Because, in a historical context, it's destined not to be…
That's the easy answer. Oscar may do a lot of good when it comes to the filmmaking community and its active membership, but picking the best movie of any given year is never its strong suit. A cursory glance across the decades sees choices both confounding (The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in '80s Days) and wholly debatable (Ordinary People vs. Raging Bull, Dances with Wolves vs. Goodfellas), while everyone has their individual sticking points (2001 for yours truly) and abominations (Crash? Really?).
Still, the situation with The Hurt Locker is different in two significant ways. First, it was part of a newly revamped system that opened up the competition to nine more possible spoilers. Shakespeare in Love only had to overcome Saving Private Ryan and two other terrible choices (Life is Beautiful, Elizabeth) that didn't deserve to be considered. Kathryn Bigelow's intense war thriller had to marginalize critic's faves like Inglourious Basterds, Precious, and Up in the Air while thwarting the massive commercial clout of Avatar - and that still left five other films to figure out. That makes the win all the more sweet, right? Well, not really…
Second, we were dealing with history here, albeit a very short sighted and symbolically inert version of same. Bigelow, a former genre ace (Near Dark, Strange Days) that had seen her commercial cred fall as of late (ever seen K19: Widowmaker? We rest our case) had been hitched to the politicking band wagon that had her railroaded right into the record books as the first female director earmarked to earn an Oscar. While Lee Daniels was also poised to make a similar splash for Precious (he was the first black filmmaker to earn a DGA nod - not Spike Lee or John Singleton - and the second ever to get Academy recognition), the pretty PC money was on Bigelow. Still, sit through Lina Wertmuller's brilliant Seven Beauties and you'll see that such recognition is three decades too damn late.
So The Hurt Locker has a pair of freakish factors working both for and against its place as Best Picture. Then, of course, there's something called the "snowball" effect. Tinseltown likes to take the flavor of the moment, package it in a tightly wound marketing ball, and roll it down the publicity mill hill to see how much traction - and more importantly, column space - it picks up. It then simply freezes out the rest. Would it shock you to learn that The Hurt Locker was actually released back in 2008? That it made several international film festivals (Venice, Toronto) before landing at South by Southwest in March of 2009? Summit Entertainment decided to distribute the film slowly, opening in a few theaters at a time to build word of mouth.
While the money never truly rolled in, and audiences more or less ignored it initially, small bands of supporters sprung up, journalists and online pundits who championed the narrative's no-nonsense approach and literal tripwire tension. It's been said before but it bears repeating - The Hurt Locker is the first Iraq War themed film to paint soldiers as patriotic and dutiful, not psychotic or dangerous. From In the Valley of Elah to Redacted, the aggressive, anti-Bush feelings toward our presence in the Middle East translated down to a storytelling style that made our troops, not the policy or the politician involved, the real enemy.
Besides, it does contain some crackerjack direction. There is no denying that The Hurt Locker is a really good film. It illustrates elements of life in the field of battle that few have captured before. Bigelow mimics Hitchcock with a kind of cat and mouse suspense that few can fully appreciate - or recreate. Her attention to detail remains impeccable, and her tactile qualities as a storyteller stand flawless. That she beat her ex-husband, or became some kind of gender equity talking point is outside the reality of what she accomplished with The Hurt Locker. While some might still point to Avatar as the "greater" achievement, Bigelow can't be dismissed outright.
What can be pointed out is that her status as a female frontrunner surely helped The Hurt Locker's chances, as much as the building critical approval and the subject matter. In a plausible "perfect storm" scenario, a bunch of unknown novelties came together and helped support an Oscar run. Want proof? Imagine the same movie directed by Brett Ratner. The same film, made the same way. No difference. Same release schedule, same festival run. Same reaction. Would there really have been the same grandstanding for HIS Academy chances? Or what if it was Michael Bay, turning down the dopey bombast to make his "serious" suspense actioner? Would we still see the same unconditional support?
As a critic, we are usually clued in to how the insular motion picture media machine works. At the start of 2009, Precious, not Hurt Locker, was the film to beat. It had been part of a fractious bidding war, offered its own set of minority/majority qualifications and the early buzz was unmatched. While Locker literally limped along trying to build up steam, Daniels and the gang stood up and took a significant place center stage. Then, Up in the Air made its run. Paramount actually pulled Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island from the Fall, moving it to February, so as to save cash that could go toward giving Jason Reitman's heartbreaking comedy a real run. They even limited their monetary output on Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, praying it could rally enough support to stand on filmmaker reputation alone. It couldn't.
Long before Avatar was even a factor (many were predicting flop or outright failure - how's that working out for you?) Hurt Locker was seen as having an outside chance - surely to be nominated, but never dominate. Even as we moved closer to James Cameron's eventual titanic take-over, few could find a realistic rallying point. Then somewhere, somehow, The Hurt Locker gained its momentum. The critics' groups spoke (though the three I belong to - the Florida Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and The Online Film Critics Society - chose Up in the Air, Up in the Air, and The Hurt Locker, respectively) and the standard sense of eventuality took over. Soon, no matter the mega-million dollar push from the natives of Pandora, Bieglow's baby was the projected favorite. The ball was rollin'
But even with a win, this doesn't make The Hurt Locker 2009's best. All it means is that, within a certain restricted dominion that has traditionally be thought of as a benchmark for the artform, this particular film came out on top. It would be easier to argue for Avatar for its massive technical accomplishments and how it has resonated with so many people around the world. You could even make a case for something significantly off the radar like Lars Von Trier's Antichrist (psychological dread as an Obsession commercial) or Michael Haenke's The White Ribbon (German history as an ambiguous motive for rising fascism). No matter it's a spark, it sense of immediate importance, The Hurt Locker should suffer from a lack of added context. Once we learn that the soldiers here risk their life for duty and a desire to defy death, what's left? We live with the back home horrors of Iraq every day. Where's the staying power beyond what Bigelow accomplished.
Indeed, last year's winner - Slumdog Millionaire - may have a chance at being well remembered because of its unusual combination of multicultural canvassing and natty narrative traditions. But ask any film fan, and they may argue for The Dark Knight, a film that wasn't even nominated - or Wall-E, the latest example of Pixar's perfection given the step-child treatment via the kiddie table known as the Animation category. Go back five years - was Million Dollar Baby truly the best 2004 had to offer? Was it superior to several other commercial and critical hits that didn't get a chance at Oscar gold?
Time and perspective are the two things that turn conjecture into consensus, and right now, The Hurt Locker has little of either. People are still arguing over the win, wondering if things would have been different had Avatar come out in November, or if Precious had been poised for a late season full court press. It might just be as simple as AMPAS rarely getting it right and being done with it. Every year, quality films are left out of the mix, marginalized by a system that still sees the judgment juggernaut fueled by a noxious nepotism that spoils the rewards for both the winners and the losers. Get on the right track and you're pretty much guaranteed success. That's what happened to The Hurt Locker, a good, not GREAT film. Several years from now, we might think differently. But for today, this is how things played out. After the thaw, we'll see.