Some Iraq, Afghanistan war veterans criticize movie 'Hurt Locker' as inaccurate

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010; E01

Time magazine called "The Hurt Locker" "a near-perfect war film," but Ryan Gallucci, an Iraq war veteran, had to turn the movie off three times, he says, "or else I would have thrown my remote through the television."

Critics adore the film and it has been nominated for nine Oscars -- a feat matched only by "Avatar," the top-grossing movie of all time -- but Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says that's "nine more Oscar nominations than it deserves. I don't know why critics love this silly, inaccurate film so much," he wrote on his Facebook page.

Many in the military say "Hurt Locker" is plagued by unforgivable inaccuracies that make the most critically acclaimed Iraq war film to date more a Hollywood fantasy than the searingly realistic rendition that civilians take it for.

To which you might say: It's just a movie and an action flick at that. It's Tinseltown fiction -- an interpretation of war such as "Full Metal Jacket" or "Apocalypse Now." It's supposed to entertain. It's not a documentary, not real life.

But to those who were there, Iraq is real life. And they're very sensitive -- some would say overly so -- when their war is portrayed via a central character who is a reckless rogue.

Hence a rising backlash from people in uniform, such as this response on Rieckhoff's Facebook page from a self-identified Army Airborne Ranger:

"[I]f this movie was based on a war that never existed, I would have nothing to comment about. This movie is not based on a true story, but on a true war, a war in which I have seen my friends killed, a war in which I witnessed my ranger buddy get both his legs blown off. So for Hollywood to glorify this crap is a huge slap in the face to every soldier who's been on the front line."

Even Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor, took a shot on his blog, writing a post titled, "The Hurt Locker: Hurting for a fact-checker." The movie's positive reviews could not have been "written by anyone who had spent any time with U.S. armed forces in Iraq," he wrote, wondering why none of the soldiers in the movie dipped smokeless tobacco or said "hoo-ah" -- "the universal term for hello, goodbye, understood, etc."

'Reckless' character

In an interview, Rieckhoff said the anger about "Hurt Locker" stems not so much from such small inaccuracies -- for example, the uniforms the soldiers wear in the film weren't available until well after the time the story took place -- but rather from the depiction of the main character, Sgt. 1st Class William James.

Portrayed by Jeremy Renner, who's nominated for Best Actor, James is a daredevil who in one scene takes off his protective armor while disarming a bomb because, as he says, "If I'm going to die, I'm going to be comfortable." He runs alone through the streets of Baghdad with his sweat shirt hood up like a gangster. Later, he takes two soldiers hunting for insurgents in Baghdad's back alleys without any backup.

James's fellow soldiers are, or try to be, by-the-book professionals. They call James "rowdy" and "reckless," and one worries out loud that his leader's crazy antics are "going to get me killed." James is as much cowboy as soldier, and vets fear he could become an iconic figure in the American imagination should the movie win a bunch of statues.

"Films, almost more than anything, will be the way Americans understand our war," Rieckhoff said. "So we feel that there is a responsibility for filmmakers to portray our war accurately. We see ourselves as watchdogs. . . . When he puts a hood on like Eminem and starts roving outside the wire, it's ridiculous."

Gallucci, a former sergeant who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, says he kept hoping James would get "blown up throughout the entire movie. I wanted to see his poor teammates get another team leader, who was actually concerned about their safety."

'Dramatic effect'

Mark Boal, the film's screenwriter, knows the soldiers in the film are wearing the wrong uniform. He was embedded in Iraq with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in 2004, and he's aware of what soldiers wore. Boal has worked as a journalist -- an article he wrote for Playboy became the basis for the 2007 film "In the Valley of Elah," about an Iraq war veteran who is murdered upon returning home -- and he feels a duty to hew as close to possible to the truth.

But "The Hurt Locker" is a movie, not a magazine article, Boal says, and screenwriters need ample artistic license to build a compelling -- and true -- story. So when he chose to have the film's soldiers wear the current Army uniform rather than the one they wore in 2004, it's to allow his audience "to relate to the imagery they saw on the news."

Yes, he had military consultants help him get details of radio protocol and uniforms right, but he never felt obliged to be precisely accurate. The consultants, Boal says, give a writer the information he needs so that "when you do choose to make a dramatic effect, [you] do it in a way that is not totally embarrassing."

The arc of the narrative, he says, has to come from the writer. "The story came out of my imagination based on my life experience and hundreds of conversations I've had with soldiers.

"I definitely tried for dramatic effect to make artistic choices, but I hope I made them respectfully and carefully and with the goal of not making a training video or a documentary, but showing just how hellish this war is. I was also aware, by the way, that there are many wonderful documentaries on Iraq and many wonderful articles, which no one has seen. And quite frankly, I was hoping that people would see the film."

Art vs. reality

Each writer's search for truth lands at a different point on the spectrum between art and reality. When screenwriter David Simon made the series "Generation Kill" for HBO, he considered it more important to have Marines find his work an accurate portrayal of their culture and experience invading Iraq than to win critical acclaim. "The real fun isn't trying to convince the average viewer" that we have it right, he told the Marine Corps Times. "It's trying to convince people who have been in the game."

Boal not only wanted to tell a riveting and important story, but also to raise awareness about soldiers who disarm bombs, a specialty known as explosive ordnance disposal, which he believed the general public knew little about, even though hidden bombs are the leading cause of casualties in Iraq.

As a result, despite some complaints about inaccuracies, many veterans of bomb disposal units love the movie, says James O'Neil, executive director of the EOD Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit that has benefited financially from the film.

"While there is some artistic license," O'Neil says, "there's a lot of good representation of the intensity and the courage that's displayed by EOD techs. What it takes to find, identify and then render safe those [bombs] -- that's a story, and it's an incredible story."

Filmmakers always worry that productions that servicemembers see as spot-on might leave general audiences cold. So: Is it really important that a war movie be accurate?

No, says David McKenna, a film professor at Columbia University. "Hurt Locker," he argues, isn't as much about Iraq as it is about one soldier's addiction to war. It's a character study, an exploration of courage, bravado and leadership told through "a series of suspenseful situations. I suppose it could have just as easily been set in outer space."

If veterans don't like it, McKenna says, "well, this is an opportunity to go make your own movie."

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