A salute to brave soldiers in a nerve-racking theatre of war
Illustration: Edd Aragon.
The director of The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, delivered the best moments of one of the best Academy Awards this week with her double Oscar win. There is the moment when she peeks out of the corner of her eye at ex-husband James ''Avatar'' Cameron, just before he leans forward to pat her on the back for beating him as best director. What a mischievously inspired seating arrangement. And when The Hurt Locker beat Cameron's 3D preachy green blockbuster Avatar for best picture, his smile was looking decidedly cracked.
The pair remain "very good friends" after the bust-up of their brief marriage, according to Bigelow, 58, and their Oscar behaviour was perfectly civil, although their movies could not be more dissimilar.
Bigelow's decorum extended to her acceptance speeches for her $US11 million ($12 million) independent movie about a US elite bomb disposal squad in Baghdad in 2004, at the height of the Iraq war's violence.
When she walked on stage to receive the Oscar for best director, she said: "I'd just like to dedicate this to the women and men in the military who risk their lives on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world. And may they come home safe."
A few minutes later, she dedicated her second Oscar, for best picture, "to men and women all over the world who, sorry to reiterate, but who wear a uniform, even not just the military - HazMat, emergency, firemen. They're there for us and we're there for them."
It is an excellent sentiment, which transcends the political fights which have engulfed the war in Iraq since the decision by the US and allies such as Australia to invade in 2003.
While some critics have seen the movie as yet more anti-war Hollywood propaganda and soldiers have blasted it as inaccurate, it is really just a snapshot of the nerve-racking reality of warfare in Iraq in 2004 when violence escalated before the successful troop surge of 2007.
It is about the understated nobility of generation Y soldiers who shoulder the greatest burdens, who willingly risk their lives on foreign battlefields because they believe they are doing good.
And the proof their pain and sacrifice has done good came the same day The Hurt Locker was honoured at the Academy Awards - on Sunday, when Iraq held its second free general parliamentary elections, hailed universally as a great success with a 62 per cent turnout.
It will take weeks before the final results are known, but again we have seen the courage of the Iraqi people in defying insurgent bombs to vote.
One New York Times piece compares the way the streets of Baghdad appeared on Sunday to how they were in the first election five years ago. Today, there are traffic lights and solar panels on the lamp posts and Iraqis reach to put on their seatbelts as they approach police checkpoints, as law and order is slowly restored.
The Hurt Locker is a Vietnam-era soldier's phrase, taken at its least literal to mean something like "a private place of pain". It is about men, as perhaps only a woman could explain. You never really understand why the main character, the bomb disposal whiz Staff Sergeant William James (played by Jeremy Renner) is so reckless. He throws off his bomb suit at one point to get comfortable while defusing a bomb.
Bigelow lets you recognise the uniquely male "call of duty" instinct in James but doesn't try to provide a glib explanation. He just is what he is. He is very good at defusing bombs, the army needs him so that's what he does. She shows warfare reduced to improvised explosive devices and other homemade bombs which lie everywhere in wait for coalition soldiers, randomly blowing off legs and arms or killing them as they sit in Humvees beside mates who survive unscathed.
Bigelow hates war. Before the Oscars she said: "I'm a child of the '60s, and I see war as hell, and a real tragedy, and completely dehumanising. You know, those are some of the great themes of our time, and we made a real effort to portray the brutality and the futility of this conflict."
But she does not use her film to preach, like Cameron did with Avatar.
The Hurt Locker owes much of its power to its restraint and reticence, and its respectful depiction
of the young men who are its understated stars.
Bigelow has resisted the temptation to use the soldiers to push the cliched Hollywood anti-war barrow which has been the kiss of death to previous Iraq war movies.
Her intensely narrow focus makes us think more about the soldiers doing the fighting than any amount of heavy-handed cinematic moralising.
Of course she has been criticised for refusing to politicise the war and thus disrespect the soldiers who are fighting in it. One female critic
even implied Bigelow was a tool of the right-wing "Tea Party movement" in the US because of her "nuance-free" approach.
The shadow Bigelow leaves in the background of The Hurt Locker is what happens to the soldiers when they return. It is an inevitability of war the young men who volunteer to fight come home quite changed. But how our soldiers react when they return will depend on whether the country they fought for believes their sacrifice was worthwhile.
Major-General Jim Molan is one of our most decorated soldiers, and has served with distinction in Iraq, having been Chief of Operations under US General George Casey during the peak of fighting in 2004-05, when The Hurt Locker was set.
And yet, when he goes to speak at universities he finds protesters - mainly baby boomers - calling him a war criminal, daubing themselves with red paint and falling on the ground pretending to be dead.
You would have hoped we were beyond such destructive Vietnam era foolishness.