Green Room

Oscar Watch: The Story Locker

posted at 6:14 pm on March 5, 2010 by

I was digging through some old headllines the other day.  I was amazed at what I found.  Here’s a sampling:

French Cops Say Top Cop A Flop (July 8, 1943)

(Vichy, France) (AP) – A leading association of French policemen condemned the film portrayal of a French police chief as “unrealistic” in a statement released today.

Jacques Omerde, spokeshomme for the Fraternal Order of Vichy French Law Enforcement Officers, said “the character of Jean Renault, played by Claude Rains in the recent hit movie Casablanca, is unrealistic and tres degradement.”

“Mr. Rains’ portrayal of a corrupt, semi-competent lothario besmirches the reputation and good name of the hard-working law-enforcement officers who work for the Vichy government.”

“Furthermore” Omerde concluded from the prepared statement, “the final scene – where Prefect Renault ignored the shooting of a German officer – would in real life be a gross violation of procedure.  There have been no real-life accusations of any such behavior”.

Omerde called on Casablanca’s director, Paul Henreid, to apologize.

Fisherman’s Association Says Hemingway Story, Movie Just Big Fish Tale: (July 8, 1952)(Miami, FLorida) (AP) – The Association of Cuban-American Fishermen are crying “foul” over Ernest Hemingway’s latest novel, Old Man and the Sea.

“Cuban fisherman have a tradition of fraternalism”, said Juan-Carlos De Miel, president of the ACAF’s Miami chapter.  “84 day losing streak or no, nobody would have ostracized the old man.  Because as our anscestors said in Cuba, “It takes  a village to take care of an old guy”.

“Also, no fisherman worth his salt would have lashed a marlin to the side of a skiff.  Procedures would have prevented the shark attack that consumed the Marlin; it’s utterly unrealistic!”

“Finally, this book and movie portrays Cuban fishermen as rash, impetuous people, when in fact we are a group of solid professional fish extraction technicians”.

Paper Execs: TV Series Papers Over The Truth (July 8, 2004)(New York, NY) (AP) – The American TV series “The Office” “defames the American paper sales industry’s proud traditi0n of professionalism”, according to American Association For Paper Sales president Excedrine Ruff.

“Funny may be funny, but I can say with complete assurance that a manager like Michael Scott would never be permitted in the American paper sales industry”. 

“It’s defamatory”.

Silly?  Of course.  Casablanca, Old Man and the Sea and The Office aren’t about Vichy police procedure, the commercial fishing industry or paper sales.  They’re allegories about America’s status as a reluctant warrior, the Bible, and the dynamics of groups of people jammed together in an artificial situation. 

To find anything trivializing or defamatory in any of them requires, at best, an overly-literal reading – and at worst, a focus on grievance-mongering that’s become so common that the little parodies above could very well exist for real, for all we know, somewhere in the world of academe this past few decades.

But Casablanca, Old Man and the Sea and The Office are not literal descriptions of professions or industries.  They all aim for something else.

So, too, with Hurt Locker.


The Hurt Locker doesn’t seem to leave a lot of people in the middle; people either love it (it’s up there with Avatar as the front-runner for Best Picture at the Oscars) or not love it (some veterans pan its realism).

Let me take a step back here.

There are very, very few people in the world who take their calling quite as seriously as soldiers (and sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen, for that matter); their trades are literally a matter of life and death for themselves, their comrades, everyone around them and, eventually, all of us.  Like cops, firemen, doctors, nurses and paramedics, theirs is a profession not merely of commitment – but where the consequences of lack of commitment are deadly.

Duly noted.  That is as it should be.

And people who take their professions seriously are justifiably critical of people who try to portray their profession inaccurately. 

Is Hurt Locker “accurate?” 

Not in the sense that, say, Band of Brothers strove for accuracy.  But BoB was history – a collective oral history of real events told by real people, who were portrayed as themselves, as they had been 50 years earlier.  It’s theme was very literal; a group of ordinary, teenage-to-twentysomethign Americans who did extraordinary things, and forged an extraordinary bond.  It was a story as powerful as any fiction.

Hurt Locker is a work of fiction.  It’s not literal history; its’ primary purpose isn’t accuracy, and isn’t supposed to be.

If it was, of course, it’ would have failed…:

The film, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by journalist Mark Boal (who was embedded with a bomb disposal team), stars Jeremy Renner as Staff Sgt. William James. Not deterred by protocol or his own safety, James is an adrenaline-addicted bomb defuser who occasionally puts his unit at risk, and at one point takes to the streets of Baghdad on a solo personal mission. Members of EOD teams in southern Iraq said in interviews arranged by the Army that “The Hurt Locker” is a good action movie if you know nothing about defusing roadside bombs or the military.

Sgt. Eric Gordon of San Pedro, an Air Force EOD technician on his second tour in Iraq, has watched the movie a few times with his friends. “I would watch it with other EOD people, and we would laugh,” Gordon said.

He scoffed at a scene in which a bomb is defused with wire cutters. “It’s similar to having a firefighter go into a building with a squirt bottle,” Gordon said.

An EOD team leader in Maysan province, Staff Sgt. Jeremy D. Phillips, said, “My interest is bringing myself and my team members home alive, with all of our appendages in the right place.”

Although he was glad the film highlighted their trade, he disliked the celluloid treatment of EOD units. “There is too much John Wayne and cowboy stuff. It is very loosely based on actual events,” he said. “I’m honestly glad they are trying to convey to the public what we’ve been doing, and I wish maybe they had just done it with a little bit of a different spin on it,” he said.

Others are more supportive. Sloan, a former U.S. Army captain, said at the panel discussion that “The Hurt Locker” offered a perfect snapshot of modern conflict. “This is what’s going on for the men and women who are fighting this war,” he said.

All well and good, the pro and the con.  Those reviews are better than some I’ve seen, like this one on Yahoo…:

“The depiction of our community in this film is disrespectful,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “We are not cowboys. We are not reckless. We are professionals.”

This is more or less the same review I got from a fellow from Big Hollywood that John Hinderaker interviewed on the Volume I Northern Alliance show a few weeks back; the show was anti-American, or at least anti-military, because it portrayed soldiers unrealistically – and some of that portrayal was at the very least unprofessional, to say nothing of not technically realistic; they do things, they say, that American soldiers realistically just don’t do, as professionals, warriors or people.

Which would be a valid criticism – except that the movie isn’t about what American soldiers do.  It’s not a how-to on disposing of bombs, or fighting a counterinsurgency.  It’s about war, and its affect on people who partake in it.  It’s about psychology, not combat engineering.

The big three criticisms seem to be that the Hurt Locker:

  • is technically unrealistic,
  • shows the American troops – from Jeremy Renner’s taut, layered Staff Sergeant Mackey to David Morse’s almost surfer-dude-like bird colonel to Christian Camargo’s flippant, risk-taking psychiatrist – as unrealistically unprofessional.
  • that it show’s Renner’s character as an unrealistically bad human being.

As to the first charge?  Doy.  That was apparent in Mackey’s first incident – where he pulled on a piece of wire and dislodged eight artillery shells connected into a remote-controlled explosive.  The shells wiggled like empty milk cartons when Mackey pulled the wire; in reality, they weigh 80-100 pounds apiece.  Chalk it up to dramatic license.

As to the second charge?  I’ll refer back to my original review last summer.  I noted that the movie gave us a hint in the opening scene:

The new film The Hurt Locker opens with this quote, from former NYTimes war correspondent Chris Hedges, in white type over a black background:

The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.

As the movie rolled into the first scene, the last clause – “war is a drug” stayed highlighted.

…I had no idea what to say about the film.  Something didn’t quite add up.

Then I looked up the rest of Chris Hedges’ quote.   I found it, from a piece he wrote for Amnesty International back in 2002:

…one I ingested for many years. It is peddled by myth makers -historians, war correspondents, filmmakers novelists and the state-all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks just below the surface within all of us.

And then it hit me.  It’s not a war movie – or should I say, it’s not just a war movie.  It’s a movie about war as a drug, and its affect on its addicts.

The movie isn’t about bomb disposal engineers.  The film could have been set among Israeli tank drivers or Danish commandos or British submariners, or for that matter professional infantrymen from the Roman centurion to Lee Marvin’s long-timer “The Sergeant” in The Big Red One to the yin and yang of Sergeants Barnes and Elias (Tom Berenger and Willem Defoe) in Platoon to any number of other portrayals of people who’ve made a living of the art, craft and hell of war.  It’s not about defusing bombs; it’s about war’s affect on a guy who does it for a living and a life.

The final criticism – which was levelled by the Big Hollywood critic on the NARN broadcast – was that near the end of the film…


…Mackey, clearly chafing in civilian life with his wife and son, eventually takes his boy aside and, in one of the most gut-punching scenes in the movie, tells him he doesn’t love him, on his way back to the war.

Is this something a father would do?  Something we want to think of an American soldier doing?  Of course not.  And for all we know it’s never happened.

But is it something an addict does?  Every day.

The Hurt Locker is set among combat bomb disposal engineers.  But it’s not about them.  It’s not even necessarily about Iraq; the encroaching, paranoia-inducing civilians could have been Vietnamese or French or Japenese or Ukrainian or Gallic, for that matter.

It’s about men, and the relationship some of them have with war.

And it’s a great one.  Not “realistic”, perhaps – but then that’s not the point.

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Avalon? You mean Avatar?

Good piece, btw. Thanks!

John the Libertarian on March 6, 2010 at 1:39 PM

JtL – Er, yeah. Fixed it. Thanks, and thanks!

Mitch_Berg on March 6, 2010 at 4:29 PM

I’m a big fan of Bigelow and I got a copy when it first came out but I couldn’t watch it to the end. I also thought it was disrespectful to American serviceman. You can try to explain it all away by claiming that it wasn’t about Americans and it wasn’t about bomb disposal but that is pretzel logic.

Blake on March 7, 2010 at 1:48 PM