THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2009)

In 2010, the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 2009, and December 31, 2009, the awards were held on March 7. The ceremony was hosted by actors Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. This marked Martin’s third time hosting, and Baldwin’s first. It was the first ceremony to have multiple hosts since 1987. To avoid competing with the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the ceremony was held several weeks later than in previous years.

After the backlash at genre/blockbuster films being consistently snubbed, and in an attempt to revitalise the awards, Academy president Sid Ganis announced in June 2009 the Academy would be expanding its Best Picture category to ten nominees instead of five. This also harkened back to the early days of the Oscars when this was the case, with 1943 marking the final year of ten Best Picture nominees.

This move ultimately led to Up becoming the second animated film in Oscars history to be nominated for Best Picture. With five total nominations, it became the second-most nominated animated film of all time. However, the expansion ultimately resulted in nominations for mostly smaller, independent films, with commercially successful genre films like Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Star Trek, and The Hangover still missing out.

For reasons unknown, ceremony producers Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic re-introduced the phrase “And the winner is…” to announce each winner, as opposed to the traditional “And the Oscar goes to…” for the first time since 1988. The phrase was changed in the late 80s out of respect to the four losing nominees. Its bizarre return to the ceremony still remains a mystery to this day.

Three of the four acting winners were first-time nominees. With his win for Best Adapted Screenplay for Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher became the first African-American writer to win an Academy Award for screenwriting. With his nomination for the same film, director Lee Daniels became only the second African-American nominated for Best Director and the first African-American director to have his film earn a Best Picture nomination.

With her win for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow made history as the first female to win this category in the 82-year history of the Academy Awards. In the precursor season, Bigelow also became the first female to win the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing and the BAFTA Award for Best Direction. Bigelow’s Academy Award was presented to her by Barbra Streisand, who utterly “well, the time has come” before announcing Bigelow’s name.

Leading the way this year with nine nominations each were James Cameron’s box-office colossus Avatar and Bigelow’s gritty war drama The Hurt Locker. In one of the biggest underdog victories in Oscars history, the night belonged to The Hurt Locker, with the film taking home six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director for Bigelow, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing.

The nominees:
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

The winner:
The Hurt Locker

Based on writer Mark Boal’s experiences as a freelance journalist embedded with an American bomb squad in Iraq, The Hurt Locker is the harrowing look at the life of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in the Iraq War. Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are members of a bomb-disposal unit in Baghdad. As their tour of duty enters its final weeks, the men face a set of increasingly hazardous situations, any of which could end their lives in an explosive instant.

Why did it win?
James Cameron was once again the king of the box-office, with his latest offering, Avatar taking the highest-grossing film of all time crown away from his other blockbuster, Titanic. With his previous effort winning a record-equalling 11 Academy Awards, many began to assume Cameron and Avatar were heading for a similar response from the Academy again this year. But, from seemingly nowhere, a challenger appeared in the form of the brutal and stark indie darling The Hurt Locker. And, in a delicious twist of irony, it was crafted by none other than Cameron’s ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow. Just like Titanic vs. L.A. Confidential, a David and Goliath battle between an epic box-office juggernaut and a low-budget/low box-office drama was forming. But this time, the Academy would wisely side with the underdog.

In what still stands as one of the most unlikely and incredible victories in recent Oscars history, The Hurt Locker, a film which grossed less than $50 million worldwide, would bring down the most commercially successful film in history to take Best Picture, and with it, finally award a female director with the honour of Best Director. I hate to even bring up the piece of history Bigelow’s win represented because it potentially reduces her victory to nothing more than a PR stunt. Yes, the Academy had never awarded a female director in their 82-year history. And yes, Bigelow’s win finally shattered an embarrassing and shameful Academy record. Did it help the campaign of The Hurt Locker to finally have the chance to make history? Of course, it did. But it wasn’t the sole reason the film and Bigelow were victorious, and that summation is fairly offensive to Bigelow’s incredible work.

With a nail-biting intimacy few wars films ever manage to achieve, and decidedly political-free sentiment, The Hurt Locker was another brilliant but uncomfortable piece of cinema which showcased why war is absolute hell. From the moment U.S. troops began their occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, we were all but assured a wave of films inspired by the events faced by the men on the front lines and their return home. We’d seen Hollywood respond this way to every major military activity involving American troops. From World War I and II to Vietnam and the Gulf War, wartime provided a never-ending supply of fodder for filmmakers. But Bigelow crafted a masterpiece which took the genre to a new level.

The Hurt Locker is a tense and riveting experience, filled with truly palpable and heart-racing suspense and sublimely crafted characters. Through a series of anxiety-inducing bomb-defusing sequences, Bigelow puts up right in the action and the acts of these slightly crazy but daringly brave men. She ignores the politics of why they’re there, never once seeking to answer whether America’s involvement in the Middle East is a good or a bad thing, and therein lies the film’s true power and universal appeal. This is not an anti-war film. It’s also not a pro-war film. This is simply a depiction of the life of a bomb disposal team, and the unbelievable and devastating events they were facing, on a daily basis.

By wisely electing not to choose sides of a war which was fiercely dividing public opinion, Bigelow delivered a film which could be accessible to all. If the viewer was in support of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, The Hurt Locker could stand as a testament as to why they should be there and why those who put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of others were the true heroes. However, if the viewer were to be against the war, it could also stand to personify and portray the psychological (and potentially physical) damage the war was having on American troops, the horrendous hell the war was unwittingly placing these men in, and why they needed to get the hell out of there, as soon as possible. Somehow, the film managed to work both sides of the coin, without ever taking one side over the other. If that isn’t the mark of a brilliant piece of war cinema, I don’t know what is.

The Hurt Locker received a relatively small release, with only 500 cinemas screening the film, at its widest release point. As such, its total box-office is far from impressive, at first glance. On a small budget of just $15 million, the film earned just $17 million at the U.S. box-office and an additional $32 million internationally, bringing its worldwide total to $49 million. However, the film’s initial four-theatre release in Los Angeles and New York delivered an average of $36,338 per theatre. When it expanded nationally, the average theatre gross was $14,578, making it the highest per-screen average of any film playing theatrically in the U.S. at the time. After its Oscars success, the DVD sales reached a staggering $30 million, making the film extremely profitable, and, ultimately, a financial success.

The film’s real success was with the critics where it received widespread acclaim and was deemed one of the year’s greatest films. Entertainment Weekly called The Hurt Locker an “intense, action-driven war pic” and a “muscular, efficient standout,” USA Today declared that “Hollywood has made a great film about the Iraq War,” the Los Angeles Times called the film “overwhelmingly tense, overflowing with crackling verisimilitude” and an “unqualified triumph that’s been long expected from director Kathryn Bigelow,” while TIME magazine simply hailed it as “a near-perfect movie.”

For the third year in-a-row, one film enjoyed almost all of the precursor season success. During its Oscar campaign, The Hurt Locker was awarded Best Picture by the critics’ groups of Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, Austin, the National Society of Film Critics and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. It stood as one of only four films in history, at the time, to have won all three major U.S. critics group prizes – Los Angeles, New York and the NSFC. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, and the film did hit a few bumps along the way.

As expected, the HFPA/Golden Globes fell for the blockbuster and picked Avatar and James Cameron for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director. And while The National Board of Review included The Hurt Locker in their ten top films of the year, they gave their Best Film prize to Up in the Air. But from here, The Hurt Locker would recover to sweep the BAFTAs, taking home six awards including Best Film. Then it swept the guilds, taking the PGA, DGA, WGA, and snared the all-important SAG Ensemble nomination (Inglourious Basterds rightly won), making it an unstoppable force, and the undeniable frontrunner for Best Picture. All that was left was for David to conquer Goliath on Oscar night, and, as they say, the rest is history.

Did it deserve to win?
Even with its incredible run of success during the precursor season, many of us still couldn’t quite believe a film like The Hurt Locker was actually going to take Best Picture. Sure, the majority of us ultimately predicted it, based purely on rules and precedent. Yet somehow, it still felt almost unfathomable for a film crafted by a female filmmaker, which earned under $50 million at the worldwide box-office, could find itself declared the Academy’s winner. Especially when up against a film which had earned more than any film in history, crafted by a filmmaker the Academy were clearly very fond of.

We can all look back on Avatar now and giggle at how foolish we were to even consider it a potential Best Picture winner. In retrospect, the film is downright awful. Don’t believe me? Pop in that DVD or Blu-ray copy you bought in 2009, and get back to me. But, at the time, the world was truly swept up in Pandora-mania. The box-office was unlike anything ever seen before. Everywhere you went, people were raving about Avatar and heading out to see it again and again. After it received nine Oscar nominations, it really wouldn’t have been surprising to see the Academy get taken for that ride too. Thankfully, they knew better.

The Hurt Locker was indeed the more deserving film this year (actually, pretty much all the other nominees were more deserving than Avatar), and the Academy were right in awarding it Best Picture and the five other trophies it took along with it. What Kathryn Bigelow constructed and delivered was nothing short of a breathtaking masterpiece. Forget the fact she’s a woman. It has nothing to do with her victory. Of course, it was glorious to see a female director not only take Best Director but have her film win Best Picture, as well. But it’s ultimately irrelevant to what makes the film such a worthy choice by the Academy.

With tension so tight, you can barely stand it, The Hurt Locker is a viseceral experience like nothing else in 2009. Those bomb defusing sequences still have the power to take your damn breath away, regardless of knowing the ultimate outcome. Even with its 130 minute running time, Bigelow barely ever lets up, and the film keeps you in its firm grip from its startling opening sequence to its sublime conclusion. Barry Ackroyd’s tight and frenetic cinematography places you right at the heart of the action, and it’s a travesty he wasn’t the Oscar victor. You feel every moment of this film like you’re stuck in the centre of the gripping action. This is probably as close as most of us will ever get to really being in a warzone, and we feel that experience like never before.

But for all its brilliantly-crafted action, The Hurt Locker also stands as a wonderful character piece. Too often, films of the war genre focus on the battle, and forget about the men fighting it. Working from Mark Boal’s sensational screenplay, The Hurt Locker avoids this pitfall by delivering a captivating narrative filled with fully-developed characters who we actually give a damn about. As the wild-card James, Jeremy Renner is a true revelation, and, after years of being a bit-player, he was finally able to show us what he was really made of. James is a war man, through and through, and Renner instills such cocky confidence and cheeky charisma in a man who knows nothing else but life in a warzone. But beneath that bravado is a deeply affected soul, and Renner takes such beautiful care with revealing his layered performance. Providing great support to Renner are Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty as Sanborn and Eldridge. The three have such terrific chemistry together, and they play off each other so perfectly. Together, they form such a brilliant trio of characters who you cannot help but adore.

Standing as both one of the greatest war films of all time and one of the greatest films of the 21st century, The Hurt Locker is an absolute triumph. It was the film to finally end the curse of sexism plaguing the Academy Awards, but it represents so much more than just the gender of its director. It’s a raw and brutal look at the life of a soldier. It’s a thrilling and dazzling ride. And its execution is crafted with deft skill by all involved in its production. It’s nothing short of a miracle such a small film was able to sweep the Academy Awards, but we can thank god it did. It proved that, every now and then, artistic merit can triumph over box-office dollars and public adoration. The right film won this year, and The Hurt Locker was the truly deserving winner of Best Picture.

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