A movie about an unpopular topic. A movie without any household names. A movie with a total production budget only slightly larger than some other films' catering expenses.
Still, director Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq War drama, "The Hurt Locker," starring Jeremy Renner, is in serious contention to take home the top prizes Sunday at the Academy Awards against "Avatar," the top-grossing movie of all time.
How the biggest story of this Oscar season came to be is a road as long and dusty and explosive as any in recent memory.
As Modesto native Renner himself said right after "The Hurt Locker" tied "Avatar" with the most nominations this year at nine a piece, "It's truly David versus Goliath at this point. I can't believe we got so many nods and we're even in the running. It's mind- boggling to think 'Avatar' made $2 billion and our little movie is on the top of the list with them."
Shot two summers ago in the blazing Jordanian desert with little fanfare and fewer expectations, the film follows a U.S. Army explosive ordnance disposal unit in Iraq. At its helm was a respected filmmaker, Bigelow, whose last film, "K-19: The Widowmaker," came six years ago.
With a budget of $11 million and three relatively unknown leads — Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty — the movie required the cast and crew spend hours in the dust and sand of 125-degree Middle Eastern summer. Renner had to do a large chunk of his acting in a 100-pound bomb suit. As he told The Bee before the movie opened here: "Everything — the flies, the sweat, the redness — was real. There is no makeup in this movie; no acting in this movie. It's only reacting because of how Kathryn set up the shots."
That realism, along with the script by journalist Mark Boal, who spent time embedded with an EOD unit in Iraq, and Renner's gripping performance as as the lead bomb technician and adrenaline junkie, Staff Sgt. William James, led the film to almost immediate critical acclaim.
The film premièred at the Venice Film Festival in late 2008, then finally in June 2009 opened to limited released across the U.S.
People who knew Renner during his Modesto days saw the film during its theatrical run and were impressed by it and his performance. Renner, a Beyer High grad, came home to attend the Modesto première at the end of July.
"I thought it was good, I thought it was great," said Modesto Junior College drama instructor Michael Lynch, who directed the fledgling actor back when he was at MJC. "But I had no idea. I didn't think it would be a best picture. There have been a lot of good movies about Iraq that went nowhere, did nothing."
But buoyed by its glowing reviews — film critic Roger Ebert gave it four stars and called it "a great film, an intelligent film" — "The Hurt Locker" kept hanging around as a possible Oscar contender.
Then when several bigger-budget, bigger-name, late-season Oscar hopefuls flamed out — like "The Lovely Bones," "Amelia" and "Nine" — the movie began to build momentum.
John De Simio, executive vice president of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, said while early season movies have historically had a harder time breaking in to the Oscar conversations, films can find a way. "A film sometimes gets a life of its own," he said. "There are precedents for films that come out midyear that are of high quality, such as 'Seabiscuit.' It establishes a line in the sand and everyone else has to belly up to the bar and try to follow it."
As the leaves started to change color, award season arrived and "The Hurt Locker" really started to mix things up. It took best picture from the National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Boston Film Critics, San Francisco Film Critics, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and the Gotham Awards.
It won best picture and director at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards, earned Bigelow best-director honors from the Directors Guild of America Award and was nominated multiple times for the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards.
"The Hurt Locker" nearly swept the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards, winning best picture, director, screenplay, cinematography and editing.
It tied the $240 million "Avatar" for Oscar nominations.
And now, as if to cement its status as a frontrunner, "The Hurt Locker" has come under fire with a barrage of controversy right before the Oscar ballots were turned in on Tuesday of this week.
One of its producers, Nicolas Chartier, was chastised by the Academy and later banned from attending the ceremony for breaking campaigning rules by e-mailing members and urging them to vote for "The Hurt Locker."
Then a story in which some military personnel criticized its authenticity made the front page of the Los Angeles Times, even though the movie had been in the theaters for more than eight months.
And Wednesday, one of the bomb technicians screenwriter Boal was embedded with as a journalist filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the film, claiming the lead character was based on him.
But some industry veterans say no matter what happens Sunday, the film has beaten all odds.
"The Hurt Locker has already won," film critic David Poland of Movie City News wrote. "If it wins, I will be thrilled. And if it loses, I will still be thrilled for everyone involved. After struggling to get the film made and released and Oscar campaigned, their place in awards history is secured."
It's a sentiment its star shares, and one that puts the movie right back in its original role — fighting Goliath. "I love being David," Renner said. "I love climbing that hill and that struggle. That's all I know in Los Angeles."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at email@example.com.