Why Quietly Pro-War 'Hurt Locker' Has the Oscar Edge

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Wow. So “Hurt Locker” received nine Oscar nominations on Tuesday. An Iraq-war film that took in just $12 million at the box office now goes against mighty “Avatar,” which grossed nearly $2 billion, and also earned nine nominations. Talk about your underdog story--think “Rocky,” back in the 70s.

And there’s a great subplot, too: “Locker” was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who happens to be the ex-wife of “Avatar” director James Cameron. Next month at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, those dueling directors will see their names and their work cited in the “best director” category, as well as “best picture.” There’s a whole movie here, just about these two moviemakers.

But in terms of the big prize itself, “Locker” has the edge. It has been winning a string of critics’ awards for the past six months; just two days ago, Bigelow won the “best director” award from the Directors Guild of America (DGA). Insiders consider that tantamount to victory; in 55 of the 61 years since the DGA has been giving out its own award, the DGA winner has also carried home the Oscar.

But why the enthusiasm for “Locker,” which enjoyed only limited release last year? Let’s start with the fact that it’s a terrific movie; according to the critical compendium Web site Rotten Tomatoes, the film earned a 97 percent “fresh” rating.

But there’s a deeper reason. It has to do with the nature of the movie--about Iraq, and about how the Iraq war is changing in perceptions, as passions about the war cool down.

It was no secret that the bulk of Hollywood, as well as the bicoastal chattering classes, were opposed to the war. Putting its politics on its sleeve, Hollywood made a string of anti-war movies--“Stop Loss,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition,” and “Lions for Lambs,” including some big stars, such as Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, and Tommy Lee Jones--and they were all failures.

Why? Because Hollywood was on the wrong side of the public. The public was by no means unanimous in its support of the war, but ticket-buyers did not want to see the military trashed. To be sure, Hollywoodites would say that these movies weren’t anti-military, only anti-war, but that’s too fine a distinction to make. To most people, to be loudly anti-war was to be at least quietly anti-military.

And so, the Dixie Chicks, for example, were toast after their lead singer, Natalie Maines, attacked then-President George W. Bush in March 2003, on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom. And Reese Witherspoon, America’s sweetheart, badly hurt her career by playing the wife of an Arab accused--falsely, of course--of being a terrorist in “Rendition.”

But now, for all practical purposes, the fighting is over in Iraq. And so what do we want the memory to be? Do we want to dump on the war, which is to say, dump on the troops?
Of course not. Instead, what’s happening is an outpouring of just the opposite. “Locker” takes absolutely no position on the war. There’s no politics, no discussion of Bush, or Cheney, or Rumsfeld, or even of 9/11. It’s just taken as a given that this is what these men do: they fight. More precisely, they work in Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), and so they are, literally, lifesavers. The men are presented as technicians, coolly doing a cool job-- if you think of life on the edge as cool. (Which, of course, many people do, especially if they are young and male.)
But the “Locker”-men are more than technicians. They are heroes. Competent, yes, but courageous beyond any regular comprehension.

So by that reckoning, “Locker” would rate as pro-war, because the warriors are presented as better versions of ourselves. Any one of us would want the men of “Locker” by our side in a fight. And it is all men; women play only the tiniest of roles in the film. “Locker” has the same dynamic as a male sports team -- and male sports are popular, too, even with women.

We have seen this retrospective love-bombing before, in the wake of Vietnam. Back in the 60s, when the war was raging, Hollywood opposed the war (yes, John Wayne had enough muscle to make “The Green Berets” in 1968, and the film was reasonably successful, but Hollywood hated the war so much that there was no sequel). Instead, Hollywood made mostly anti-Vietnam allegories, in which bad Americans in other wars stood in for the bad Americans in Vietnam--for example, “Little Big Man,” presenting General Custer as a Lieutenant Calley-like baby-killer.
After the war ended in 1975, Hollywood ventured forth with the anti-Vietnam “Coming Home,” starring--who else?--Jane Fonda. But the film, which showed by-the-book military types as psychoes, gained little traction.

The big Vietnam movie, post-Vietnam, was “The Deer Hunter,” appearing in 1978. It portrayed the Americans as naive good guys, while the Vietnamese were shown as cartoonishly villainous. If the Vietnamese weren’t worth helping, the movie seemed to say, why should be sorry that we are no longer fighting for them? There was a comforting message to American audiences. “Deer Hunter” was nominated for nine Oscars, winning five, including best picture and best director. The Hollywoodites saw their chance to reconnect with the American people--and they jumped on it.

So now, why is “Hurt Locker” doing so well among the critics and chatterers? Answer: Because it’s quietly pro-war. After another divisive war, Hollywood has a chance to get back in the good graces of the American people, who always want to see our fighting men portrayed positively.

James P. Pinkerton is a writer and founder/editor of Serious Medicine Strategy. He is a Fox News contributor.