World

Iraq Movie, 'The Hurt Locker' Is Generating Oscar Buzz: But Does It Deserve It?

Critics have praised the film as a realistic, Academy Award-worthy piece of filmmaking. But is there really anything realistic about it?

As the year winds down and Hollywood gets busy creating Oscar buzz, one unlikely contender is The Hurt Locker, the widely praised Iraq movie that premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year and was released in the U.S. in June 2009.

"Just when I thought I'd seen enough of Iraq war movies, along comes (Hurt Locker)," an Access Hollywood film critic told USA Today in September. "If any movie about Iraq is going to break through to the academy, this is it."

Indeed, the "megabuzz-spawning film" (to quote the Modesto Bee) was nominated for its first official honor last month, by the prestigious (if relatively obscure) New York-based Independent Filmmaker Project, which tapped it for Best Feature. According to the Los Angeles Times, which has started tracking Oscar favorites, The Hurt Locker has been tapped by no fewer than 16 leading film pundits as a serious Academy Award contender.

Even if it skipped your radar, you've probably heard some beaming reviews about The Hurt Locker by now.

The almost unanimous acclaim it attracted from mainstream reviewers focused mainly on director Kathryn Bigelow's suspenseful action scenes, which make up the majority of the film's run time, and prominent reviewers agree that it's a masterfully crafted American combat epic about three deceptively simple-looking and courageous American men making sacrifices for their country while in unfamiliar, hostile territory.

At least partially thanks to clever marketing, the film produced over $12 million in box office revenue, making it the most successful movie made about the U.S. war on Iraq and its so-called war on terror to date. (Compare to films like Redacted, which earned $25,628, or Rendition's $9.6 million.)

But there are some curious contradictions in the praise Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have received for their work.

Reviewers cite Boal's brief stint as an embedded journalist following a bomb-disposal unit in Iraq as supporting evidence for the film's alleged accuracy. But they fail to consider the inevitable bias of such a narrow perspective.

Would reviewers have lauded the accuracy of a story based on the experiences of a journalist who had been embedded with the "other" side -- particularly if the portrayal of American soldiers had not been positive?

Some reviewers have praised Bigelow for allegedly not incorporating a political stance into the film. This is simply ridiculous: It's being endorsed by military-recruitment sites as we speak. A link to military.com, the largest military organization in the United States, appears on the front page of the film's official Web site.

A Realistic Portrayal of Iraq?

Filmed in Jordan, The Hurt Locker is supposed to have taken place in Iraq in 2004, where an American bomb-dismantling team visits various danger spots in unfriendly neighborhoods.

The first scene, ironically, opens with a quote from award-winning anti-war journalist and author Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction for war is a drug." Cue screen fade.

The display re-emerges from within the lens of a remote-controlled robot making its way across a rocky road toward a suspicious-looking pile of sacks laid out on the ground near an old railway track. The audience catches brief glimpses of destruction from this unsteady viewpoint, as well as a shaky camera (through which most of the film is viewed) that narrows in and out on people and objects, as though they are all targets.

From these two perspectives, we see old blown-up cars and destroyed buildings juxtaposed beside the U.S. presence, shown here through the existence of a crushed Pepsi can and U.S. military men. A man's voice sounds in the background while Iraqi civilians are told to evacuate. Cars continue to drive down a road very nearby. The civilians are either frantic or annoyed that they are being asked to exit the area.

Other Iraqis are also portrayed as disaffected, their blank, suspicious faces watching from balconies, windows, stores. Shots of expressionless or menacing Iraqis staring at American soldiers appear throughout, especially during action scenes that make up the majority of this film.

The Hurt Locker may be winning critical acclaim for its cinematic artistry, but it's Web site suggests a different target audience. The site bares striking similarity to shoot 'em-up video game Web sites like Call of Duty and Halo.

Complete with eerie, adrenaline-inspiring sound effects, flash clips and graphics taken from the film, the Web site caters to thrill-seeking, pro-military, weapons enthusiasts who want to see destruction and the technology and methods that breed it.

Boal, whose work on In the Valley of Elah was superior in its depth and complexity, apparently spent two weeks embedded with an explosives-ordnance-disposal team (EOD) team in Iraq. (Thus the repeated claims that the film is a fair and realistic portrayal of the situation in Iraq.)

But Guy Marot, a former bomb-disposal officer who also served in southern Iraq, points out in the Guardian, the film is full of "numerous glaring inaccuracies," not the least of which is Jeremy Renner's character, an impulsive, thrill-seeking team leader who endangers himself and everyone else on his team several times throughout the story:

Staff Sgt. William James … is basically insane. He's supposed to have dealt with some 870 devices, which is completely unbelievable -- it would mean dealing with three improvised explosive devices a day -- and he just rocks up near a device and puts on a bomb suit.
If a bomb-disposal officer started behaving like this, he or she would be shipped home in minutes. James makes us look like hot-headed, irrational adrenaline junkies with no self-discipline. It's immensely disrespectful to the many officers who have lost their lives.

When asked indirectly whether he thought his screenplay was narrow in perspective, during an interview in Vanity Fair, Boal was somewhat defensive:

I take a tiny issue with the premise of your question. I think the film investigates an awful lot. The IEDs [improvised explosive devices] are the central feature of the war. It's a war of bombs. They are the key tactic of the insurgency; the success or failure of entire Iraq war depends on the ability to deal with IEDs. The movie is about the guys that deal with IEDs. So to me there couldn't be a more topical, down-the-middle-of-the-plate look at the war.

While Boal is correct that IEDs are the cause of more than half of U.S. casualties in Iraq, his claim that "the success or failure of the entire Iraq war depends on the ability to deal with IEDs" is simplistic and confused (not unlike like some of the justifications given to launch the war in the first place).

In fact, Bigelow and Boal, like the characters in the film, never factor into the movie the question of why Iraq was invaded and occupied by the U.S. More importantly, they also never define what success or winning involves. This lack of context explains why the few non-action scenes in the movie seem misplaced or forced, like they were sloppily incorporated just for the sake of it.

Time reviewer Richard Corlisse concurs:

Except for a few digressive scenes -- a solo sortie of personal vengeance, a conversation about what it all means -- that could easily be cut from the 2-hour, 11-minute running time, The Hurt Locker is a near-perfect movie about men in war, men at work.

Indeed, the film only provides the perspectives of three American men working in a very dangerous military unit, with the lead character being the most unrealistic character of them all -- an assessment even lead actor Renner agrees with:

"I got to spend a lot of time with the guys at Fort Irwin, and off base as well -- to get in their heads a little bit, get to know them personally, which was even more important. I had to learn all the rules so I'd know how to break them. That was one of the toughest things when I was hanging out with these guys. There's no one really like the character of James."

But if the lead character is unrealistic, then what was realistic about the film? Certainly the anxiety portrayed by supporting actor Brian Geraghty, playing the young and inexperienced Spc. Owen Eldrige, is closer to real solders' testimonies. The trauma Eldrige suffers after losing his first team leader enhances the fear he experiences every day of losing his own life.

Less realistic perhaps, in contrast to the "insane" but nevertheless endearing, altruistic and deeply caring James who is Caucasian, is that the most racist character in the film is the African American Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who refers to James as a "redneck piece of trailer trash."

Unlike Sanborn, James actually cares about the Iraqis and risks his own life many times to save theirs. He even goes on a rampage after he mistakenly thinks that an Iraqi boy who he had gone out of his way to befriend was savagely murdered by insurgents and made into a human bomb. His quest to find answers takes him into an Iraqi professor's home where he is greeted with joy: "I am very pleased to see CIA in my home," after his unexpected presence is discovered in the house.

Is this supposed to be another realistic portrayal of the situation in Iraq? Are we to believe that Iraqis welcome the presence of the CIA in their country?

In another scene, which was the most implausible event in the entire film, James risks his life until the very last minute trying to help an Iraqi man who somehow made it through U.S. security checkpoints alive while frantically yelling that he had multiple bombs attached to his body. (This is in direct contrast to Sanborn, who always only does the minimum and even hints that he would be willing to kill the unpredictable James and make it look an accident, since all he wants to do is finish his tour and go home alive.)

Racial misrepresentations are however most easily observed in the film's portrayals of Iraqis. Aside from the Iraqi boy James becomes smitten with (even he is Westernized to the extent that he sells American DVDs and introduces himself as "Beckham," after the British soccer player), there is no Iraqi that is given any meaningful character development in the film. They are either the anonymous, sneering or menacing Arabs who watch the American soldiers while they are in high-stress situations, the victims of other evil Iraqis who murder young boys to put bombs inside their bodies, or the voiceless snipers and aiders of those determined to harm Americans and other Iraqis.

That a film that does not include a single Iraqi perspective is being hailed as an accurate portrayal of the situation in Iraq is either indicative of the blatant bias and possibly hidden intentions of the film's creators and reviewers, or representative of the flawed view that continues to resonate within people's minds about the war in Iraq.

These views, are, in case they need repeating: that this war was waged with good intentions, that the continued U.S. presence is actually beneficial to the Iraqis, that Iraqis are either idiots or savages, and that the American presence there is composed of lost or lonely soldiers who are just trying to live another day.

This after a reported 1 million Iraqis are now dead, and after we have seen such atrocities committed by U.S. troops as the torture at Abu Gharib, the Al-Mahmudiyah killings and the Haditha slayings.

On The Hurt Locker Web site's "Acclaim" section, the following quote is attributed to The New Yorker: "Quite a feat. A classic of tension, fear and bravery that will be studied 20 years from now."

If this proves to be true, what a sad prediction it would make. Ironically, a different quote, taken from a review of the film on military.com, is actually far more honest:

"The Hurt Locker is both a gripping portrayal of real-life sacrifice and heroism, and a layered, probing study of the soul-numbing rigors and potent allure of the modern battlefield."

Pay attention to the last part of that statement. Listening to the young men in front of me discuss it after watching the film for the third time in the theater, I'm also confident that many like them left with the impression that while war may not be pretty, it sure can be fun.

When the film ends with James marching defiantly toward yet another bomb in slow motion, one can practically hear the parody song, "America, Fuck Yeah!" playing in the background.