‘Hurt Locker’ controversy: Why is the military upset about the movie?


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I was shocked -- and I mean shocked -- to discover today that there are some members of the military who think that ‘The Hurt Locker’ is ‘Hollywood hokum,’ as my colleagues put it in a smartly detailed front-page story in the Los Angeles Times.

According to our dispatch, some people in the military are impressed by the film, starting with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who called it ‘authentic’ and ‘very compelling.’ And then there are a number of active soldiers and veterans who have scoffed at its portrayal of the Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, with one EOD team leader saying the film has ‘too much John Wayne and cowboy stuff.’


Why do some members of the military think the film stretches the truth a little? Well, the easy response is this: What Hollywood film doesn’t stretch the truth? Movies are dramas, not documentaries, and drama is always full of heightened reality, which is a fancy way of saying that movies are always crammed with invented action used to build tension and conflict. It’s why the first people to criticize a film’s authenticity are usually the people who’ve actually done the job or known the real person portrayed in the film.

A host of previous films portraying the military, dating back to ‘Platoon,’ ‘Born on the Fourth of July,’ ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘The Deer Hunter, to name but a few, were all criticized in one way or another by former soldiers, who were the closest to the films’ events and the most sensitive to seeing the grit of war softened or theatricalized by dramatic license. But the military is hardly alone.

Nearly every film about the civil rights movement was criticized by the people involved in the movement for inaccuracies, big and small. College basketball coaches hoot at the way coaches are portrayed in college basketball movies. Doctors roll their eyes at the way medicine is practiced in Hollywood medical dramas. And, of course, journalists are especially quick to take offense at the way their profession is portrayed in the movies, most recently in ‘State of Play,’ which took a drubbing for its fanciful portrayal of high-powered investigative reporting.

In case you’ve forgotten, ‘A Beautiful Mind’ won an Oscar for best picture -- despite the fact that it was roundly lambasted by people who knew math genius John Nash -- for all sorts of imagined or invented scenes. And ‘The Hurricane,’ a biopic about the boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter was met with a hailstorm of invective by boxing writers and other journalists who were appalled by its historical evasions and factual inaccuracies.

So it’s no surprise that the people closest to the events in ‘The Hurt Locker’ are the ones most likely to be troubled by its sensationalization of real events. What seems to bother some people in the military the most isn’t so much the film’s gloomy view of the Iraq war, but rather the way its lead character is portrayed as a renegade and a loose cannon, not a quiet professional. But of course, that’s the core nature of moviemaking. Hollywood filmmakers are drawn to non-conformists, not solid citizens. The free spirits and wild childs are the people we identify with and pay our money to see, not the people who play by the rules.

So I say let’s not be so hard on ‘Hurt Locker.’ Its hero is an unbelievably brave, nerves-of-steel guy, but he’s also simply the latest in the long line of mavericks who’ve populated our best movies. If I were Kathryn Bigelow, when a ‘Hurt Locker’ critic says the movie is full of too much John Wayne stuff, I’d take it as a compliment.


Photo: Jeremy Renner in ‘The Hurt Locker.’ Photo credit: Summit Entertainment