'Hurt Locker' Under Military Attack as Oscars Approach

Five days before the Oscars are awarded, what some people are calling "the best Iraq war movie to date" finds itself under attack.

"The Hurt Locker," a Best Picture nominee that portrays coalition soldiers disarming bombs in the heat of battle, is being criticized by some veterans and current members of the military, who say it presents them as being “too much John Wayne.” Moreover, the attack seems to have the outright support of the military itself, despite its endorsement by the secretary of defense.

Last week the Army arranged a series of interviews for the Los Angeles Times with enlisted men and officers who have questioned the authenticity of the movie and its depiction of the members of Army Explosives Ordnance Team (EOD) working in Iraq. The movie, written by a journalist, Mark Boal, who was embedded with an EOD in Iraq, focuses on the character of Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner, who becomes addicted to the adrenaline rush of his job, often to the detriment of his unit.

Several active EOD servicemen currently serving in Iraq told the Times that they disagreed with the film's depiction of their work. One said that the portrayal was amateurish, “the equivalent of a firefighter going into a building with a squirt bottle.” Another charged it was “too much John Wayne and cowboy stuff.”

But perhaps the most damaging claim, 18 months after the film’s release, was the revelation that just 12 hours before a military adviser was to have begun a stint as technical adviser to the film, the Army withdrew its support. According to the newspaper, the military adviser who was assigned to help the film’s makers was told that scenes being filmed in Jordan weren’t in the script provided to the military, a violation of the military's agreement with the filmmakers.

Both the adviser, Lt. Colonel J. Todd Brasseale, and Philip Strub, the Pentagon’s special assistant for entertainment media, argued that the effort to create drama overshadowed the need to accurately depict the workings of EOD accurately. “If you are looking for realism and how military relationships work, I believe she missed the mark,” Strub said of Kathryn Bigelow, the film's director. Bigelow, like her film, has been nominated for an Academy Award.

For the most part, criticism has focused on the character of Sgt. James, the movie's lead character. Ryan Gallucci, who served in Iraq in 2003 and now works for Amvets, a veterans' organization, said, “I thought the movie was great until the time they introduced the character played by Jeremy Renner. After that it was all downhill. I felt they portrayed the military in a negative fashion. I had to turn it off several times and, in the end, I was pulling for him to get blown up.” Renner is nominated for the Best Actor Award.

But supporters of the film, who include Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, argue that for the most part the movie got the atmosphere and the tension of the job correct -- even if some of the details don’t jibe with military protocol or procedures.

James Clifford, the movie’s adviser who served in military bomb disposal units for 28 years, argues that most of the criticisms of the movie “are differences without distinction,” and in every case were the result of decisions by the movie makers to emphasize a larger point.

For example one critic charged that the movie was ruined for her because the soldiers were wearing combat uniforms that weren’t being used in 2004, when the movie takes place. Others, including Gallucci, say that not having the EOD unit surrounded by other support units isn’t the way it worked in Iraq and that they would never travel independently in Baghdad or any other spot in Iraq. Alex Horton, for example, wrote on the ARMY of Dude blog that “the way the team goes about their missions is completely absurd,” but he added that it was still “the best Iraq war movie to date.”

Boal, the writer of the movie and another Oscar nominee, countered saying that they were not trying to make a documentary but a entertaining movie.