Going to war with Oscar

Posted by · 12:41 pm · March 2nd, 2010

Willem Dafoe in PlatoonOver at The Big Picture, Patrick Goldstein spent some time revisiting the three “bona fide” war films to win the Oscar for Best Picture (in the last 40 years): “Patton,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Platoon.” He notes that each of those films, when adjusted for inflation, grossed over $300 million, $280 million and $160 million respectively.  We all know where “The Hurt Locker”‘s tally sits.

What he took away from another look was that each film captures modern day ambivalence toward war, which really, the best of war cinema does.  Which reminds me, I caught “Black Hawk Down” again on cable earlier this week (a brilliant film), and certainly the point is driven home there, though in more camouflaged strokes.  When Tom Sizemore sarcastically quips, “Just get it over with,” in response to a young soldier screaming, “They’re going to get us killed,” any notion that the film uses high octane tropes to drum up a sense of “duty” or American flag-waving quickly flies out the window.

But I digress.  All of that is kind of inherent in the drive to make a war film, unless you’re talking about a golden age period that saw the likes of John Wayne (who Goldstein reminds “ducked out of the fighting himself”) standing up, larger than life, to the identity-less enemies of a nation.

But Goldstein really sticks the assessment landing when he starts in on “Platoon,” which, in my cinematic eye, has always felt like a blood brother to Kathryn Bigelow’s film:

In the mid-1980s, if “Top Gun” represented an appealing fantasy about the visceral excitement of war, it was “Platoon” that captured the caustic reality.

As David Halberstam, who’d made his name as a Vietnam correspondent and one of the war’s earliest critics, put it: “I find it inconceivable that someone who had not been to Vietnam could see this movie and not sense its authenticity and immediately understand why the war was unwinnable.”

You could probably say much the same thing about “The Hurt Locker,” which captures both the individual acts of bravery as well as the overall futility of the war in Iraq. No matter how you look at it, in the world of Hollywood movies, war is hell, where every stirring act of heroism or grace under fire is undercut by a pervasive feeling of isolation, dehumanization and pessimism. Even “Patton,” set in the one war that was actually won, ends on a bleak note, with the grand warrior as a lonely old man, walking his dog.

Check out the rest at The Big Picture.  If “The Hurt Locker” does indeed take the award for Best Picture, how do you think it does, or doesn’t, fit in with this lineage?

→ 26 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

26 responses so far

  • 1 3-02-2010 at 1:30 pm

    MrW said...

    *The* three “bona fide” war films to win the Oscar for Best Picture? When did ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, ‘From Here to Eternity’ or ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ stop being bona fide war films then?

  • 2 3-02-2010 at 1:46 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    gladiator, braveheart, return of the king! i joke
    i want to get the oscars over with now

  • 3 3-02-2010 at 2:17 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    Black Hawk Down is pretty awesome. Probably my favorite character from Eric Bana and a cool score by The Hans.

  • 4 3-02-2010 at 2:49 pm

    Lance said...

    I think Goldstein needs to look up what “bona fide” means and recheck some of his quotes and facts.

  • 5 3-02-2010 at 2:49 pm

    LordBigsley said...

    It’ll be very hard for anything made about the Iraq/Afghanistan war to live up to those other films, simply because of subject matter. Today’s wars are boring as hell and the characters in them are less accessible to the viewing public at large, considering they often come from the bottom rungs.

    “The Hurt Locker” can not in any way be compared to “Platoon.” Of all the things I’ve seen concerning both Gulf Wars, the best (in my opinion) would be “Black Hawk Down” and “Generation Kill” (and half the episodes of that were directed by a woman, Susanna White. Bigelow isn’t the only female in the world who’s made something concerning war, GASP)

  • 6 3-02-2010 at 2:54 pm

    LordBigsley said...

    Doh, of course Black Hawn Down wasn’t about the Gulf war. I meant to say “modern war.”

  • 7 3-02-2010 at 3:19 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    It certainly can be compared to Platoon. No other film has captured the authenticity (and Black Hawk Down is focused on one battle, which, admittedly, it nails). Talk to soldiers (and not the handful of detractors the LA Times went out of its way to locate).

  • 8 3-02-2010 at 4:01 pm

    Earl said...

    Platoon was clearly an anti-war and anti VietNam war film. The Hurt Locker and there is nothing wrong with this leaves out those kind of politics. It is more like the Deer Hunter. Why do men want to go to war? Why are they willing to run onto the beach or across the open field. This is at the heart of why we keep having wars. There is something in men that we want to fight. It is there. What is unique about The Hurt Locker is that James does not get his comeuppance like Michael does in The Deer Hunter. The Hurt Locker is in that sense a very honest film. There is no Hollywood rule in place where behavior is judged and either rewarded or punished as is required in so many films. We do not even have an emtional stake in James.
    It just says “War is a drug” and nothing you ever do the rest of your life will really be that demanding, that intense, with so much on the line and where death is always a second away and can happen so suddenly that you will never even see it coming.

  • 9 3-02-2010 at 5:20 pm

    Al said...

    What earl said.

  • 10 3-02-2010 at 5:27 pm

    Nicolas Mancuso said...

    I was also intrigued about the bizarre claim that only three “bona fide” war films have won Best Picture, but don’t blame Patrick Goldstein. I clicked over to his article, and he makes sure to add “in the past 40 years” to that statement.

  • 11 3-02-2010 at 5:43 pm

    The Z said...

    If you’re going with modern war:

    “All Quiet on the Western Front”
    “The Bridge on the River Kwai”
    “The Deer Hunter”
    “Saving Priv—” — oh, yeah…

    Then if you want to include films that have war as part of the story/plot:

    “Gone with the Wind”
    “Mrs. Miniver”
    “From Here to Eternity”
    “Schindler’s List”

    Then there’s also other films where war plays a minor role, but in no way would those movies be called war films.

    Anyhow, there are at least 6 bona fide war films that won Best Picture and another dozen or so in which war is important or used in some way.

    As for his article, maybe Goldstein doesn’t watch movies pre-1970?

  • 12 3-02-2010 at 5:45 pm

    The Z said...

    Scratch that last statement – just re-read the article and he does clarify his thesis better in the body.

  • 13 3-02-2010 at 5:45 pm

    The Z said...

    Oh, and add “Forrest Gump” somewhere to the list.

  • 14 3-02-2010 at 7:01 pm

    Puchika said...

    Black Hawk Down was and still is brilliant filmmaking–it didnt get the credit it deserved (ie best picture nomination)…you’re right on matt starr–the music by hans is bloody phenomenal! im glad you mentioned this Kris–great call.

  • 15 3-02-2010 at 7:56 pm

    Room 237 said...

    The best movie about Iraq/Afghanistan is Full Metal Jacket.

  • 16 3-02-2010 at 8:13 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***No other film has captured the authenticity (and Black Hawk Down is focused on one battle, which, admittedly, it nails). Talk to soldiers (and not the handful of detractors the LA Times went out of its way to locate).***

    Has nothing to do with the LA Times. Any soldier who’s been to Iraq or who’s been within an EOD squad will tell you the movie is littered with falsehoods and major inaccuracies.

    Again, obviously it’s fine to like the movie, but we’ve got to stop this whole “authenticity” thing when it’s clearly anything but.

  • 17 3-02-2010 at 8:20 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Talk to many soldiers do you, English? Do us all a favor and just stop commenting on Hurt Locker threads. You’re BORING. Also, learn to understand something called “creative license.” It’s present in every war film ever made.

  • 18 3-02-2010 at 9:06 pm

    Will said...

    and Braveheart

  • 19 3-02-2010 at 11:39 pm

    The Z said...

    @ Room 237:

    “Full Metal Jacket” was about Vietnam.

    Fingers crossed you were only joking…

  • 20 3-03-2010 at 5:51 am

    evelyn garver said...

    At 57,I happen to be in the unusual position of knowing a veteran of 3 wars. My father, now 86, served in WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam. As an infantryman, he earned the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars.
    When you speak to real soldiers,not right wing, flag-waving wannabes, you find that it is the details they recall as well as the characters they served with. My father thought that PLATOON was the most realistic portrayal of Vietnam he saw. He based this on the youth and utter ignorance of battle shown in the youngest soldiers and the Sargent’s admonition to always wear dry socks beacuse of “jungle rot” Of such details are great war stories born. My dad does not watch many movies now, but I have a feeling he would admire THE HURT LOCKER.

  • 21 3-03-2010 at 7:31 am

    Room 237 said...


    I wasn’t joking.

    Full Metal Jacket was set in Vietnam, but it’s intended as a general allegory for modern warfare — the technological superpower vs. the committed guerrilla.

    Everybody who worked on it says the same thing. That bombed-out Hue could be anywhere — Iraq, Gaza — distilled, it all looks the same. If you watch the featurette on latest DVD they very bluntly spell this out with photos of modern conflicts that look exactly like FMJ.

    When the first footage of those conflicts started hitting TV and documentaries, everybody I know said the same thing: Looks just like Full Metal Jacket.

    Whereas all the other Vietnam movies were functionally looking backward, Full Metal Jacket was looking forward. The other movies sought to portray Vietnam as something unique, FMJ knew it wasn’t.

    So, yeah, the best movie about Iraq/Afghanistan was made 23 years ago.

  • 22 3-03-2010 at 10:37 am

    Dave said...

    The best and most important war movie ever made was the Battle of Algiers. I judge all war movies against it and none really compare.

  • 23 3-03-2010 at 12:43 pm

    tony rock said...

    All this talk about Black Hawk Down begs the question…what happened to Ridley Scott? American Gangster was pretty good, but besides that everything since Matchstick Men has been mediocre and certainly nowhere near the great one-two punch of Gladiator and BHD. Hoping he gives us another overachiever with Robin Hood…

  • 24 3-03-2010 at 12:48 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    The Kingdom of Heaven extended cut is pretty damn great.

  • 25 3-03-2010 at 5:46 pm

    Will said...

    @Kris i agree about The Kingdom of Heaven extended

  • 26 3-04-2010 at 7:19 am

    Zac said...

    I agree about the Kingdom of Heaven extended edition. At times, I wonder if the movie would have gotten a Best Picture nomination if Ridley’s version had been the version released into theaters. Then again, I wonder the same thing about Blade Runner and Almost Famous.

    Interesting how my two favorite war movies of all time, Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan didn’t win the big prize, yet are remembered more than the movies that did win (Kramer vs. Kramer and Shakespeare in Love).