College buddy Tom Streithorst is out with an article in the UK’s Prospect Magazine titled “Why The Hurt Locker shouldn’t have won,” based on Tom’s extensive experience as a journalist embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq. Tom’s thesis is that although some aspects of the movie are outstanding, it is marred by an unrealistic portrayal of the troops.
Three scenes are absolutely wrong. In one, Sergeant James escapes his base and roams Baghdad by himself, lost and confused, looking for an Iraqi he suspects of killing a boy. No, Americans never leave the base by themselves. In the second, the soldiers wander around their base, drunk out of their minds. One of the exceptional features of the Iraq war is it is probably the first war ever fought without alcohol or drugs. And, in the last and worst, our boys have their guns aimed at an Iraqi they suspect to be a car bomber. Despite his repeatedly not obeying their orders to back up, they don’t shoot him, even though they themselves might die.
Tom left out the scene where the one sergeant sucker-punches cowboy Staff Sergeant James — his superior — after the cowboy took off his headphones. And when the sniper team waited hours for a shot at the enemy sniper in the cinderblock pillbox, rather than calling in air support in a setting where there was no danger of civilian casualties. I also thought the Iraqi with the time bomb locked to his body would have been dropped when he disregarded translated orders to stop walking toward the troops.
But while I agree with Tom that the bizarre roaming-around-Baghdad scene is a serious flaw, the rest of it I can chalk up to creative license. After years of reading about tediously polemical anti-war movies set in Iraq — all of them box-office duds — I’m just glad that the first Iraq movie to gain critical acclaim avoids taking cheap political shots. Sergeant James is reckless to the point of pathology, but he’s clearly a Good Guy.
My acid test for the quality of a movie is how much of it I remember later. There are probably 20 scenes in Schindler’s List that I can replay in my mind after seeing the movie once, in 1993. Hurt Locker is a lesser film, but I’ll remember James’s heart-wrenching apologies to the walking Iraqi time bomb he couldn’t save. I also saw Avatar, the other major Best Picture contender, and while it was enjoyable enough, the main thing I remember is fiddling with the 3-D glasses.