Everyone gets to be a movie critic in the days leading up to the award of the Oscars, betting favorites to win, place or show. Down the home stretch, "Avatar" and "Hurt Locker" battle it out to the finish line. What delicious irony that the "jockeys" were once married to each other. James Cameron, director of "Avatar," and Kathryn Bigelow, director of "Hurt Locker," have untied the marital knot, but their talents remain locked tightly together.
Hollywood is far from perfect, as you may have heard, but moviemakers push the envelope of popular culture, telling us as much and more about ourselves, for better and for worse, than the political players in Washington. The politicians only get to craft - or crash - health care, and the mavens of Wall Street only exploit the economy. But every generation finds the popular culture it deserves, and "Avatar" and "Hurt Locker" are testimony to the obsessions of contemporary young Americans, who often play electronic war games without noticing that their country is fighting two real wars in real time.
If "Avatar" is perceived as a happening through a hallucinatory drug, "Hurt Locker" requires something to calm the collective hyperactivity felt by its audience. High-tech meets adrenaline to strike an authentic high. For all its spectacular three-dimensional beauty, "Avatar" suffers from a sloppy sentimental love story with a behind-the-curve message of America as the ultimate imperial power. Actors are clothed in digital distortions. "Hurt Locker" brings gritty American soldiers to life in a realistic war in Iraq, with an appreciation for the heroism of a soldier whose main purpose is not to shoot to kill, but to dismantle roadside bombs, the improvised explosive devices, IEDs. It's a new kind of combat, in which our tough guys set out to protect and defend civilians who don't always feel any need to say thanks.
The strength of "Avatar" lies in its harnessing new electronic technology to create bursts of dazzling action. Director James Cameron creates splashes of surreal color in fantastical fights between man and beast. The power of "Hurt Locker," in striking contrast, resides in its earthy, drab, down-and-dirty realism, captured in the fine acting of men who transport us into their hearts, minds, fears and frustrations for an experience most Americans will never confront.
Ironically, "Avatar" is the work of the man who turns violence into fantasy, the stuff of fairy tales told with a soft and even feminine sensibility. "Hurt Locker" celebrates the macho, directed by a woman obsessed with human violence. She creates a combatant character in a contemporary Trojan War, a warrior with pluck and tenacity who reminds us of Hector's words in the "Iliad": "I know how to stand and fight to the finish. Twist and lunge in the War-god's deadly dance."
Kathryn Bigelow gives imaginative force and power to the narrative, as conceived by screenwriter Mark Boal, who was embedded with the grunts in Iraq. Her creativity recalls that of Stephen Crane, who never heard a Union or Confederate gun fired in combat but whose novel "The Red Badge of Courage" was one of the classics begat by the Civil War. Like Crane's, her creativity does not depend on personal experience.
Certain critics of "Hurt Locker" argue that it's politically neutral, and many viewers even regard it as opposing the war in Iraq. But it makes you proud of the American soldier in the way John Wayne's portrayals of soldiers made Americans proud in World War II. Staff Sgt. William James, portrayed by Jeremy Renner, does not have the walk and swagger of the Duke (who does?) but he suggests the Duke's pride and conviction and even his recklessness in setting out to do a dangerous job with redneck nobility. When we watch him striding alone down a scary street to defuse a homemade bomb, he's as death-defying as the Duke in a Green Beret.
Our military men have not received the honor and respect they deserve. Their heroic sacrifices haven't won the public attention and appreciation owed to them. Political criticism of our current wars has taken its toll, rendering unobservant Americans immune to the danger that is their daily portion. Young people often wear the camouflage as parody rather than pride and lack the understanding of reality that goes with the recognition that "there but for the grace of God, go I."
Some veterans complain that "Hurt Locker" is not authentic and doesn't tell it like it really is. Expecting a mere movie to do that is expecting too much. But portraying the literal is not the moviemaker's challenge. "Hurt Locker" triumphs with an emotional truth about the character of war and the men who reluctantly go there to win it.
The envelope, please.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.