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The Hurt Locker: A Review and Link Drop

There's a debate raging over the The Hurt Locker. In short, critics love it; Soldiers and veterans not so much.

Critics love the film in part for its supposed accuracy. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times described the film as "overflowing with crackling verisimilitude." David Denby of the New Yorker claimed that The Hurt Locker "will be studied twenty years from now when people want to understand something of what happened to American soldiers in Iraq."

I sure hope not.

As Brandon Friedman wrote on VetsVoice, "if you know anything about the Army, or about operations or life in Iraq, you'll be so distracted by the nonsensical sequences and plot twists that it will ruin the movie for you." Or as Christian Lowe explains a bit more harshly, ""Some of the scenes are so disconnected with reality to be almost parody."

In short, The Hurt Locker is a tactical, not to mention historical, mess.

Many war movies have unrealistic elements (read: Inglorious Basterds), why does this one touch a nerve? The Hurt Locker is essentially an action film--A.O. Scott and other critics have described it as such--when it didn't need to be. The stories and lives of regular Soldiers could fill countless mini-series worth of drama and comedy without "enhancing" the truth as Kathryn Bigelow does in The Hurt Locker. You don't have to sensationalize the military to make it exciting; it already is.

The Hurt Locker's very premise is misleading. The military doesn't disarm bombs while wearing bomb suits and cutting wires, we place a brick of C4 explosive on top. One push of the button and the IED detonates safely. True, some situations call for disarming an IED up close, but nine times out of ten a robot motors out to it while the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) techs sit in their trucks. Why? Because this is safer, quicker, cheaper and more efficient than disarming it. It isn't as exciting, but it is what happens.

But safer and more efficient does not equal safe. In Afghanistan, I patrolled a nine kilometer road where an IED had already taken a Soldier's legs. Every day we patrolled that road we felt fear, the fear that at any point an IED could detonate underneath our vehicle. We found multiple IEDs, but one still gets me. As we dismounted to clear the sides of the road, one of my Soldiers stopped me and pointed forward. About ten meters dead in my path was an IED pointing right at me. We waited two hours for EOD to arrive by helicopter. The resulting explosion was spectacular. The entire episode was filled with the tension The Hurt Locker tries to achieve. That find by itself would make a great short film, no extra Hollywood flair needed.

My main worry, though, is that this film will define the Iraq War the way Apocalypse Now defines the Vietnam war. If critics/pundits/whoever tell the public The Hurt Locker is realistic, it will write a false history of the war. It doesn't mean that you can't learn about this war without deploying to it. But most will never study it, and war films will define their images about this war. I don't want this film to define those false images for us.

As David Denby wrote above: soldiers will be watching this film years form now. They need to know what actually happened. So does everyone else.

The Hurt Locker Link Drop:

This isn't a comprehensive link drop, but we hope it covers the major pieces of the debate.

The Huffington Post, on behalf of VetVoice, first launched the debate. Former Soldiers Kate Hoit and, one of our favorites, Brandon Friedman, posted two well aimed critiques at the accuracy of The Hurt Locker.

In response, two retired EOD techs James P. O'Neil and James Clifford disputed the charge that Soldiers are upset with the film. The most interesting point about these two rebuttals is that they only speak for two communities: the retired and EOD. EOD personnel love the film because it made their acronym known for the first time ever. The retired community doesn't know much either way because they haven't deployed. Much like critics, to them this film is as real as it gets.

Before those pieces, and some after, were a few excellent posts on the blogosphere. The general consensus from The Best Defense and Army of Dude is that the film is good overall, but has a few glaring flaws. Bouhammer, on the other hand, devastates the film and comes much closer to my own personal views. Finally, I have never read this blog, but they do a very good critique of the film.

After the blogosphere broke the topic, the main stream media picked it up. USA Today, Newsweek and the PBS Newshour all ran pieces describing the debate without injecting much of their own opinion. 60 Minutes didn't mention it in this piece on Kathryn Bigelow.

It isn't a blog, but the goofs page on IMDB absolutely hammers the film. It doesn't have a view any one way, and some of the criticisms are beyond nit picky, but it is a great resource of the various errors.

Finally, if you want to see all the reviews of this film check out the metacritic page.

Update: Just found this interview by screenwriter John Boal over at Creative Screenwriting magazine. In it, Boal explains that accuracy is one of his main concerns for him as a screenwriter, and bemoans other plot-oriented films he consideres less realitic. This is as much his concern as it is ours.


Just want to say, las tmonth i predicted this would get nominated and I was so right. But even further than that, back in Sept. I told some guy T met at a charity event that “The hurt Locker” would win best picture, and he was like “i doubt it.”

Whose laughing now!

Eric you are amazing.

I didn’t bother watching this one becauseI heard about the unrest toward the movie from VetVoice. I knew it would make me angry. Well written Michael. I hope this one doesn’t win.

Matty I am very worried this or Inglorious Basterds will win. That is what the buzz is saying. That is very sad considering the problems I have with those two films. On the other hand, the Hurt Locker is getting quite a bit of blowback for its accuracy and its producer. We’ll see what happens.

You must be kidding. There is only one movie that has any chance of getting best picture and that’s Avatar. I can’t see the academy sticking their necks out and the big name, big budget, big profit movie is going to get it. Don’t get me wrong – I thought it was an excellent piece of fimmaking – I just can’t see it going any other way. The academy will not be able to resist brown nosing Cameron on his latest effort (again, but for Titanic I am a big Cameron fan). I would love to be proven wrong, but I have found the academy to be way too predictable on their best picture selection. Consider this – in 1990 Dances with Wolves beat, among others, Goodfellas and Godfather III for best picture. Avatar is essentially the same movie (but with better effects) and the 2009 opposition is not even in the same stratosphere as Goodfellas!!

I think you’ll find that the Acaedmy, historically, chooses the wrong film for Best Picture. The list of films that haven’t won (Citizen Kane, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction) is almost as good as the films that have won.

I’m rooting for Avatar to win, but I don’t think it will. In fact I’m betting that way tomorrow. Every prediction I’ve read said it will.

Ok I hold my hand up and admit I was 100% wrong! I have been choking on my words all day after being absolutely certain Avatar would win! Hurt Locker would not have been my choice either for the massive tactical flaws that Michael C correctly raises. Overall I am most disappointed!

Really understand Michael because it also p… me off when the twisted “truth” ends up being all that people see and that vision goes down in history, gets passed on and remembered.

Boom goes the dynamite.

But @ Derek – Again, I didn’t want it to win, but thought it would. Sigh.

I have a lot of thoughts on this film’s win and what it means—I was in a room of people watching th Oscars, and a lot of people had seen the film—but we’ll just have to discuss it later.

Yeah I don’t want to belabor my points about The Hurt Locker, but I could write about it for weeks.

Just ran across your blog for the first time. I saw Hurt Locker without a clue about all of this background and loved it. I didn’t really see it as a war movie though, I saw the war just as a setting to tell a story about someone who needs adrenaline more than relationships. I was happy to see a small budget film that focused on a human story win. Also, I was happy that, to the degree it was a “war movie,” it didn’t seem to moralize heavily about the war itself. It just used it as a setting. I’m not sure I’d look to films like this to find the “truth” of war any more than I would have looked to John Wayne or Audie Murphy for that. But I guess I’ll have to think about this more…

@ Jim S – I totally agree with some of your points, but have to disagree with others.

I don’t think the film moralized about war, in spite of the filmmakers personal opinions, so that was important to me. And I do think the films was more about a danger junkie than anything else.

That said, the filmmakers themselves, and everyone in the media, has praised the film’s realism. No one watched “The Dirty Dozen” for realism because no one thought it was real.

@ Eric

Yeah, I get it. I rolled my eyes too when the three EOD guys split up and went chasing bad guys through the streets at night. But I thought to myself “it’s a movie, I’m not expecting tactical training here.”

With that said, I may be one of the few people on the planet that simply couldn’t sit through The Hunt for Red October. I served in submarines and just couldn’t suspend disbelieve enough to enjoy it.

So, if you served in Iraq and the inaccuracies bug you too much to enjoy the movie, I get that. What I don’t really get is the “controversy” and calling the film makers lazy for not creating a training-quaility documentary. Really guys, most people know they are watching a movie and that it was created first and foremost for entertainment.

Well, I disagree with the notion that most people know it is a movie. I mean, I’ve talked to a ton of people who had no idea we don’t disarm bombs in Iraq. The first scene is accurate, everything else is just sort of fiction.

If people assumed the movie weren’t realistic, I’d have less of a gripe with it. You have more faith in the movie going public than I do.

I just don’t get it. A work of fiction has no obligation to be exactly real. Should we protest 24 because Jack Bauer breaks the law in every episode? Do fiction authors have an obligation to either exactly hew to reality or make their fiction so obviously fake that it can protect the uninformed or uncurious from getting confused? So Avatar’s floating mountains are ok but Hurt Locker’s screwed up tactical details aren’t? Where would Apocalypse Now fit? Should we worry that a generation of Americans might really think Napalm and a cup of coffee go great together in the morning?

Anyway, I’m just glad that Hurt Locker, fiction or not, might have distracted Americans from Entertainment Tonight for a moment to remind us we are at war.

Yeah Jim, I think we agree. I think narrative art (film, novels, TV, whatever) has to change reality to function. But first, there is a limit. Go too far and you’ll lose me. I mean the same critics who dismiss Transformers praise the Hurt Locker.

The problem is that a lot of people thought the movie is an accurate depiction of war. The best comparison is Inglorious Basterds or Avatar. No one thought those movies were accurate, so no one has to argue that they aren’t. Almost everyone thinks the Hurt Locker is accurate, I just want to dispel that notion.

Love the debate though.

@ Jim S- Thanks for coming on and debating in a very serious and thoughtful way. Too many people on the internet take personal offense to intellectual debates when they don’t have to.

As to your points, I have one gripe about the film not being real enough. Mainly, war doesn’t have to be sensationalized. War is exciting without “hollywood” tricks. You brought up Apocalypse Now. This is a great argument, I will now have to rewatch the film to see if I feel differently about it now. I very well might.

Because, though people may know films are films, they tend to embed specific images in the conscious. If they do so falsely, than our version of history becomes skewed, simply because it tells a better story. That’s a shame.

@Jim S, Eric C and Michael C,

I think Eric C hits the nail on the head by stating the people think of this movie as an accurate depiction of the US Military and specifically EODs efforts in Iraq. I was personally running around Iraq throughout the majority of 2004 and I cannot name one EOD team that functioned anywhere close to what was depicted. Now, of course I didn’t meet them all but at the time there were only a handful in country and they generally worked out of the big cities and big Forward Operating Bases and it took a good 45 minutes plus a different platoon to get them to your location at the suspected IED site. I remember personally using a .50 Cal Machine Gun to try and make an IED explode on more than 1 occasion because that was just plain simpler and quicker.
And of course the gross inaccuracies of one man running around by himself in Baghdad, or three guys splitting up down different roads all by themselves really irk me. In 2004 (we weren’t wearing ACUs then either by the way, it was Desert Camo with Woodland Camo Body Armor) I served as a Team Leader. I had 2 soldiers I was responsible for but it should have been 3. We were never more than 10 meters apart in any build up area and never more than 75 in any open area. The minute the American soldier goes rogue like that, they’re dead.
But, like my old army buddy Alex says on “Army of Dude”, it’s a good movie as far as movies are concerned. However, because it is billed as an accurate depiction, it fails at telling the story of American Soldiers fighting in Iraq in 2004.

Well, this has been interesting. While I still don’t think a work of fiction has an obligation to be accurate (not sure it has any obligations at all), I think the question here is a little bit different. It seems to be “to what degree is Hurt Locker masquerading as a non-fiction wrapper around fictional specifics, and getting the non-fiction wrapper wrong?”

I have some sympathy for your reactions because I remember how Oliver Stones’ Nixon and JFK pissed me off. I hated the way he blurred that line even further. These were films that sold themselves as mostly non fictional wrappers on mostly non fictional specifics – the viewers job was to guess where the “mostly” was. Whenever Stone was faced with a “that’s not true!” he claimed “it’s a work of fiction.”

Additional questions might be: “Why is it important that people realize how bombs are really defused over there?” and “If that is really important simply because the truth is always important, then do we have to start rooting out every untruth we see in entertainment?” Because, damn, that’s going to keep us busy. I mean, do we have to go back and edit Top Gun? After all, there is no friggin way a fat old F-14 would ever out turn an F-5.

Thanks for letting me hang out a bit.

@ jim S – Come and hang out anytime. I think the JFK analogy is perfect. I mean, that movie is so well made, from editing to narrative to dialogue, but why pretend it is accurate?

@Rob- Thanks for showing up. As I have said, I wasn’t in Iraq, but I was in Afghanistan. It was still enough to see what was dramatically wrong in the film. Of course, you know I was in Afghanistan.

@Jim- I guess what irks me is that no one praised Top Gun for being accurate, and it didn’t win the best picture. For example, Forrest Gump has quite a bit of things that are not historical, but of those semi-historical details around the film there aren’t ridiculous portions.

@Michael C,

Yes I do know you were in Afghanistan, pretty sure I submitted your CIB paperwork 3 different times. EOD was much less scarce for us in Afghanistan than we had it in Iraq. I think the fact that our AO had 2 different Route Clearance Packages, each with an EOD team was a pretty good idea. Either way, those folks certainly played it safe. Am I saying no EOD personnel ever got a little unsafe and crazy? Of course not, it’d be like saying no Infantryman ever did something a little off the wall to get the job done.

By the way, I love yours and Eric C’s blog, I’m taking your advice to write more by starting off with intelligent replies.

@Jim S,
And No of course a work of fiction isn’t required to be accurate. I think the bottom line on the Hurt Locker is that the 95% of the United States of America has no idea what it’s like to be running around the streets of Baghdad (or Kunar Province for that matter) and because of the way this movie was marketed, it has now become reality for them.

That is why the majority of Vets are so upset about it. There is already a larger disconnect between Veterans of these wars and civilians than there has ever been (yes, I’m including Vietnam). Now, this is due to our small all-Volunteer force. Because of this, The Hurt Locker makes many veterans feel that much more alienated from the general US civilian population. Myself included.

I was one of the few to see it in theaters. I enjoyed the movie though one cannot believe it is realisitic. Very few “war” films are realistic. Even if EOD doesn’t disarm many bombs I still have a lot of respect for their jobs and I don’t think this film paints them in a bad light.

Just wanted to point out that I found an interview by screenwriter Mark Boal (linked above) in which he explains he made his choices to make his film more realistic. Well, I don’t buy it.

Specifically, he thinks disarming IEDs is safer then detonating them—which is ridiculous because the time it takes to place a brick of C4 on an IED can’t possibly be more then snipping the wires He also says the sniper scene was inspired by unrealistic gun fights in most films, yet that scene is ridiculous.

Not piling on, just saying.

Have to admit, I don’t even understand how they could get anyone to finance this movie!
After having read your review I thought there would at least be an artistic point to the movie, or it would have a good plot or some entertainment value… or anything for that matter.
But frankly it just sucks completely, no matter how you look at it.