The Hurt Locker (pre-Oscar review).

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Reviewer: Steve Dollar
Rating (out of 5): ****

If Kathryn Bigelow succeeds in winning an Oscar for best director next Sunday, which many pundits (including this one) anticipate, it will strike a revolutionary blow in the Hollywood Gender Wars: The 57-year-old action specialist will become the first woman ever to take home a Miniature Gold Bald Man for a job that's as male-dominated as the U.S. military once was.

It's not a complete novelty to have been nominated. Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties) in 1976, Jane Campion (The Piano) in 1993, and Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) in 2003, managed it. And she's hardly a shoo-in, what with ex-hubby James Cameron (the 27-D, future-of-all-media, aggro-mythic Avatar) and Lee Daniels (left-field ridiculous phenom Precious), who could score a coup of his own as the first black (though hardly the first gay) man to win as best director. Anything could happen, and it probably will. But with its truckload of preliminary awards and eight additional Academy Award nominations (from best picture to sound editing), there's little doubt that The Hurt Locker had made its impact, and (no pun intended) blown up Bigelow's career at the very stage it might have begun a premature fade-out.

Perhaps as significantly, in zeitgest-y terms, this is the movie that finally makes a compelling and credible narrative feature of the nearly decade-long Iraqi War. The debacle has been a boon for documentarians, who rushed in where network news outfits feared to tread, telling stories the mainstream American media was too compromised to risk telling (No End in Sight, Taxi to the Dark Side, hell even Heavy Metal in Baghdad, among many notable efforts). Yet, attempts at fictionalizing such recent history for the screen have usually been hobbled by knee-jerk politics and tear-jerk dynamics.

As I am surely the 2,137th critic to say so, Bigelow (and screenwriter/co-producer Mark Boal) have smartly set aside political slants (or at least minimized them) to immerse the audience in the eye-level reality of the war. Its themes are existential, almost those of a classic Western. Indeed, Staff Sgt. Jeremy D. Phillips, the leader of the kind of Explosive Ordinance Disposal team that The Hurt Locker depicts, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times last week, complaining that "there is too much John Wayne and cowboy stuff" for it to accurately detail the act of bomb disposal. That kind of backlash is actually high praise. Thanks to its terrific technical accomplishment – taut editing and a sound mix of suspenseful chik-chik-chiks and muffled roars that could qualify as some avant-garde musique concrete – and intensely coiled performances by the leads (Oscar-nommed Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie), the non-grunt viewer won't likely know the difference.

But anyone can immediately zero in on the core dynamic. Renner's bomb junkie is the classic "rock star," juiced on his own Ninja-like cool when it comes to reckless engagement with improvised explosive devices. He's not only hooked on the adrenalin rush, he's practically a fetishist – a distant cousin to James Spader's collision obsessive in David Cronenberg's Crash. Mackie, who's seen his previous team leader go down in a lethal rain of shrapnel when everyone was being extremely paranoid (as opposed to normal paranoid), understandably views the new dude as a dangerous freak who's going to get everyone blown up in the waning days of their tour of duty.

And yet, he also marvels, and the crucible of combat, with its endless stretches of boredom and unpredictable jolts of sudden death, forges a bond amid all the inevitable love/hate. Although, sorry, this is no Swayze-Keanu bromance a la Point Break. Bigelow strictly avoids any pop hooks, whether actual musical references (Renner cranks a little metal, but that's about it) or dialogue snippets begging to go viral (a staple of the Vietnam War movie cycle, from Robert Duvall's "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" speech in Apocalypse Now to the "me so horny" come hither of Full Metal Jacket).

Despite the presumed apolitical posture, the film would be just another exceptionally well-staged war movie without the smog of wartime debate hanging over it. Though it indulges in caricatures, such as an overzealous colonel (David Morse, with full Strangelove-ian brio) and a feckless Army shrink, and, of course, various innocents who get blown up, it requires our own need to get at some kind of truth about the situation as a dramatic license.

Bigelow's masterful hand at triangulating the tension and release of an action sequence does most of the rest. These scenes (bomb defusions, desert ambushes) have a brutal immediacy that is often breathlessly balanced against the Tums-chewing anxiety of the suspended moment. Even if Renner's character remains as much a cipher as a serial killer, she gets us behind his eyes and into his nervous system, and pretty soon we don't care if this is a "newsy" film soaked in the stink of gunpowder and cold sweat, we're just cocked, locked and ready to rock.

That element, and a heartbreaking coda, lost in a supermarket back in the American heartland, constitutes the film's "truth." Whether Bigelow wins an Oscar or not, her film contributes more to our grasp of this totally fucked historical moment than a shelf of socially conscious fictional and non-fictional movies that have tried to sort out Iraq.

Awards are icing on a highly explosive cake.

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