Would The Hurt Locker have won top Oscars over Avatar if it had been directed by a man? Did it win precisely because it was made by a woman? And not just any woman, but Kathryn Bigelow, former wife of the creator of her film's main rival, Avatar by James Cameron (this competition itself representing quite a drama)? If so, how good is this for women--to win not necessarily on merit, but perhaps because too many white men have prevailed before, one of them Bigelow's already highly decorated ex-?
At the risk of entering into highly subjective territory, let's take a look at both films, and then speculate as to why Hurt Locker may have prevailed.
The Hurt Locker is an exceedingly well done war film about a particular type of male psychology. It presents a brilliant portrait of the kind of man who can and does get addicted to war--specifically to defusing bombs--but also to the adrenaline-rush of war in general. "War is a drug" is the film's organizing theme, and, taking a single case, it convincingly demonstrates how this can be true. U.S. Army Sgt. William James, the film's protagonist, clearly is addicted to war and to his comrades-in-arms. He is a genius at what he does, but he does it to the exclusion of other deep attachments. He bonds more fully with an Iraqi surrogate "son" than to his own infant son back home. One couldn't ask for a better (albeit complicated) platoon leader, but the opposite is true for him as a father.
We all know this kind of man, and one could argue that he is not confined to the military. There are many men (or, for that matter, women) who can't adjust to or don't desire "civilian" or family life. Even if they happen to have participated in creating a family (as did the protagonist in this film), they are not deeply attached to it. They lead similarly obsessed existences in the business or professional worlds, ones that virtually exclude textured outside lives characterized by close bonds.
Avatar, in contrast, tackles bigger themes. It creates an imaginary world 150 years in the future on the planet Pandora. There the occupying humans are covertly divided between two camps--one characterized by greed and the urge for domination (forces that have already destroyed the planet Earth), and the other by a deep appreciation for the Na'vi culture, a society that protects and renews itself through soulfulness and harmony with nature, harnessing the power of both. Goodness ultimately prevails, but not without an epic struggle to preserve this "alien" society's way of life. It is a cautionary tale about the perils of the darker side of human nature--its excesses of subjugation, rapaciousness, pillage, destruction and genocide. Ultimately it is about the real and present danger of destroying ourselves as a species, the imperative of transforming ourselves and our values along the lines of the Na'vi civilization.
Avatar drives home these themes not only with breathtakingly original artistry, but with breathtaking scope. It invents a whole new world, and takes filmmaking to a whole new level. It has rightly been called a "game changer". This is true not just cinematographically, but with the crucial importance of its message. It is an epic, a timeless story, a new art form, a quantum leap--the kind of movie in which the total effect is much more than the sum of its parts. Yes, it's proved to be a blockbuster, and some have therefore derided it as formulaic Hollywood stuff. But this stance may be a way of keeping the enormity of what it accomplishes at bay.
So why did the little guy (or in this case, gal) prevail over the big guy? At some level, it may be as simple as blockbuster envy with a gender twist. Had the Academy had enough of the big (male dominated) studios prevailing over the small independent (female) filmmaker? Was the message to Cameron, "You've gotten quite enough awards and kudos for Titanic and the rest of your work. Be satisfied".
With Avatar, Cameron made a movie deploring just the kind of greed in which "big" gobbles up "little". In contrast, with The Hurt Locker, Bigelow made a movie focused on a circumscribed piece of the human condition trying to survive under harrowing conditions. When war becomes the answer, some folks take it as a "drug". Unfortunately, she is right that this happens--rather than the more desirable outcome of people ultimately finding a way to avoid war and develop richer, fuller, more peaceful, balanced, healthy, generative and cognizant modes of existence. But neither her method nor her message are game changers.
Cameron's film presents the totality of this big picture, and it is important to remember that expansively big doesn't mean bad. His endeavor is huge, galactic, magical and unbelievably imaginative, while Bigelow's, for all its masterful talent and bravery, is delimited and circumscribed in relation to the human condition.
How ironic if ultimately the "big guy" was shut out as the "greedy" one--perhaps for being too big in his revolutionary approach, his message and his success?
The Hurt Locker is searing. Avatar is soaring. Despite all of James Cameron's riches and despite his gender, should his genius again have been rewarded--while looking toward and cultivating the day when that game changing woman will emerge?