“It may as well be a superhero movie,” Jason says as the smoke clears around Sgt. 1st Class William James. We’re watching The Hurt Locker, and the hero is about to prove his invincibility by disarming a daisy chain of Improvised Explosive Devices.
“Fuck this movie,” Jason adds.
“Are you going to be able to finish it?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he grumbles.
Jason Dawson, a man I’ve known since middle school, left the Marine Corps in the summer of 2007. While on active duty, he spent his time patrolling for IEDs in Iraq’s Al Anbar province. When his platoon found something suspicious, Explosive Ordnance Disposal techs — the real-life basis for the fiction Sgt. James — would disarm the bomb.
Jason would help guard EOD’s backs.
Not long after my friend returned to the States, director Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker became a cultural phenomenon. Released in the U.S. in 2009, the movie tells the story of a reckless bomb-disposal specialist during one of the bloodiest periods of the Iraq War. The Hurt Locker is widely applauded as a fantastic war film, one that gave normal citizens a taste of what life on the ground was like for soldiers and Marines.
But veterans hate it. It started a debate between servicepeople who say the movie didn’t deserve its accolades and apologists saying the former miss the point. The Hurt Locker won six Oscars. Ask any veteran how they feel about the movie if you’re interested in seeing a strong emotional reaction to art.
Box office bomb
I didn’t see the film when it was released, but Jason did, and his reaction to the movie was so visceral and angry that I avoided it. But I began to wonder. What made it so terrible? How is it possible that a movie so loved and lauded could be so hated at the same time? Art should make you react. It should move you. I needed to see it for myself, but I wanted a guide.
So I ask Jason to watch it with me. He rolls his eyes and agrees. I borrow a copy of the DVD and we sit down to watch it. Before we begin, I ask him to explain why he doesn’t like the movie.
“The Hurt Locker,” Jason says, “was not written for us. It was not produced or shot for us. It was shot for people back home who have a very John Wayne, cowboy-esque view, the Wild West view, of what goes on in Iraq. These are characters that you drummed up, from behind a desk, and then you put them through scenarios that you imagined about what it’s like ‘over there.’
“It’s insulting to see someone else’s interpretation of what we did. And then to have it win awards on top of it? The worst part of all it is, because service members come back and spread out, I don’t have any friends that were in. I have no one I can share the secret nod with and say, ‘Yeah, that movie sucks.’ Everyone loves the movie. But they’re sucking down fast food and thinking Gordon Ramsay made it.”
After that, I start the DVD. It takes us four hours.
We get two minutes in. Guy Pearce has not yet been liquified in his bomb suit before Jason pauses the DVD for the first time.
“We had to escort a major out,” he says. “Some of his captains and lieutenants, too. They wanted to go out and do an IED patrol with us. See what we do. So we went out to a water treatment facility. Previously, some insurgents had blown up one of the water lines that supplied the base, Al Asad, with fresh water. We discovered three or four IEDs set farther down the line from where they’d blown up their initial one. The major wanted to come out and see what was going on.
“So we did our job. Set up a cordon, pushed everyone back. Because you don’t know what’s underground. Until EOD clears it, until they say it’s okay, you have no idea what’s underneath your feet. So when you suspect a bomb, you cordon off the area and no one moves but EOD.
“Our major stepped out and said he wanted to see the bomb. He started walking towards it. So I saw these enlisted men, sergeants, screaming at officers to ‘Get the fuck back!’ Because they may kill all of us. Because they’re being stupid. They want to take a picture of the bomb and post it on their Facebook. That’s real life.
“So, in the movie, we see three EOD guys sitting around, talking about their dicks. It’s being treated like it’s a high school basketball game. What’s the point of that? When it comes to IEDs on the road, it’s deadly serious. You don’t know what’s around you.”
When a taxi breaks through the soldiers guarding the perimeter early in the film, Jason pauses again. “You see what the movie does? It depicts all the common soldiers as idiots. They can’t do their basic job. They can’t set up a proper cordon. They’re not the hero. They’re not the ultimate Billy Bad Ass. Everyone who isn’t William James is a bumblefuck. The movie wants you to believe that war isn’t a group effort. And that’s bullshit.”
After another hour of the movie and several more pauses to point out glaring inaccuracies, our hero William James is running through the streets of Baghdad trying to bring a child-killer to justice. Jason heaves a huge sigh. I look at him. He isn’t watching the movie any more. His mind is somewhere else.
“I think this ties into why I’m uncomfortable when people thank me for my service and call me a hero,” he says. There’s a look on his face. A look I have seen a hundred times. It’s the expression he wore when, at a party, someone finds out he was a Marine in Iraq and they shake his hand and thank him. It’s the expression my father wears when my mother prods him to talk about his experiences during the Vietnam War.
The expression is faraway and bewildered; they do not understand why people see them this way. They were doing a job. A job non-military people see as dangerous and noble. A job glamorized by movies like The Hurt Locker. A job more complicated that most of America can possibly understand. A job that deserves a more honest portrayal than The Hurt Locker gives it.
This is the moment I turn against the movie. Up to this point in the film, the audience has been given a non-narrative. We have seen the brash cowboy figure of William James disarming bomb after bomb in tense sequences that blatantly echo sexual congress. We have seen him endanger the lives of his fellow soldiers, then earn their trust by bonding the only way soldiers in the movie’s know how: killing the enemy.
When the good-intentioned, if foolish, Col. Cambridge joins the EOD soldiers on one of their missions, I know he’ll die and I know that Spec. Eldridge will blame himself for the death. Which is bullshit.
Cambridge and Eldridge are presented as incompetents. Unable to do simple tasks, like get a group of civilians to move or clean blood off of bullets, that the hero could do with a light flick of his wrist. And I feel nothing upon seeing Cambridge’s death and Eldridge's despair.
The moment has been force-fed to me; these characters have not earned the right to burden us with emotions. It’s disingenuous to ask us to care for characters presented as wooden in a world where one man has the agency.
And when his agency fails, when he falls short, when he turns out to be something other than a hero, I roll my eyes. William James is unable to bring the killer of children to justice. His brash actions get Eldridge shot during a rogue operation. And in the tritest metaphor for the Iraq War ever committed to screen, he is unable to disarm a vest of explosives padlocked to an innocent Iraqi citizen.
William James makes it home to his wife and child and the audience is treated to a few cursory scenes of his inability to adjust to civilian life. See the soldier trying to connect with his wife and failing. See the soldier befuddled by the number of cereal choices.
See the soldier jump right back into war.
Our parting shot is of our hero, who has failed, who got a fellow soldier injured and could not bring a child justice, returning to war. He’s effectively learned nothing.
What’s the audience supposed to make of this?
The opening of the movie quotes journalist Chris Hedges. “War is a drug.” The soldier is a junkie. For a moment it seems that the filmmakers are going to subvert the American rogue mythology. That they’ll show us what false heroics do to a soldier.
But in the end, they don’t. The story fails the audience by showing the antagonist learning nothing. The story fails its subject matter by exploiting their stories for box office and awards under the guise of portraying a true account of life for the soldier in the Iraq War.
“It’s shitty of them to do that,” Jason says as the credits roll. “To make us into heroes.”
“I thought it was vile,” I say.
“Vile,” he says. “You really didn’t like it?”
“I didn’t,” I say.
“Thank you,” he says.
They come back, these soldiers, these junkies and warhounds. They come back. And you live with them, laugh with them, buy them drinks and shake their hands. Some come back broken and some come back healthy, but all come back changed. Someday, a movie will come out, more honest than The Hurt Locker, that will tell us a story about what it was like for them.
That day is not today, and it certainly was not during the middle of the war when The Hurt Locker was released to critical acclaim. Until then, the best we civilians can do is give these returning warriors their space, try to understand and agree that, yes, The Hurt Locker is awful.
Matt previously wrote about Superman’s complicated relationship with the military. Subscribe to War is Boring: medium.com/feed/war-is-boring.