Apolitical "Hurt Locker" breaks Iraq movie curse
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - World War Two produced Oscar-winner "The Bridge over the River Kwai". The Vietnam war was immortalised on screen in Academy Award winners "The Deer Hunter" and "Platoon".
Now the Iraq conflict has inspired "The Hurt Locker" -- a low-budget, independent movie which is enjoying a success that has eluded other Hollywood takes on America's ongoing military mission in the Middle East.
"The Hurt Locker", the tense tale of bomb disposal experts in Iraq, heads into Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony not only as a best picture front runner but as one of the best reviewed movies of 2009 and 67 awards already under its belt.
Where "The Hurt Locker" succeeds where recent Iraq-themed films like "Body of Lies", "Stop-Loss" and "In the Valley of Elah" have failed lies in a combination of timing, good performances and its transcendence of politics.
"Most of the earlier movies about the Iraq war had some overt political message that was generally critical of the war and the reasons for getting into it," said Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California.
"This is in many ways a traditional war film. The lead character is a gung-ho American soldier. But it is not overtly critical. It has taken a political issue and turned it into a very contemporary take on a genre film," Boyd said.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates apparently agrees. "This is the first Iraq war movie that he has liked, or for that matter seen," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told the Los Angeles Times recently. "In looking at all previous films he thought they had too much of a political agenda."
Writing in commentarymagazine.com, former Washington Post movie critic Stephen Hunter said that unlike other Hollywood treatments on the war "The Hurt Locker doesn't see its soldiers as tragic heroes, and the movie isn't set up to display their crucifixion, to weepy liberal bromide and violin music."
Success at the Oscars for war-themed movies has normally come several years after the end of conflict. "Bridge Over the River Kwai" won in 1957 -- 12 years after the end of World War Two -- while "Platoon" took home the best picture Oscar 13 years after U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1973.
Although U.S. troops are still deployed in Iraq and fighting another major war in Afghanistan, Iraq has moved off the front pages of U.S. newspapers and TV reports as the economy and health reform take precedence.
"There are changing attitudes about the war, but one of them is that it seems to be fact of life that we may be living with for a long time," said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.
"The Hurt Locker' was filmed, in Jordan, more than two years ago and did the rounds of movie festivals in 2008. But it was held for general U.S. release until mid-2009.
"It felt at first like another Iraq war movie. But when it was released last summer, it stood more on its own. Holding it back may have been the best thing that ever happened to it," said Entertainment Weekly's Dave Karger.
"The others had something of a Hollywood gloss. 'Rendition' in 2007 was populated by A list stars (Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal) so it was easy to be distracted from the points it was making," Karger said.
Despite its 97 percent approval rating on review aggregator rottentomatoes.com, "The Hurt Locker" has failed to wow the public. Its total box-office gross is a tiny $18.5 million (12.4 million pounds), according to boxofficemojo.com.
That's the kind of number that persuaded big Hollywood studios a few years ago that Iraq was not worth investing in. The 2008 Warner Bros. thriller "Body of Lies", starring Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, was considered to have underperformed with a $115 million world gross.
Hunter said it was difficult for any movie to make its voice heard with the larger public in a narrative culture that tends to see the Iraq war as a "wretched decision, poorly planned and executed."
"I think most folks dismissed it ('Hurt Locker'), without looking into it, as another downer about the evils of war and the evils of this war in particular," he told Reuters.
And despite the tension of the movie, it is unlikely to appeal to youngsters raised on action movies and videogames.
"What's in it for a kid who's seen 10-story machines that look like juke boxes on hydraulic stilts invade earth and blow up stuff for two solid hours every weekend for the past ten years? It's hard to compete with a weekly visit to Armageddon with something so modestly scaled, all politics aside," he said.
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