the Iraqi dictator were about to get put …