It is a little-known quirk of my personality that, among my appreciation of fashion, celebrity gossip, tearjerking films, and other traditionally "feminine" pursuits, I also appreciate a good war movie from time to time. I think they appeal less to my desire to watch things explode and see people murder each other, and more to my fondness for history. I tend to only enjoy movies that tell the stories of 20th century conflicts; Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket hold far greater appeal for me than Braveheart, for instance. I have extensively explored the realm of Vietnam and Cold War-related films, and I watched a wide sampling of World War II films for a course I took in college dedicated solely to that topic. Even so, before this weekend I had never seen a film dedicated to a contemporary conflict, but The Hurt Locker's Oscar triumph over Avatar proved more of a temptation than I could deny, and I headed to the theater last weekend to investigate the source of the hype.
Overall, I would say that The Hurt Locker's win was more than justified. The acting was subtle, nuanced, and rendered with tremendous authenticity. Even though the film tells the story of a bomb disposal squad in Iraq, special effects were judiciously used as an accent, not the main attraction. The tightly-constructed writing struck a balance between realism and suspense, contributing to a pacing that underscored the sensory assault that is modern warfare. There are no moments of relief in The Hurt Locker. Unlike in war films dealing with the Second World War, there are no battles followed by respites in familiar towns full of adoring locals. The mood has much more in common with the films of the Vietnam era -- the soldiers must maintain a state of constant vigilance, because anyone can be an enemy. Danger lurks at ever corner. The soldiers aren't even safe in their own camp. Tension reigns supreme but there is no catharsis, only more bombs and more missions. By the time the film was over, I was emotionally exhausted.
Generally speaking, I found the guiding hand of a female director to be undetectable. Nothing about Bigelow's vision of war was distinctly feminine. I don't think her gender brought anything to the table, and perhaps that is for the best. As the first woman to ever win Best Director, Bigelow has shown that she can stand toe to toe as equals with her male peers. Her gender should have no bearing on the genius of her work, and it doesn't. Bigelow is able to negotiate being a woman working in a man's industry, crafting a film about a male-dominated world, and she does so oustandingly.
The Hurt Locker isn't for everyone. It is honest, brutal, and at times, profoundly disturbing. But, as citizens, I think we should feel obligated to understand the realities of what we allow to happen on our behalves. If nothing else, The Hurt Locker will make you a more informed citizen. And who knows, you might even discover your own latent interest in war films as a genre...