March 2, 2010 / 8:34 PM / 7 years ago

"Hurt Locker" breaks Hollywood's Iraq war curse

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - World War Two produced Oscar winner "The Bridge over the River Kwai". The Vietnam war was immortalized on screen by Academy Award winners "The Deer Hunter" and "Platoon".

Now the Iraq conflict has inspired "The Hurt Locker" -- a low-budget, independently-made movie that is enjoying a level of industry success that has eluded other Hollywood films about America's ongoing military mission in the Middle East.

"The Hurt Locker," the tense tale of U.S. 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 with 67 awards under its belt.

Where "Hurt Locker" has succeeded -- and other Iraq-themed films like "Body of Lies", "Stop-Loss" and "In the Valley of Elah" have failed -- is due to a combination of a good story, timing, and the transcendence of politics, experts say.

"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.

While perceptions of the film's authenticity have been mixed among members of the U.S. military, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been a supporter.

"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. "In looking at all previous films, he thought they had too much of a political agenda."

TIME, DISTANCE EASE ANXIETY

Success at the Oscars for war-themed movies has normally come several years after the end of a conflict.

"Bridge Over the River Kwai" won the best picture Oscar in 1957 -- 12 years after the end of World War Two -- while "Platoon" took best picture honors 13 years after U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1973.

Helping "Hurt Locker" is the fact that while soldiers are still deployed in Iraq and fighting a major war in Afghanistan, Iraq has been eclipsed by worries over the U.S. economy and the U.S. healthcare reform debate in newspapers and TV reports.

"There are changing attitudes about the war, and one of them is that it seems to be a fact of life that we may be living with for a long time," said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

Dave Karger, film writer for Entertainment Weekly, said that when "Hurt Locker" first made the rounds at film festivals in 2008, it seemed like any other Iraq war movie. But when finally released by independent studio Summit Entertainment in the summer of 2009, it stood apart from previous films.

"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 award success, "Hurt Locker" has failed to hit it big at global box offices. Its ticket sales stand at a mere $18.5 million -- the sort of low figure that persuades studios making big-budget movies that Iraq is not worth an investment.

An independent like Summit, however, makes a business of assuming the risk of low-budget films and hopes critical acclaim and awards come later, which is exactly what happened.

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Paul Simao

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