The chorus of military criticism of The Hurt Locker keeps getting louder. A slew of Iraq veterans have dissected the its accuracy without, in my opinion, making a serious argument against it as a film. Now, a former infantryman has taken to the Atlantic to say it shouldn’t win Best Picture because its license with reality is essentially the same as soldiers who lie about their military exploits to appear heroic. (Really.)
I understand the urge for people with firsthand experience to nit-pick the movie’s accuracy, particularly as critics rave about how “realistic” it is. But that’s different from imposing an arbitrary moralism on a movie—insisting The Hurt Locker shouldn’t win an award because it did the things the medium is known for, namely making things more exciting and or condensing the timelines. The movie doesn’t purport to be a true story, and even with a journalist screenwriter and actors that underwent military training in preparation for their roles, is still very obviously a work of fiction. (One could work up a similarly lengthy list of that-would-never-happens for any of its rivals in the Best Picture category.)
Brian Mockenhaupt, the soldier writing in the Atlantic, admits that movie “nails” the setting—the heat, dust, sweat, trashy streets, curious Iraqis, etc. Which is essentially what it was trying to do. I would wager Bigelow cared more about a realistic “feel” than precisely realistic plotting. It’s sequenced like an action film, and her shaky camera is meant to convey a sense of running alongside the squad, not the phony factual authenticity Mockenhaupt imagines. We are supposed to feel like we are in the middle of one of Will James ill-advised escapades, never mind the fact that it probably wouldn’t have happened exactly as it does on screen. We feel the danger and emotion of a very intimate situation, which most war movies, with their giant casts and swelling themes, fail to capture.
The strength of The Hurt Locker is the very adrenaline rushes its military critics are complaining about. Call them Hollywood-concocted scenarios if you must, but surely they can play a role in helping us “outsiders” grasp the sensations of being on the ground in Iraq without having us believe everything we see on TV. Its punch has little to do with its alleged factual weaknesses. Thanks to this film, I now understand a tiny fraction of the terror of disarming a bomb that could dismember me at any moment. I have a glimpse of what it’s like to shift from that deadly environment to the humdrum reality of American daily life. I was not, contrary to Mockenhaupt’s read-in analysis, told “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.”
The Hurt Locker is, as Dana Stevens wrote, “without question the most exciting and least ideological movie yet made about the war in Iraq.” None of its Best Picture competitors (other than maybe Avatar) can lay claim to such a superlative, and that’s why it deserves the statue. The Oscars are about exciting movies.