Veterans Say Exaggerations Abound In 'Hurt Locker'
The scene: Baghdad, 2004. A soldier in a heavy protective suit slowly walks away from a pile of trash. He's just set an explosive charge to destroy it. Suddenly, his comrades spot a shopkeeper using a cell phone — a worrying sign, since phones are often used to detonate massive bombs.
They scream into their radios: "Two o'clock, dude has a phone!"
With the soldiers unable to get a clean shot, the shopkeeper presses a button and, in an instant, the bomb detonates, killing the soldier sent to disarm it.
This is the opening scene of the movie The Hurt Locker, which is nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture. And it's a scene Paul Rieckhoff can't get out of his head.
"Very seldom is a guy going to put on a bomb suit and walk down there and try and dismantle something by hand," says Rieckhoff, who served as an Army officer in Iraq during the time period the movie depicts, and often worked with bomb disposal units, known as Explosive Ordnance Disposal, or simply EOD.
"It just doesn't make sense. For the most part, they're going to use robotics; they're going to use other types of explosives to set off a charge — a controlled charge — next to it. It's really a Hollywood sensationalized version of how EOD operate," says Rieckhoff, who runs the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America association and wrote a sharply critical article about the movie for Newsweek.
Rieckhoff says many of his fellow EOD members are criticizing the film for its inaccuracies. He worries that many Americans will come to understand Iraq through movies like The Hurt Locker and get a warped view of what soldiers face.
'It's A Movie, Not A Training Film'
Not everyone agrees with Rieckhoff, though. That opening scene is the one Jim O'Neil likes the best.
"It kind of captures the whole environment over there in that first nine minutes," says O'Neil, who served as a Navy bomb disposal expert during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He now runs the EOD Memorial Foundation in Florida, which maintains a memorial wall and offers scholarships to the families of EOD service members.
He acknowledges that there is some fiction built into the movie.
"I enjoyed the movie. There is some artistic license taken, with some of the situations and processes," he says. "You know, it's a movie, not a training film."
He says if Hollywood made a two-hour movie of a guy in a bomb suit, "you'd put everyone to sleep." He commends the movie for highlighting the courage of bomb disposal experts, and he says that has helped his memorial foundation. He reports that both calls and donations are up.
Feelings Mixed On Reckless Main Character
The movie revolves around Staff Sgt. William James. He's a reckless adrenalin junkie who joins the bomb disposal team after the soldier in the opening scene dies.
James has disarmed 873 bombs and is admired by a senior officer, but is sharply criticized by his team members for taking too many chances.
He takes off his protective suit before dismantling a bomb. "If I'm going to die, I'm going to die comfortable," he says.
In another scene, James fails to keep in radio contact with his teammates, prompting one to punch him out. O'Neil says he probably would have punched James, too.
But all that rankles Rieckhoff.
"The idea that you'd put yourself in so much unnecessary danger is not only irresponsible, it's reckless, and that's really not what our EOD techs do," he says.
Henry Engelhardt liked the portrayal of James. He remembers guys just like him from when he served as a bomb disposal expert in Vietnam. He now runs the National Explosive Ordnance Disposal Association.
"Usually the ones that were fast and loose didn't last long," says Engelhardt. "They were either killed or moved on to somewhere else."
'Screaming At The Screen'
Engelhardt says that in the movie, James looks like he knows what he's doing — except for one scene. When James grabs a cable and pulls, seven artillery shells come up out of the ground all wired together, surrounding him. James starts to cut the wires, one at a time. But that's not the right procedure, says Engelhardt.
"I was kind of like screaming at the screen, 'Cut the main cable,' " says Engelhardt.
James goes on to more adventures. He and his teammates slip out of his base at night to lead a vigilante raid. That all reminds Rieckhoff of actor Matt Damon's rogue CIA character.
"He goes outside the wire in civilian clothes and goes roaming around downtown Baghdad like Jason Bourne," says Rieckhoff. "I mean, that's just completely ridiculous."
Rieckhoff says the film does have some merit when it addresses the psychological toll a soldier faces after returning home. He likes the scene when James goes to a supermarket and stares blankly at a wall of cereal boxes, overwhelmed and unable to make a choice.
Despite The Criticism, Approval From The Top
Other EOD technicians in Afghanistan and at U.S. training bases tend to have two responses when talk turns to The Hurt Locker.
Some say they can't bear watching the movie and laugh at the inaccuracies. Others like it and say the main character is based on them.
And now one Army sergeant is so sure James' character is based on him that he has filed a lawsuit against the producers. Master Sgt. Jeffrey S. Sarver believes screenwriter Mark Boal based the character played by Jeremy Renner and "virtually all of the situations" in the film on him and his life. Sarver also claims to have coined the phrase "the hurt locker," according to the suit. Boal embedded with Sarver's bomb disposal team in Iraq during a 2004 assignment for Playboy magazine.
The lawsuit says that it was obvious to Sarver's friends and family that he is the one depicted in the movie, but goes on to say that he was defamed because the character is portrayed as a "reckless, gung-ho war addict who has a morbid fascination with death," and who discards his own son.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in New Jersey, and is based on six counts, including misappropriation of name and likeness, invasion of privacy, infliction of emotional distress, fraud and negligent misrepresentation. His attorney is seeking more than $75,000, plus costs, interest and attorney fees.
The film's distributor, Summit Entertainment, issued its own statement on Tuesday reiterating the movie's claim that it is a "fictional account" about soldiers in the battlefield. And Boal defends the movie against the criticism.
"As I have said many times, the movie is not a documentary," says Boal. "We made creative decisions, and I hope people understand that those decisions were made respectfully and conscientiously."
But for all the criticism, the top two military leaders, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, have given The Hurt Locker a thumbs up.
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