Friday, June 26, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "The Hurt Locker" (2009)

Scene from The Hurt Locker
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Hurt Locker
Release Date: June 26, 2009
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Written By: Mark Boal
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
Genre: Drama, History, Thriller
Running Time: 131 minutes

Oscar Wins: 6
-Best Picture
-Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow)
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Film Editing
-Best Sound Mixing
-Best Sound Editing

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Actor (Jeremy Renner)
-Best Cinematography
-Best Original Score

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Blind Side
-District 9
-An Education
-Inglourious Basterds
-Precious: Based on the Novel "Pushy" by Sapphire
-A Serious Man
-Up in the Air

And the winner is...

The Oscars have a proud and noble tradition of honoring war movies. From the first winner Wings through to The Deer Hunter, there has always been something perplexing about the war. They create emotional portraits of humanity where despair collides with hope on a daily basis. Among the more aggressive takes is director Oliver Stone's winner Platoon from 1986, which heightened tension and despair in a manner that hasn't been seen before or since. That doesn't keep some filmmakers from trying to make a version of it for the next war. In fact, The Hurt Locker is the first time since then to win Best Picture for a contemporary war. All it took was a conversation between two ex-lovers who would have their own public Kramer vs. Kramer with the Oscars in 2010 with two wildly different movies.

Director Kathryn Bigelow wasn't original going to make The Hurt Locker. She was going to work on another project until her ex-husband James Cameron encouraged her to do so, claiming that he thought that it could be the Platoon for the Iraq War. The writer Mark Boal based this story off of two weeks of personal experience as a freelance journalist working with the American bomb squad in Iraq. He claimed that he wanted to make a fictionalized account that would be the first film to show the experience from the soldier's perspective. Since Boal had worked with Bigelow previously on the short lived 2002 series The Inside, things were relatively easy to manage. Together, they had been working on and off with Bigelow making storyboards for shooting locations as early as 2005.

The film was shot in Jordan, which is near the Iraq border. While other locations were scouted, Bigelow insisted that being that close to war would add a mental authenticity for the actors. Charlize Theron, Colin Farrell and Willem Dafoe were initially cast, but backed out. She cast relatively unknown performers that wouldn't take away from the experience. The most famous actors (Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce) appear on screen for less than 10 minutes. With weather that was consistently 120 degrees Fahrenheit, it proved to be challenging for some. Jeremy Renner became sick and lost 15 pounds in three days. Also, having to wear 80-100 lb. bomber suits didn't help, as Renner also fell down some stairs and twisted his ankle. Because of obstacles like this, there were always four cameras running during any scene to create a more realized understanding of location. Real Iraqi refugees were used as extras and despite initial concern, none of the cast or crew had body guards or any additional liberties such as air conditioned trailers of private bathrooms.

The film was also partially edited while in Jordan. This changed when concerned rose over transporting the equipment back. There was a fear of getting it through the airport where the film could potentially be opened and even x-rayed. As a result, there was a special flight to transport the files back to America. The film as a whole didn't have any special effects in order to allow for a more raw experience. The sound design was also predominantly focused on naturalism, such as breathing or bombs. There were over 200 hours of footage, most of which was considered nauseating as it covered 180 degrees of perspective. Their goal was to have a newsreel quality to it all.

The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2008 to immediate acclaim. It became one of three films (Crash and Casablanca) to not premiere in the same year that it won Best Picture for. Likewise, when it opened it became one of four (The Artist, The English Patient, and Amadeus) films to have won without entering the American box office top five since it began being recorded in 1982. It also joined The Artist as the only winners to not even make the top 10. To date, The Hurt Locker is the lowest grossing Best Picture winner with a total of $49.2 million on a $15 million budget. However, it was more successful financially than other current Iraq War movies such as Stop-Loss and Lions for Lambs

Despite the acclaim, it was immediately thrust into another batch of controversies. There was an initial lawsuit by Major Sergeant Jeffrey Sarver regarding Boal using too much of his likeness, including the use of the phrase "the hurt locker." It was eventually settled that the military isn't a private person and that the phrase had been used for a considerably longer time. However, that didn't stop veterans of the war to nitpick the film, claiming that a lot of the elements were borderline parody from the use of walkie talkies to how bombs were diffused. While some would admit its entertainment value, they found the inaccuracies to be a little too distracting, even sometimes offensive. There were also lawsuits against the film's piracy against over 5,000 illegal torrent downloaders. It was later dropped.

Then came the Oscars and the battle of the ex-lovers. Cameron had released the highly acclaimed technologically advanced film Avatar, which was a front runner for Best Picture against Bigelow. Despite this, Cameron claimed to not have issues and that he wouldn't bet against her winning (though Avatar did beat The Hurt Locker at the Golden Globes). They were up against each other in nine categories. However, producer Nicholas Chartier didn't take it well and e-mailed various Oscar voters and encouraged them not to vote for Avatar. As a result, he became the only person in history to be banned from attending the Academy Awards ceremony. With the front runners being a mix of big budget spectacle and indie innovation, the Academy sought to improve their ratings by adding 10 Best Picture nominees. While they would get their highest ratings in years, it felt like an odd juxtaposition to The Hurt Locker's final box office gross.

Barbara Streisand announced Best Director, which went to Bigelow. When she did, she made the comment "It is time," referencing that Bigelow would become the first woman to win Best Director (she also held this honor at the DGA and BAFTAs) as well as Best Picture. In her speech, she made no comment about this. The film was also the first to recognize a contemporary war since Platoon and the first war film to win since The English Patient in 1996. Unfortunately, there hasn't been much change in the six years since this film for The Academy recognizing Iraq War films or female directors. Bigelow would collaborate with Boal on the 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty. It would receive a Best Picture nomination, though many were concerned when Bigelow wasn't nominated again for Best Director. To date, the only other Iraq War movie to be nominated since was American Sniper

The Hurt Locker is a film that seems like an odd placement in Best Picture history. It is the lowest grossing winner. It is the first female Best Director winner. Yet, it didn't spark the change that many would have hoped for. Even the Best Picture category was altered shortly after with a 5-10 sliding scale. So whether it be Iraq War films or female directors, it feels like The Academy needs to step up their game to recognize great films instead of making this particular case feel like a fluke. Its legacy may be too recent to criticize, but it has come to define an era of war films that are more personal and visceral with realism as opposed to the flourishes akin to Apocalypse Now or The English Patient. It will be hard to judge how The Academy has treated Iraq War films until a decade, maybe longer, passes much like the Vietnam War before. For now, we can recognize what it did right for film and what we hope it can signal for the future of the Oscars.

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