Q: 'The Hurt Locker,' Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war movie, won great reviews and the Oscar for best picture but has failed to draw large audiences, joining other 2009 critically acclaimed films such as 'The Messenger.' What are the challenges for artists who try to use their art to lead the public on a divisive political issue?
'The Hurt Locker' really didn't address the politically divided issue of the Iraq War. Whether or not one supported our intervention into Iraq, whether or not one supported our strategy once we had intervened, nearly all Americans support the troops doing a very difficult job, in a very difficult environment, against a very resourceful, ruthless, and implacable enemy who has few scruples about killing non-combatants to create chaos. That is what this movie is really about - how young American soldiers deal with war in its 21st century manifestation.
I watched the movie on DVD this weekend and then watched the movie again with commentary in the 'special features,' listening to the dialogue between Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal (the writer) talking about how they made the movie, the compromises they had to make and why, the research that went into making the film as realistic as they believed possible within the bounds of Hollywood entertainment. They admitted to "Hollywoodizing" some of the military tactics, techniques and procedures depicted in the film, but it was truly a remarkable effort and a remarkable movie.
One of my EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] friends commented that, in spite of his dismay at some of the inaccuracies in its portrayal of EOD tactics and unit/personal discipline, he noted that the movie was "totally accurate on the post-combat deployment portrayal of being lost and doing insignificant life tasks, and was incredibly visceral for portrayal of time-sensitive decision making, e.g. shoot or not shoot a cell-phone triggerman. Also, the multiple camera angles and unstable camera footage was realistic portrayal of the confusion and 'fog of war,' especially for an asymmetric battlefield without clear enemy positive ID."
Bigelow and Boal deserve a lot credit for making this movie without the sponsorship of a major studio. It is likely that had this been produced by one of the major film studios, studio executives would have insisted on injecting pseudo-drama into an otherwise fine script to create a travesty, as happened with Navy Seals, GI Jane, and Annapolis - all of which had potential to be outstanding movies.
The challenge for artists in the film industry are the same as the challenge for artists in any other field: Create something beautiful and original -- or follow a formula to maximize profits. In film, literature, art, music, the Holy Grail is the truly creative and original work of art that is appreciated by enough of the public in the creator's lifetime to earn him/her a fine reputation and a good living. The success of Indy films such as 'The Hurt Locker,' My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Brothers McMullen -- to name three that come to mind -- portends well for those of us looking for more than light-hearted entertainment in film, and may give the studios a reflective moment to question the formulaic approach to profitable film making.
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