So I saw The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, currently frontrunner for Best Director Oscar (her chief competition being her ex-husband, James Cameron, for Avatar). It's about a bomb disposal unit in the Iraq war. That's it. There isn't much plot. These guys defuse bombs. Mostly IEDs lying on the street. They use robots when they can, but sometimes they have to walk right up to the bomb and disarm them. They have special equipment, like an armored suit, but it's still one of the most dangerous jobs in the armed forces, not to mention the world.
It takes place in 2004. That's about all you know about the world outside of this small group of guys. No mention of weapons of mass destruction, George Bush, or even Saddam Hussein. You're up close and personal with them, like they are with each other. They don't know each other before being assigned to watch each other's backs. They have different ways of seeing the world, different levels of appetite for risk. They don't always agree, which means that they occasionally have to challenge each other. They make mistakes, which, in this environment, can be deadly. For each other as well as themselves.
The movie takes no position on the war, just shows it like it is. But that becomes the best possible antiwar message, because you immediately understand how insane this reality is. This is what should be a normal country, with normal people trying to live normal lives. Even under Saddam Hussein, they managed to get on with their lives. Getting up in the morning, eating, drinking, doing their jobs, falling in love, arguing with friends and families. Playing soccer. Enjoying the sunshine. Then we started a war in the middle of it. And we're still fighting that war. They would like to be able to walk across the street, but there might be an IED there. And we're sending young men, almost none of whom speak the language, to fight this war. While these people have no choice but to try to get on with their lives.
The main character is a guy who is really, really good at defusing bombs, William James (Jeremy Renner, who deserves his Oscar nomination for Best Actor). But he's also something of a cowboy who takes some bizarre risks. Which means that he gets things done, but his risks don't always work out.
A war is a perfect frame for mixing the real and the surreal, because we, the audience, don't really know what normal is. What is over the top? I have no idea, because I don't know where the top is. A guy snipping the wires to defuse a bomb at the last second is an action movie cliche. Except that here the guy snippping the wires isn't a British spy wearing a tux, trying to save the world and the woman in a beautiful dress that he's been sleeping with. The guy snipping the wires is an American soldier in camo who is trying to save the lives of a few Iraqis and Americans. There are no beautiful women. This is not a fantasy. There is no escapism.
Bill James knows he's good at his job, but he doesn't know why he does it. He's very grounded in reality, completely aware of what he has to do. But he's also strangely detached from his own survival instincts. He's pragmatic, focused, competent, and professional.
And just a little bit insane.
My vote for Best Director goes to Kathryn Bigelow.