More ‘Hurt Locker’ controversy: Was it based on a real bomb disposal expert’s life?


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If you’ve read the original Playboy article that Mark Boal wrote about the exploits of bomb disposal experts in Iraq -- the story that he used as a jumping-off point for his Oscar-nominated original screenplay for ‘The Hurt Locker’ -- then you’ve spent a lot of time reading about Sgt. Jeffrey Sarver and his team of bomb squad technicians.

Now, according to a press release put up on the Web by Sarver’s lawyer, Sarver is planning to sue the makers of ‘The Hurt Locker,’ claiming that he is in fact Will James, the film’s main character played by Jeremy Renner.


According to the release, the suit will allege that ‘virtually all of the situations portrayed in the film, were, in fact, occurrences involving Master Sgt. Sarver that were observed and documented’ by Boal. The suit will also contend that Sarver coined the phrase ‘The Hurt Locker’ for Boal. According the release, the suit will argue that the filmmakers ‘falsely claim’ that the characters in the film are fictional and that the filmmakers ‘decided to cheat’ Sarver out of financial participation in the film.

I haven’t been able to reach Sarver’s lawyer Geoffrey Fieger (who is planning to hold a press conference tomorrow), but I just got off the phone with Boal, who says the charges are baseless. ‘I think Sarver is a brave soldier and a good guy,’ he told me. ‘Like a lot of soldiers, he identifies with the film, but the character I wrote is fictional. The film is a work of fiction inspired by many people’s stories.’

I haven’t seen the lawsuit, which Sarver’s lawyers say will be filed Wednesday. But Boal says that he never made any attempt to buy Sarver’s life rights because he had always wanted the freedom to fictionalize the stories he heard from soldiers he met during his research for the Playboy article, which appeared in the magazine’s September 2005 issue under the title ‘The Man in the Bomb Suit.’

There are some details in the magazine piece that also appear in the film. Boal, for example, says that Sarver keeps recovered bomb parts in a box by his bed, just as James does in the film. But Boal told me: ‘Many soldiers keep souvenirs like that.’ The piece also describes an unsuccessful attempt to disarm a bomb with a robot, leading Sarver to ‘take the long walk by himself in a bomb suit,’ an incident re-created in the film. However, Boal contends that those sort of incidents ‘happen every day -- it’s what those guys do for a living.’

He adds: ‘There are similarities, because you’d find similarities to events that happened to lots of these guys. But the screenplay is not about him. I talked to easily over 100 soldiers during my research and reshuffled everything I learned in a way that would be authentic, but would also make for a dramatic story.’

As for the charge that Sarver coined the phrase ‘the hurt locker,’ Boal responded: ‘That’s totally untrue. It would be like coining the phrase ‘live free or die.’ It’s military slang that’s in common usage. I heard it from lots of other people other than him.’


Boal acknowledges that Sarver wasn’t entirely happy about the way he was portrayed in the original Playboy story. ‘He was a little [peeved] about the way he came out in it. There were little details that I got wrong. And he didn’t always like the way he’d been characterized, which obviously involved things were really important to him.’

However, Boal says that he invited Sarver to see the first screening of ‘The Hurt Locker’ in New York shortly before its release. ‘He liked it and told me, ‘Nice job.’ ‘ Boal recalls. ‘He wasn’t upset. He even invited some of us to visit the military base where he was stationed in New Jersey. I didn’t know there was a problem until recently, when the lawyers got involved.’