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‘Hurt Locker’ Takes Flack from Iraq Vets Amid Critical Praise

March 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Academy Award-nominated film "The Hurt Locker" has been lauded for its portrayal of the war in Iraq, but some veterans say it paints an unfair picture of life on the ground for troops. Jeffrey Brown talks to a film critic and a veterans advocate.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Set amid the war-torn urban landscape of Iraq, “The Hurt Locker” tells the story of American soldiers sent out daily to diffuse bombs.

Jeremy Renner plays the fearless adrenaline-addicted Staff Sergeant William James.

ACTOR: I want to shake your hand.

JEREMY RENNER, actor: Thank you, sir.

ACTOR: Yes. How many bombs have you disarmed?

JEREMY RENNER: I’m not quite sure.

ACTOR: Sergeant?

JEREMY RENNER: Yes.

ACTOR: I asked you a question.

JEREMY RENNER: Eight-hundred seventy-three.

ACTOR: Eight hundred. What’s the best way to go about disarming one of these things?

JEREMY RENNER: The way you don’t die, sir.

JEFFREY BROWN: The movie, written by Mark Boal, and based on his experience of being embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq has garnered critical acclaim and nine Oscar nominations, including one for best picture and another for its director, Kathryn Bigelow.

But it’s also run into some blowback just ahead of Sunday’s Academy Award presentation. The film’s accuracy and portrayal of excessive risk-taking have brought criticism from some veterans.

And, just this week, a bomb disposal expert who served in Iraq sued the makers of the film, claiming the lead character is based on him. In recent years, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars haven’t translated into big numbers at the box office. Films like “In the Valley of Elah,” “Stop-Loss,” and the more recent “Brothers” have attracted good reviews, but not large audiences.

By that standard, “The Hurt Locker” has done reasonably well, but its $19 million haul is dwarfed by its Oscar rival “Avatar,” which has earned more than $2 billion worldwide.

More now from Ann Hornaday, a film critic for The Washington Post. And Paul Rieckhoff is an Army National Guard lieutenant who led a platoon in Iraq in 2003 to 2004. He’s now executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an organization that advocates on behalf of troops still serving.

Ann Hornaday, starting with you first, as a critic, what makes this movie about war stand out?

ANN HORNADAY, film critic, The Washington Post: You know, this is one of those rare movies that is utterly immersive. It just plunges viewers into this very urgent and immediate and really chaotic world of battle, but somehow makes it coherent.

So, it sort of achieves two things at once. It captures the disorganization and the fear and the unpredictability of war, but also leads viewers through that territory with a great deal of assurance and logic.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Paul Rieckhoff, you, among others, have raised some of the questions about it. What’s your view?

PAUL RIECKHOFF, founder & executive director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America: Well, I think it is an exciting film. There’s no doubt about it.

But the problems that I have raise have to do with the accuracy of the film. Most Americans walking into this film, if they follow the marketing and the critical acclaim, are going to think that this is how Iraq is.

And it’s really not. It’s riddled with inaccuracies, ranging from the tactics, to even the rank structure and the uniforms. And I think it touches on a broader issue that we’re concerned about, which is that most Americans, for better or worse, are going to understand war through movies.

If you ask someone what they think about Vietnam, they’re going to think about “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” films like that, that really defined that experience. And when a film like “The Hurt Locker” is going to say that we are the definitive Iraq film, it’s got to get the facts right.

So, I have been approached by countless veterans, especially in the last few weeks, since my most recent piece was published, that say that they think this is wildly ridiculous. There are some parts of it that are really compelling. It does represent the tension that you feel on the ground well, but the exposure of the EOD units, the way they approach combat situations, and the wide array of kind of spectacular things that they’re involved in are really not grounded in reality.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, I want to explore this issue of accuracy in film and art.

Ann, you were — I mean, for one thing, you told me that you were at a screen with some veterans who felt otherwise, that it was quite accurate. But this issue of accuracy comes up all the time…

ANN HORNADAY: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … for all kinds of areas.

ANN HORNADAY: Exactly. And you’re right. It does come up with — almost any profession that’s going to be depicted in a feature fiction film is going to run up against the fact that, usually, for the sake of narrative tension and drive, you’re going to create a protagonist who takes reckless risks, who’s a cowboy, for lack of a better term.

And that definitely comes up in this film. I mean, clearly, Renner’s character takes reckless risks. And I don’t think he would ever be held up as a role model of behavior, especially in that context.

But, in order to create a compelling character and a compelling story — I can’t speak for the filmmakers, but I would imagine that that is the kind of thing that heightens the drama of a narrative to allow viewers to come in.

And, you know, one of the tensions that exists in Hollywood filmmaking, especially about any kind of historical event or biographical subject, is narrative truth vs. emotional truth.

And what I gather, you know, regardless of the inaccuracies that Mr. Rieckhoff is talking about, there’s an emotional truth to this film, I believe, that allows viewers to relate to these characters and to come in and follow them throughout this — this story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Paul Rieckhoff, I mean, it’s not just a tension in Hollywood. This goes back to Shakespeare and as far as — as long as there’s been art around.

Do you think there’s a special responsibility, when it is — the piece of art or the film is about a war, a current war? Does that somehow make it different?

PAUL RIECKHOFF: I think it does in some ways. I mean, I have got friends who are there now. I have got friends who have been wounded. All of us who have served their do.

And we consider, each of us, to have a responsibility to serve as kind of pop culture watchdogs. And when it comes to making good filmmaking, there’s no shortage of drama in Iraq and Afghanistan. You don’t have to make it up in order to tell a good story.

And I think that’s why so many veterans have pushed back against this film. It’s also important to note that it’s not just veterans. It’s also combat journalists. It’s people like NBC’s Brian Williams. And the Department of Defense themselves dropped their support of this film, because they felt like it was just too sensational.

And there have been some films that have gotten it right. “Taking Chance,” for example, on HBO, while not centered on combat, really goes down to the details, had extensive contact with the military community, was written by a Marine.

And I think, when you get close to the community and you understand the community, then you can impress that community. And, to be honest with you, impressing the Marines and the soldiers should be the standard, not impressing critics and most of the viewers, who have never been to Iraq and Afghanistan themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me switch the subject just a little bit, Ann, starting with you. The — I mentioned in our setup piece that a lot of these movies have not done very well at the box office. Why do you think that is?

ANN HORNADAY: You know, I — I don’t pretend to know the answer to that. I think it might have been — quote, unquote — “too soon.” It might have been the fact that these conflicts are ongoing and people didn’t feel the need, if they’re — if they have family members in harm’s way, or they’re engaged in the war, reading their newspapers, they didn’t feel the need necessarily to go out to the multiplex to get $10 worth of fiction about it.

I do think what sets “Hurt Locker” apart is the fact that, first of all, it is such a visceral, action-oriented, behavior-driven film. It doesn’t have a political axe to grind. It’s certainly not taking any kind of point of view one way or the other, pro or con, about the conflict itself. So, I think that’s in its favor in this regard.

And I also, just to loop back to the emotional truth piece, I do the , one, at the screening that I attended last summer with veterans, and I think there might have even been some active-duty people there, and a lot of bomb techs, one thing that it really does seem to capture is the sense of dislocation that returning soldiers feel, you know, when they’re sort of shot out of that situation, that heightened situation, and back to their daily lives stateside, just the sense of dislocation and alienation they feel.

And I think it really creates a great deal of empathy for that, for those of here who are — who, you know, are welcoming them back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paul Rieckhoff, we just have about 30 seconds, but what — what’s your view of the — the audiences and the general public’s taking or not taking to these movies?

PAUL RIECKHOFF: I don’t think there have been great films yet. Whether they’re about Iraq or not, I think, for the most part, the films that have come out haven’t been that highly entertaining.

And when they are, and people can tell a really powerful, visceral story that connects that has to do with Iraq and Afghanistan, I think people will come out and see it.

And I do think that “Taking Chance” does — I’m sorry — this film, “Hurt Locker,” does tell that story well of folks coming home. It does capture that very difficult emotional moment. That is something that veterans have consistently said that this film does do well. But, when it comes to tactical and technical stuff, they’re way off base.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will leave it there.

Paul Rieckhoff and Ann Hornaday, thank you both very much.

ANN HORNADAY: Thank you.

PAUL RIECKHOFF: Thank you.