It’s been over five years since I started my quest to track down and watch every film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. My challenge started just after the 2010 ceremony and since then we’ve had another five ceremonies. Although I contemplated finishing off where I started, I eventually decided to explore what the modern day Oscar field looks like. This is especially relevant as, from the 2010 ceremony onwards; Oscar changed the number of nominees from five to ten. Two years later the rules were changed again allowing the Academy to choose between five and ten films meaning that they weren’t forced to select movies that maybe didn’t feel like they deserved to be amongst the best of the year. So without further ado we start with two films from the director of the first Best Picture winner of this decade and somebody whose win for directing the film was a history-making moment.
The person in question was Kathryn Bigelow who became the first woman ever to win the Best Director Oscar. Oddly, in the seventy plus years of the Oscars only four women including Bigelow were nominated which tells you something about the sexism that surrounds the film industry in general. It’s also interested that the film Bigelow won the Oscar for is a fairly macho affair and features very few female characters throughout. The Hurt Locker is based on journalist Mark Boal’s experiences living and interviewing members of the army in 2004. Boal, who won an Oscar for the film’s screenplay, interviewed over 1,000 officers before beginning his work on the film. The film’s protagonist is Sergeant First Class William James, a talented but reckless bomb disposal expert who joins a three man bomb disposal team who are nearing the completion of their time in Iraq. The film follows the team throughout their last days in the country with James’ colleague Sergeant Sanborn getting more frustrated with his superior’s lack of compliance to regulations. The third member of the team, Specialist Owen Eldridge, is portrayed as somebody who is desperate to get home and is regularly visited by the Camp’s doctor. After several incidents, which include Eldridge getting his leg shot off, the team finish their rotation however Boal’s lasting message is that some soldiers can’t leave war behind. Indeed the film starts with the message that ‘war is a drug’ and concludes with James returning to Iraq after finding that he can’t cope with the mundane nature of his regular domestic life. This final scene is a little jarring to me as I never quite knew whether The Hurt Locker was an anti-war or pro-war film. The characters of Eldridge and Sanborn represent soldiers who want to get home and the latter in particular voices his need to get more out of life. At the same time the portrayal of the majority of the Iraqis as ‘the enemy’ makes this feel more like the recently recent American Sniper than something like Apocalypse Now.
Along with this odd balance of pro and anti-war sentiment, The Hurt Locker’s other issue is that it doesn’t really have a story to speak of. Instead the film is made up of a series of incidents that are strung together through the trio of characters who grow on you throughout the course of the film. James is a particularly memorable character who is initially portrayed as arrogant but later comes through for his team. His relationship with a young Iraqi boy known as ‘Beckham’ is also touching which explains his reaction when he thinks that the youngster has been used as a body bomb. Jeremy Renner’s performance as James is very naturalistic and adds to the whole documentary-like feel of the film. This seems to have been Bigelow’s intention as she cast three relative unknowns in the roles of James, Sanborn and Eldridge.
What I liked most about The Hurt Locker was the fact that it at times it didn’t feel like I was watching a fictional film at all. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s use of 16mm cameras meant that the audience were able to look at multiple angles at once. Bigelow wanted us to get multiple perspectives during the film’s many set pieces and I certainly feel this is one thing that the film achieved. Particularly memorable was one of the film’s final scenes in which James is unable to detach a bomb from an innocent Iraqi man before it is detonated. The Hurt Locker really doesn’t feel like any other Best Picture winner as its focus on realism over story is something knew. The only Best Picture winner it resembles is Platoon and even that had more of a focus on story than The Hurt Locker. To me this almost validates the Academy’s decision to extend the Best Picture category especially if we’re going to get films that play more towards realism than fiction. It’s also great to see Bigelow, who did a fantastic job anchoring the film, being the first woman to pick up an award that has had only male recipients up to this point. Here’s hoping that more female directors are honoured in the years to come and that Bigelow’s victory isn’t just a one-off.