Last week’s Oscars proved a true underdog story, with Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker trumping James Cameron’s mega budget sci-fi Avatar. Although Avatar was a fairly by-the-book retread of the worn-out tale of American-going-native (see Dances With Wolves, Last Samurai, etc), there’s no denying its groundbreaking use of spectacular effects and 3D technology. However, The Hurt Locker was a landmark in an entirely different vein. It was one of the first accomplished and truly enthralling Iraq war films to come out of America. Critics and audiences alike have praised it for its taught, nerve-shredding tension and intensely shot set pieces.
Previous efforts have failed miserably at presenting a remotely engaging picture of the Iraq conflict – and consequently have failed to draw audiences. 2005’s Gulf War depiction, Jarhead, portrayed the boredoms of modern warfare, but in doing so came across as emotionally vapid and – fatally – indifferent to its grave subject matter. Things looked hopeful with Lions For Lambs (2007), a promising Afghanistan drama directed and scribed by Hollywood’s liberal giant Robert Redford, enforced by the formidable cast of Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep. But it proved the worst of all the modern war films: a self-indulgent vanity project of Redford’s, more of an ode to his own political activism than any kind of entertainment. The overly didactic film moralized, or rather hectored, the audience on Bush’s ‘War of Terror’, clumsily and condescendingly spelling out the hazards of spin and power. Lions For Lambs well and truly put a seal on future attempts to dramatize the political aspect of war.
In The Valley Of Ellah (2007) was infinitely better, but still timidly skirted around the tricky matter of warfare itself, opting instead to examine violence within the military camps. But all three of these films simply re-trod old territory, dishing out didactic anti-war statements. The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, is unpretentious, unafraid to crank up the thrills, whilst also probing the adrenaline-fuelled allure of war that flanks its clear repugnance. The set-up is wrought with suspense: a US army bomb squad disarm ticking bombs under the scrupulous eye of enemy crosshairs – a better way than any to highlight the horrors and nerve-racking rigour of their jobs. In my mind, complaints of the film’s sensationalism miss the point, as director Bigelow herself asserts, “this film is about war, which is inherently dramatic.”
That said, there’s still a certain measure of xenophobia – the only display of Iraqi decency portrayed manifests itself in a cute child – and the US military have criticized the film no end for its renegade Hollywood fanaticizing and innacuracy – at one point we see our rogue protagonist roaming about Baghdad after hours, equipped with little more than a hand gun and a torch. Nevertheless, this unexpected Oscar victory will hopefully usher in plenty more dramatizations of modern war, that might rank among the cinematic greats both the World Wars and Vietnam have provided before it.