On Creative License and The Hurt Locker.

*For those who are ridiculously late (like myself) and haven’t watched  it yet, there are spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned.

Along with the Oscar buzz surrounding The Hurt Locker there has been another conversation taking place – civilian impressions of the film versus those of military personnel and veterans.  A scathing review by Iraq War veteran Kate Hoit touched off a debate concerning factual inaccuracies in the film ranging from the uniforms the soldiers wore to tactical implausibilities:

No, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team would not roll out into the middle of Iraq practically by themselves. “The Hurt Locker” made it seem like the EOD team were taking on the streets of Baghdad; just them against a world of improvised explosive devices. However, this is when I realized the scriptwriters were lazy. This movie is a full-throttle adrenaline rush that is comprised of ditching common sense and the realities of war. The writers did not attempt to formulate a story based on the actual job of an EOD soldier. Instead, they created a war junky, sniper, commando guy who relied on no one (and no radios?) and stressed-out everyone around him, including those watching the movie.

While I watched that scene I automatically thought, there isn’t a soldier in the world who would leave their base and run through Baghdad unless they were trying to commit suicide. I laughed out-loud in the theater — could anyone actually believe this? When James finally reaches Camp Victory, a sympathetic soldier on guard-duty lets him on base. So, let me get this straight. We have an American soldier running through Iraq in a hooded sweatshirt, trying to find out what happened to a kid who sold bootleg movies, and a sweet soldier who just lets James waltz on base? Bravo Hollywood; that was pure magical bullshit.

What followed was a volley of opinions from veterans, some agreeing with Hoit’s view that the inaccuracies made it impossible for them to enjoy the movie, while others disagreed, stating that while liberties were taken the film is an accurate rendering of the sensory experience of war and military culture. In an interview for the Jacksonville Movie Examiner, Lt. Jason Dozier discusses his frustrations with The Hurt Locker, and ultimately says he would not recommend it to military personnel:

To non-military folks, sure. A lot of folks have liked the movie for reasons you stated before and I can’t knock it. Just my own personal biases made the film hard to watch, so to answer the other part, definitely no. (laughs) In fact, me and my boys have been talking about seeing this movie for a while, but we haven’t been able to because of the limited release, and I’ve straight up told them not to see it for the reasons stated before.

The debate hasn’t been so civilized in other places though, particularly movie review forums. In this “Pass The Popcorn” thread on Okayplayer the argument gets ugly, with some veterans stating their issues with the film and civilians replying “It’s not a documentary, get over it” or “Newsflash: It’s a movie.”

In the wake of all this I have a few impressions and a couple of questions. I just watched the movie last week, but I didn’t read any of the reviews or articles until after I had watched it. Also, despite being a civilian I am in close contact with a veteran hence I can’t always claim to be 100% objective. That being said I don’t think The Hurt Locker was bad. In fact it was all of the things a lot of other people said it was – tense, suspenseful, visually realistic and well-acted.  However, there were parts of it that did annoy me. Sergeant James drove me crazy because I thought his actions and the repercussions of them were unrealistic. There were things he did that were too foolhardy and reckless for me to swallow even though it was a movie. I thought the idea of him running around Baghdad alone at night was ridiculous as was the decision to have his team-members run into dark alleyways and split up Scenes such as the one at the desert bunker may have been inaccurate but they seemed more believable and tension filled for me ( I got jumpy in a scene with sheep coming over a ridge, I was so shook) because I didn’t feel like I was being manipulated, whereas the two aforementioned scenes seemed contrived. There were some wonderful subtle moments in the film especially those portraying Sergeant James’ attempts to reintegrate himself into civilian life. He seems utterly lost standing in the cereal aisle at the supermarket and his pent up rage and restlessness are palpable. You can very nearly feel him wanting to pull all the shelves over. But  then again, that was only the last 10 minutes of the movie.

Now my questions:

1) Is The Hurt Locker meant to be an action movie or a war movie?

If it supposed to be an action movie is most certainly does its job and is quite enjoyable on that level. You’re on the edge of your seat. People get shot. Things blow up. Viewed like that factual inaccuracies need not matter that much – the main aim is to try to create a certain feel and reaction in the audience. However, if it’s meant to be a war movie then the inaccuracies do matter because it’s an attempt at recreating the actual lived experience of the estimated 2 million individuals who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. In my mind The Hurt Locker hints at wanting to be viewed as a war movie with the preface “War is a drug.”  but the events the follow in the movie speak more to the individual experiences of Sergeant James rather than the collective feelings of soldiers.

2) Does The Hurt Locker have an intended audience? Does that matter with respect to issues of factual accuracy?

When discussing this before I watched the movie I broached the idea of military personnel and veterans not being the intended audience. I have read some impressions from civilians saying that they feel they have better understanding of what the experience of being in combat is like and the psychological realities of soldiers after watching the movie and I didn’t even know of the existence of EOD personnel prior to watching which I’m sure is true for others. Despite all this I am still torn about whether this means that dramatic license should allow for the making of a movie that relies on elements that offend members of the very group of people it is supposed to give us greater understanding of.

3) Where are the limits of creative license?

When dramatizing something that actually happened where is the line concerning what parts must be factual accurate and the parts where you have some wiggle room?

And now, since you guys are way smarter than me, have at it. What do you think?

  • Interesting. I havent seen The Hurt Locker, but as a Marine veteran I have had similar qualms with other military films. I have to agree with one of the posters you quoted -“It’s not a documentary, get over it.” I don’t expect a lot of accuracy in these type of movies, in fact I skip most of them.

  • “It’s not a documentary, get over it.”

    As an Army veteran I tend to agree with this sentiment as well. However, much like gender, race or religion when, in your opinion, your reality is portrayed in an inaccurate way, intentionally or unintentionally, it can be very personal.

  • Jeremy

    As a completely non-military viewer, I also found the scenes that veterans most complain about (splitting up, and running through Baghdad) to be completely absurd. I think they’re absurd to anyone who’s paying attention to the film, and are intended to show just how reckless/foolish/suicidal James had become.

    There’s a broader thing here; movies are very bad at dealing with technical detail. If a movie covers some technical area that you personally have some knowledge about, it’s going to make a complete mess of it. But one must also realize that a movie is foremost a movie, and whatever it shows must be compelling cinema. That’s why all computers are covered in blinking lights and things go “bing”, why hacking programs have huge 3D graphical displays, and why the EOD team can drive all over Baghdad with no escort, because the reality just isn’t cinematic.

    Note that I don’t think “dude, it’s just a movie” is a valid excuse though; it has to be true to whatever its trying to achieve. THL may be an action movie, but it is foremost about what its characters are going through. I don’t think the inaccuracies in its military details undermine that.

  • quadmoniker

    I know a lot of doctors who could never watch ER, and a lot of cops who used to say the most realistic cop show was the Andy Griffith Show. So this doesn’t strike me as particular to a military movie, or offensive to soldiers in any way. I doubt anyone would cater a movie to please such specific demographic.

    That said, I have to disagree with Kate Hoit on one point: I never got the impression that the soldiers were going out alone. I was always under the impression they were going out with a big group of soldiers from other units, you just saw them peripherally. The impression of the movie was that you were with the bomb squad at such an intimate range that you wouldn’t notice the other soldiers.

    And with James running around Baghdad on his own: the point was that he was going crazy. He was becoming mentally ungrounded. It wasn’t suggested that your average soldier would run around Baghdad. That his increasing detachment was expressed as him running around Baghdad might be logistically unrealistic in the real world, but made sense and communicated what it meant to do in the movie world.

    Finally, the reality of those in war is always different from the reality of those observing them, which is the role the viewer plays.It’s worth noting that the script came from Mark Boal, a journalist who was embedded with this kind of unit.

    • Alisa

      I think if you have had a particular experience or have certain profession there are bound to be situations where you see it fictionalized and you have an instant “You’re doing it RONG!” reaction. That’s fair enough. But what I was trying to ask, which I probably didn’t articulate well enough in the post is a question of immediacy. Because this conflict is going on right now, and issues pertaining to it and the soldiers who fight it are so sensitive, whether this means “storytelling” about it will necessarily occupy a different kind of space.

    • quadmoniker: My dad is a retired cop – his favorite Police themed TV show was Barney Miller. “Just like the office I work in…” is what he used to say while watching it.

      Alisa: The old saying, The 1st casualty of war is the truth” applies here. Having not seen the movie puts me at a bit of a disadvantage, but I don’t believe pinpont accuracy was the goal here – there was an opinion trying to be expressed. The issues affecting troops on active duty and veterans are not being addressed in my opinion. “Support the troops” has to be more than just a slogan. When Shoshana Johnson has to fight the US Army to get PTSD recognition and treatment, you know there are some problems to be addressed far bigger than a single movie can address.

  • TheMindFrame

    I’m about to sound like “that dude who went to war” (actual quote from a civilian) and try to explain why I have such a hard time with this movie. The shot and sweet part of it is this: Getting deployed sucks, being in a combat zone sucks, being in actual combat (a whole different animal) is harrowing, intense, terrifying and dramatic enough. There’s no need to embellish the experience what that’s like. What people here fail to understand is the following.

    #1-) This movie bills itself as an exploration of war and of soldiers that go through it. The last thing I need is a civilian acting or thinking they have a better context of what combat and life in the Suck is like because they’ve seen this movie. Don’t mess around with what we combat vets went through by portraying so many unrealistic scenarios.

    Quadmoniker, it’s not about showing James becoming detached or unhinged and showing that in the “movie world”, the problem is that such a scene is lazy film writing. There are tons of ways to portray James issue without filming something that in real life would have had that Soldier decapitated in front of a hand held camera. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Mark Boal was embedded with this kind of unit and he should have known better than trying to hide his scree-writing shortcomings this way. It wasn’t enough that they had the wrong uniforms, or that they didn’t even have the soldiers’ names and the US Army tag in the wrong place, it’s not enough that they had Humvees with no unit designation, I mean, his soldiers don’t even sound like soldiers, no acronyms, the dialogue is all kinds of wrongs. How many times did you hear the word “Hooah” uttered? Exactly. Evan Wright was embedded with a Marine Recon unit, and look at Generation Kill was able to accomplish, which brings up a second point.

    #2-) Don’t say “it’s not a documentary”. What that basically sounds like is “well, I liked it, so suck it”. Realism counts, I mean, the war isn’t even over! Can we at least wait till it is before we start rolling out the cartoon characters? Don’t bill the movie as a serious exploration of war and Soldiers and then come out with a caricature Ranger/Sniper/Commando/EOD type for a main character. The best moments in the movie were the ones when he was back home from the Suck, what does that tell you?
    No one is asking for a documentary. Full Metal Jacket, Black Hawk Down, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, all those movies got some things wrong, and that’s fine, but there’s a big line between those movies and what the Hurt Locker ended up putting together.

    #3-) Alisa raises a few issues that shouldn’t be ignored. The intended audience wasn’t us, it was the movie-going public and quite frankly, as a combat vet, I’m still waiting for a movie that actually does justice to our experiences cuz as of right now, Stop Loss, Lions for Lambs and Redacted ain’t really doing it. Taken as an action movie, the Hurt Locker is good enough. I don’t know if it’s Oscar worthy type of good. But as a “war movie”? It leaves A LOT to be desired. If you don’t understand the difference between the two terms, compare this movie to any of the movies I mentioned in #2.

    Lastly, there ARE limits to creative license. Writers and directors can claim all the freedoms they want when coming up with projects but as a combat vet, the bottom line is that there are some things you don’t mess around with. The difference between this movie and something approaching an honest project is the difference between Rambo 3 and any episode of Band of Brothers. As it is, the Hurt Locker is only a few steps away from “Home of the Brave” and I think we can all agree that’s a movie no one wants to see repeated.

    • quadmoniker

      I totally get what you’re saying, and I fully respect your desire to have a good movie about this war. All the other movies you mentioned are horrible.

      As a civilian, let me say this: this is the first movie I’ve ever seen in which I actually felt like the soldiers were in real danger. All the others were way too cinematic and tried: I get the soldiers say Hooah, and I get why they say it. I get that it’s realistic not to portray them doing it. But the fact that there might be soldiers who don’t feel so Hooah, for various reasons, might be why she left it out. Do I feel like I know what combat is like? Absolutely not, no more than I feel like I know how to be a doctor after I watch House. Thinking that’s the point of the movie would be ridiculous.

      I think accuracy is important, but in fiction, only to the point that it reinforces the kind of story you’re going to tell. Paula, below, is right: people don’t like the movie because they mistake it for an accurate picture of every soldier in combat (though I will say I don’t think comparing it to one’s personal experiences alone is enough of a reason to dismiss it; there are many experiences in war) Just because it’s not THE TRUTH OF WAR, doesn’t mean it doesn’t express some kind of truth. And I disagree entirely that the movie bills itself as some sort of definitive portrayal of the current wars. The only taglines I saw for it was “war is a drug.”

      I don’t ever think creative license has limits. Some movies, especially ones that are actually trying to be good, are going to rub people the wrong way in all times. I don’t think it makes a difference that the wars are ongoing. That they’ve gone on so long, without much change as far as the public can see, without clear progress, is part of the reason you see movies coming out i the midst.

      Lastly, totally agree with you about Black Hawk Down being great. The movie is good, the book is amazing.

      • quadmoniker

        Incidentally, Black Hawk Down is also by another journalist.

  • Paula

    I haven’t seen The Hurt Locker, but on a more general note about the conversation on Okayplayer …

    1) Attention to detail and accuracy are important, especially since for critics who like the movie, The Hurt Locker seems to claim verisimilitude. If there are certain inaccuracies that need to be called out as being detrimental to the movie’s aims, then I see nothing wrong w/ it being done. And in my experience, the dividing line between a merely ok to good narrative and very good to great ones are the amount of attention they pay to this kind of “immersive” detail. It’s world building, and the more convincing you can make it, the more palpable and authentic the drama and characters are because they seem like they are operating in a logical, recognizable universe.

    2)That being said: the criticisms of Hoit and those who agree w/ her kind of miss the general thrust of why critics* like The Hurt Locker.

    *By critics, I kind of mean professional writers of criticism. And by that I mean people who are (mostly) not stupid enough to mistake their appreciation of a movie’s truthfulness with “accuracy”, the dude who wrote “near perfect war movie” notwithstanding (Time.com’s Richard Schickel, who needs to be put to pasture). And someone should tell that guy on the OKP thread arguing pro-THL on the basis of Oscar noms that most critics actually worth their salt don’t consider the Oscars to be any imprimatur of excellence nowadays.

    Critics are familiar with Katherine Bigelow’s work, which has so far been dominated by observation of people — mostly men — and the relationships they form in extreme environments (Near Dark, Point Break). Most critics see the thesis of THL as being in line with this preoccupation of hers, and so Hoit’s criticism of the main character’s behavior and the seeming lack of consequences kind of misses the point of what the movie is trying to explore. It is the physical manifestation of a psychological state in its most extreme form. To that end, I really hope that most servicepeople do NOT, in fact, identify with this character because from the way I’ve heard the movie described this is actually pretty fucking self-destructive.

    3) How successful the movie is at presenting this, of course, is a matter of opinion. Critics are basing their criticism on what they think the movie’s intentions are, which is not “realism qua realism”, but rather an exploration of an extreme psychological state. If I come out of the movie thinking that the movie’s intentions are more muddled — that it uses the “crutch” of realist intentions (oh look @ us doin’ “serious Iraq War drama”) to create drama when it really doesn’t know what to say about a character or what that character’s really about (like all good character studies) — then I may start to agree that it fails in some respect.

    4) This is where the “immersive detail” comes in. The director needs to have signaled in some way what kind of ideas we are to take away. And from what I read, Bigelow has present a very cohesive picture of anguish, stress, addiction, confusion about targets and enemies. She uses the idiom of “action movie” — a genre that carries an implied stylization of violence — to communicate a specific emotional experience of combat, which may not adhere strictly to what is “real” in the OED unit experience but which is nevertheless “true” because the overarching “style” isn’t just ‘action for action’s sake’ for audience titillation but has specific ideas about manhood, duty, strangers in a strange land or what have you. The stylized materials, though possibly inaccurate, are there to service the larger emotional narrative. It would be different, of course, if Bigelow was signaling some kind of documentary-like picture, in which case we would need exacting accuracy because THAT would be the narrative to be served rather than this emotional one.

    Take, for ex, Children of Men. It is NOT a realistic picture, but an emotional truth comes out of the director’s ability to create a convincing world. It is an allegory about our hopes and fears in the present day, but those ideas only become truthful onscreen because there’s such a tactile universe that has been built inside the frame. Also, The Wire. We have a limited view of what life is like in this universe, based on the writings of former cops, journalists, and crime fiction writers. It leaves out a lot. But its power to convince is coming from the writers’ ability to not only build a world w/ finely observed, cumulative details but also these details’ ability to communicate larger ideas about institutions and how they ensnare the people within. This is not “realism” per se, but a presentation of ideas about “the real” inferred from an INTERNAL logic of how life in this particular universe is and how it came to “be”.

    5) The validity of the “emotional narrative” can of course be debated. We would have to talk about whether or not the characters’ emotions in THL are true to the experience of people in OED units.

    6) But, we also need to qualify this whole discussion of the fact that this study of characters in combat is made by civilians for an audience that they probably imagined to be mostly civilian. Which is to say, this is a civilian trying to explain war to herself as well as to other civilians.

    Literary critics have pointed out the hazard of mistaking allegorical works for realist works. The context for the main character(s) acting the way they do and doing things out of protocol w/o repercussions is that they, for the filmmakers at least, are synechdochical of America and Americans as a whole. Their story is an allegory about “our” current enterprise in the Middle East, and NOT about the OED units or the military at all. Americans as a whole are confused, afraid, exhilirated by war, and by and large most of us are shielded from the consequences.

    7) Of course, the validity of THAT representation can be debated. Is it fair for a civilian director to present the military for private purposes? Is the validity of a presentation of a group dependent on the identity of the person who makes it? (For ex, is it the same as Spike Lee’s maxim about directors of color?) Are the military of a fundamentally separate identity than the civilian populace? What are the consequences of thinking one way or the other?

  • Paula

    8) Sorry, one last thing. I suppose I should say that “realism” is not a value-neutral concept. Realistic for who? The author, even of “documentary” works, chooses what to present and what to cut, thus evincing a particular POV whether it is acknowledged or not.

    An essay on “Truth in Cinema” and the documentary director’s gaze: