In his self-published book, Stolen Valor, Vietnam veteran B.G. Burkett exposes scores of men who pass themselves off as war heroes. He digs through stacks of military personnel records and outs city councilmen, prominent businessmen and even presidents of veterans groups as frauds. Some had served in the military and finagled paperwork that bumped them up several ranks and turned them into battlefield legends. Purple Hearts, Silver Stars, Medals of Honor. Others hadn't spent a day in uniform but conjured equally dramatic tales of daring and sacrifice. The imposters, he says, had become some of the most vocal and visible veterans. They influenced the public's perception of war and even guided legislative agendas, a disservice to those who did the fighting and the bleeding.
How could they get away with that? Moral authority. So few Americans have actually walked and sweated on battlefields that they defer to those who say they have, and assume those men and women speak the truth.
This also explains why The Hurt Locker is up for a Best Picture Oscar. And why it shouldn't win.
Present a movie as a hyper-realistic look at today's wars and those fighting them, and you have a responsibility to deliver because—for better or worse—without first-hand experience, we rely on our storytellers to fill in the those gaps with texture, and meaning and context. That was director Kathryn Bigelow's intent. She wanted the audience to experience war as the soldiers do and used shaky hand-held camera shots for a documentary-style effect. And she was rewarded for it. She won over the critics, nearly all of whom wrote breathless and fawning reviews: Overflowing with crackling versimilitude; One of the defining films of the decade; Impressively realistic; A near-perfect movie about men in war; The film about the war in Iraq we've been waiting for.
With commentary like that, I expected a movie that would give viewers a real sense of what a minority of Americans have been doing on their behalf these nine years. Instead, I left the theater frustrated and disappointed. To its credit, The Hurt Locker, unlike many of the War on Terror films so far, doesn't spoon-feed political messages. But Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have tried so hard to make a great and important film that they transformed their story into caricature. This is a shame, because the movie begins with promise.
Bigelow pulls us into the world of an Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal team finishing a year-long tour speckled with near misses. She nails the setting. The trash piles and the dust, the heat and the searing white sunlight, Iraqis watching from doorways, balconies and rooftops, the curious indistinguishable from the suspicious. And, amid all this, the soldiers, steeped in resignation, knowing they could die in the next moment. These bomb squads face obscene levels of danger, which makes their day-to-day experiences the perfect window through which to view war's effects.
But the movie soon careens into the tedious and the absurd. The Hurt Locker was born of Boal's embed with an Army EOD unit, which gives the film a further air of authority and authenticity—based on true events and all—though he took many, many liberties in crafting the story. I only saw a small corner of the war during two Iraq tours, but the bomb squad's actions seemed over the top. Was the main character, Will James, leader of the three-man team, reckless and cavalier with his men's safety? Probably. But never mind that. I expect small inconsistencies and lapses in logic, like soldiers wearing the wrong uniforms, or inexplicably abandoning their humvee and hiding in an Iraqi house.
It's the huge stumbles, many of them a by-product of the need for narrative momentum and dramatic tension, that pollute the finer parts of The Hurt Locker. Consider the sniper scene: Driving alone through the desert - and no one drives alone in Iraq—the team comes upon several Blackwater-type contractors who have captured two high-value targets from the "deck of cards"—those Saddam Hussein cronies hunted in the early months of the war. An Iraqi sniper quickly kills three of the contractors with stunning long-range shots. With no reinforcements or air support available, James and his men must save the day. J.T. Sanborn, the team's level-headed sergeant, settles in behind a .50-caliber rifle and kills three insurgents, including one dropped at a dead run, nine football fields away. A trained sniper would be proud of that shot, so it's mighty impressive from a bomb disposal technician.
Later—after James leaves his protected base and goes rogue through the nighttime streets of Baghdad—he and his two teammates investigate a massive truck bomb in the Green Zone. To hunt down the triggerman, James splits his team and sends each man alone down a dark alleyway. Wow. If that's true, I'm damn glad I didn't serve with any of them. Specialist Owen Eldridge, the team's youngest member, is shot and briefly kidnapped during the goofy mission, a ham-fisted reminder that James' actions have consequences for others.
These scenes would have made more sense as fantasy sequences, since bizarre and disturbing dreams are a staple of war. But are any of the events absolutely unimaginable? No. Battlefields are very, very strange places, with endless power to surprise. A soldier wandering off into Baghdad alone on some misguided personal quest? Well, Bowe Bergdahl, now held as a prisoner of war by the Taliban, was captured last year after he apparently walked away from his remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan. So people act stupidly.
The problem comes in knitting together these experiences, real or fancied, into a single narrative. Ask a dozen soldiers to tell you a story about the war and you'll hear a dozen harrowing or poignant or side-splitting tales. Many of them might be true. But smash them into a composite and the truth flees. While it makes for a convenient story vehicle and a steady point of focus for the viewer, packing everything into one man's or a small group's experience rises to the ridiculous.
I understand the need for condensed action sequences, a case best made by The Onion's story on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, "the most true-to-life military game ever created." Soldiers run pointless missions, sit around for hours on guard duty and referee arguments between colleagues about which actress they'd rather sleep with. All of that brings back memories. War, in real-time, is often boring, or at least too slow moving for the big screen.
So Bigelow and Boal were right to reduce the soldiers' experiences to the pivotal and illuminating moments. And when The Hurt Locker does it well—which isn't often—the results are superb. One of the movie's best scenes comes near the end as James, back from Iraq, stands alone in the cereal aisle of a grocery store and stares at the choices, not overwhelmed but indifferent. He's traded the adrenaline of combat for the tedium of life at home.
The Hurt Locker should have lingered on and gone deeper into the small moments, digging at the subtlety and nuance instead of telling its audience that war, as experienced by so many Americans, isn't meaningful enough as is, but must be gussied up with outsiders' interpretations of what makes the experience profound.
Brian Mockenhaupt, a freelance writer, served twice in Iraq as an infantryman with the Army's 10th Mountain Division.