‘The Hurt Locker’ is Oscars’ dream film

Film Critic

Everyone wants the chance to dream, and if Sunday night’s Oscar results are any indication, the people who work in the dream factory most of all.

It takes away nothing from “The Hurt Locker,” which really was the best film of the year, or the exceptional directing job done by Kathryn Bigelow, to speculate that more than the acknowledgment of excellence was behind that film’s triumph in the hotly contested best picture race.

It seems fair to say that an almost subconscious yearning in part motivated the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to vote the way they did. A yearning for a Hollywood that once existed but doesn’t anymore, a Hollywood where films like “The Hurt Locker” were business as usual and not something that was such an aberration, so outside of current norms, that it very nearly didn’t get made at all.

But if you voted for “The Hurt Locker,” you could pretend that wasn’t so. You could vote for a dream of a better world where these films lived long and prospered. And if the film actually won, it would be so much easier to make believe that that traditional Hollywood is still here when the reality is that it’s gone, gone, gone.

For though it was made with very modern skills, technologies and attitudes, “The Hurt Locker” at its core is a throwback to a time as far back as 1944, when “Casablanca” was the best of the 10-movie field, and the major studios were in the day-in day-out business of making smart, exciting, character-driven films intended primarily for a grown-up audience.

But after having been beaten down by studio neglect and disappointed by halfhearted efforts, that audience is now so gun-shy that it even stayed away from this film, making it the lowest-grossing of modern best picture winners.

Equally unusual in this day and age, “The Hurt Locker” can be said to owe at least part of its Oscar success to the united front put up by critics. It achieved a rare trifecta, taking the top prize from the Los Angeles and New York critics as well as the National Society, and that sweep likely persuaded some academy members, who may have been as reluctant as the rest of adult America, to give the film a try.

“Avatar,” by contrast, needed no such help. A splendid, well-reviewed film in its own right and one that will be enormously influential on the future of moviegoing, this 3-D epic turned out to have a drawback in the best-picture race.

For all the new ground it broke, “Avatar,” which cost more than $300 million to make and has become the highest-grossing film of all time, having taken in more than $2.6 billion worldwide, may have seemed to voters to be too tied to the movie business as it does exist, the movie business that many people who work in it would prefer to forget about, if only for one night. Which is why “The Hurt Locker” not only won best picture and director, it won five of the seven head-to-head clashes between the two films, with “Avatar” winning only cinematography and “Up” walking off with best score.

That current business, in case you’ve forgotten, values everything that “The Hurt Locker” is not. It’s a business that is about toys and sequels more than drama and character, a business where the high-tech special effects and low raunchy humor favored by a youthful demographic are the twin touchstones of box-office success.

It is also the kind of business where an audience-friendly adult entertainment like “Crazy Heart,” a film that won two Oscars, including best actor for Jeff Bridges, was abandoned by the studio that made it and nearly went, in the words of writer-director Scott Cooper, “straight to radio.” Only the savvy team at Fox Searchlight, who performed a similar search and rescue mission with last year’s big winner, “Slumdog Millionaire,” recognized “Crazy Heart” for what it is. Is it any wonder that this is an industry that many academy members, who gave exactly zero nominations to “The Hangover,” would prefer to forget they are in?

Yet one of the many paradoxes of the “The Hurt Locker” situation is that the film not only survived major studio neglect, it thrived. Without the often heavy hand of studio interference, the filmmakers were free to make their film their way. This was, as Oscar-winning editor Bob Murawski put it in the evening’s most pointed acceptance speech, “a movie made without compromise. We didn’t have any preview screenings or focus groups or studio notes. Everybody made the movie we wanted to make and it turned out great.” No wonder everyone wanted to vote for it.

Yet though this film was turned down for financing all over town and acquired out of the Toronto Film Festival back in 2008 for a minimal $1.5 million by the shrewd folks at Summit Entertainment, now that it has won six Oscars, its creators will be flooded with praise by the very people who said there was no room at the inn.

‘Twas ever thus.