A War Movie For People Who Know Or Care Nothing About War

Last summer, NBC’s Brian Williams wrote a piece called “The Hurt Locker: Hurting for a Fact-Checker” regarding one of the top two contenders for Best Picture at this weekend’s Oscars. Williams noted, “I found a slew of technical inaccuracies based only on my few trips to Iraq during the height of the conflict. Seeing the movie made me go back over many of the positive reviews I read… [I]t is now clear none of them was written by anyone who had spent any time with U.S. armed forces in Iraq.”

Williams suggested that the filmmakers botched the following minor details: the vehicles, the armor, the armaments, the helmets, the uniforms, the communications technology, the military jargon, the unit structure, the command procedure, and the mission logistics.

On the plus side, Williams noted that the filmmakers accurately portrayed soldiers’ fingernails being dirty and their eyelashes being covered with dust. Score one for cinema verite! Williams also praised the film’s lovely desert scenery.

Williams ended, “I’d like to watch ‘The Hurt Locker’ with a combat veteran, but my layman’s eyes found way too much to quarrel with.”

Fortunately for Williams, combat veterans have already seen the film. Unfortunately for director Kathryn Bigelow, their criticism of the film is even more scathing than Williams’.

Paul Rieckhoff, Founder and Executive Director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, submitted a recent article for Newsweek concluding that “Hollywood’s latest attempt to define the Iraq War and the American troops who have fought in it is just as disappointing as all the others produced so far.”

Rieckhoff’s critique, while pointing out additional and more nuanced inaccuracies than Williams’, argues that the snowballing accumulation of gaffes in the movie is not trivial, but rather reflects a sloppy, unforgivable rendering of the military that reveals profound ignorance and amounts to great disrespect on the filmmakers’ part.

For example, Rieckhoff criticizes the depiction of the highly specialized Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) group at the center of the film as casually putting on other military hats in their spare time, expertly carrying out sniper missions and kicking in doors and checking buildings for insurgents, jobs for which they would never have been trained.

Rieckhoff writes, “The scene with Jeremy Renner’s character sneaking off base to chase a boy he is worried about is as fictional as Jason Bourne… The men in my platoon followed rules and orders, and they stuck with their fellow soldiers… They don’t run around on their own unless they want to be court-martialed-or killed.”

The L.A. Times’ Julian Barnes cites EOD team members in Iraq who damn “The Hurt Locker” with faint praise: they call it “a good action movie if you know nothing about defusing roadside bombs or the military.” (How about that sound editing!)

Barnes quotes EOD technician Sgt. Eric Gordon saying, “I would watch it with other EOD people, and we would laugh.” (Then again, many people I know have had the same reaction to fellow Oscar nominee “Avatar.”) Gordon compared one soldier defusing a bomb using wire cutters to “a firefighter go into a building with a squirt bottle.”

An even more sobering criticism of the movie involves its portrayal of the main character, Sergeant William James, as a danger-loving, adrenaline-addicted, protocol-shredding commando who wantonly disrupts unit cohesion and endangers unit members with irresponsible, tough-guy playacting.

The Washington Post quotes Iraq veteran Ryan Gallucci stating that he had to keep turning the movie off “or else I would have thrown my remote through the television”; Gallucci admits that he kept wanting to see James “blown up… I wanted to see his poor teammates get another team leader, who was actually concerned about their safety.”

In an essay for The New York Times subtly titled “How Not to Depict a War,” EOD team videographer Michael Kamber adds that the film’s many factual errors “are mere details compared to the way Sergeant James repeatedly swaggers up to bombs… [T]he chances of recklessly approaching even a single command-detonated bomb and surviving are quite small. Yet we are made to believe that Sergeant James has disabled over 800 bombs in this reckless, cowboy-like fashion.” (Yes, but will the film win the statue for Best Sound Mixing?)

The most damning indictment of the film, however, comes from American-Israeli journalist Caroline Glick. She notes of the film, “There is no plot. We don’t know anything about these soldiers. We don’t know why they joined the US Army. We don’t know how they feel about Iraq… All we are given are GI Joes who defuse bombs. Supposedly by watching them, we are supposed to achieve some deeper understanding of the war. But really all we see is context-free violence which teaches us nothing about war. Supposedly James is a hero. But we don’t have any idea what he’s fighting for. So why should we care about him?”

So why is “The Hurt Locker” nominated for a gazillion Academy Awards? My theory is that the movie was made for, and enjoyed by, people who either (1) know nothing about war, and are curious about what it would be like to be embedded in the Army and able to observe a slice of life in a particular unit, or (2) care nothing about war, and are delighted to see it depicted as a meaningless, nihilistic exercise that illustrates the futility of picking up arms to fight for one’s country’s security interests.

The former group are are not getting an accurate representation of life in the Army, at least for this group in this conflict.

As for the latter group, Glick writes, “The Hurt Locker works for them because its post-modern, context-free rendering of the war is a picture-perfect far-left portrayal of war. No, the Americans aren’t terrible, they are nothings… War is futile. There is no purpose to war except staying alive.”

Glick counters this view: “[S]oldiers aren’t two-dimensional and war isn’t about nothing. And the war in Iraq is neither futile nor meaningless. The Hurt Locker was a two-dimensional film about a meaningless war and nothing soldiers.”

In other words: par for the course for Hollywood war films these days.