For an event conceived with innovation in mind, the results of Sunday night's Academy Awards rigidly stuck to a script the Oscars have recited for years.
The academy can nominate as many blockbusters for best picture as it wishes. It can hire a cast of comedians to host and tinker with the show's running time until clocks run backward.
When the chips are down and Wolfgang Puck's post-show cuisine is ready to serve, the academy will resort to a best picture template 82 years in the making, leading to The Hurt Locker's crowning as 2009's best film.
Serious drama, expertly crafted? Check.
A film that challenges, even defies, mainstream movie tastes? Check.
A topical work provoking as much as it inspires, that isn't only ripped from headlines but magnifies them? Check and double check.
In fact, it's the latter trait of Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war thriller that probably made the difference for many voters. Set amid a U.S. Army bomb disposal unit, The Hurt Locker is a choice enabling the Oscars to appear relevant in wartime like seldom before.
Never has the academy rewarded such an up-to-the-minute movie about Americans at war. The Hurt Locker is the eighth best picture winner prominently featuring U.S. troops in combat — but the first to win the Oscar while the war on screen is still being waged in real life.
Movies barely existed when World War I (Wings) was fought. Vietnam was abandoned years before Platoon, The Deer Hunter and Forrest Gump brought that war home to moviegoers. World War II veterans waited nearly a decade before From Here to Eternity depicted their experience, and longer for The Bridge on the River Kwai and Patton to claim best picture.
Yet another trait of The Hurt Locker that the academy often recognizes — a box office flop deserving a hug — can lead to incorrect presumptions about the film. The movie sold fewer movie tickets than any best picture winner in history. Many people are just now learning through DVDs how apolitical the movie is.
The Hurt Locker isn't the typical post-Vietnam movie about wartime. Bigelow isn't Michael Moore railing against U.S. involvement in Iraq. She isn't Sean Penn or Jane Fonda, ready to stand accused of supporting the enemy through dissent. The question of whether the Iraq war is right or wrong is never raised in the film.
The Hurt Locker is all about the boots on the ground, and the human beings wearing them — dedicated soldiers (one, played by Jeremy Renner, recklessly dedicated) with an unwavering sense of duty. Those passionate dedications to U.S. troops from Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's acceptance speeches weren't lip service; they were natural extensions of the movie, which is rooted in Boal's experience as an embedded journalist in Iraq.
Of course, the selection upsets many mainstream moviegoers, who clung to hopes that a movie they actually saw might win the Oscar. They were mostly those fantasy fanatics pulling for Avatar, who'd kill to have the Na'vi makeup job that Ben Stiller rocked on stage Sunday.
Avatar is a game changer, for sure, a technical marvel that will influence how movies are made and exhibited forever. But Oscar night is the lone evening in Hollywood when money usually gets trumped by posterity; an early spring blooming of purpose in a typically frivolous industry.
Avatar is the movie of the future; The Hurt Locker is the movie of now.
And if we know one thing about the Oscars after 82 years, it's that the academy doesn't look forward nearly as clearly as it looks back.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.