Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Movie Review: The Hurt Locker

EOD: "Explosive Ordnance Disposal", the military's "bomb squad".

IED: "Improvised Explosive Device", could be simple or sophisticated.

UXO: "Unexploded Ordnance", anything that goes "boom" that didn't when it should have or hasn't yet, and threatens our military or civilians.
The continuing development of foreign and US high-technology munitions that disperse numerous submunitions and area denial ordnance has led to the proliferation of UXO. These munitions are available for a range of weapons systems, including artillery, ballistic and cruise missiles, rockets, and bombs. On the battlefield, UXO can be conventional HE [high explosive]; chemical, biological, or nuclear ordnance; or IEDs. UXO limits battlefield mobility, denies the use of critical assets, and threatens to injure or kill soldiers at levels unprecedented in past wars.
--US Army Field Manual 9-15, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Service and Unit Operations, dated May 8, 1996
After lighting a fuse to detonate an explosive charge, you walk swiftly away. You do not run. If you have to run, it's too late.
--A USMC EOD Staff Sergeant, spoken (as close as I can remember after 21 years) at an EOD demonstration I witnessed aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, 1991

Kathryn Bigelow's 2008 film The Hurt Locker (IMDB), winner of the Best Picture Oscar at the 82nd Academy Awards and five others, tells the tale of the last six weeks of deployment of a US Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal company in Iraq during 2004, specifically a three-man team comprised of Sergeant First Class (SFC) William James (Jeremy Renner), the team leader, Sergeant (SGT) J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and Specialist (SPC) Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). The screenplay was written by Mark Boal, who was an embedded journalist during 2004 in Iraq with an Army EOD unit. The script is largely based on his observations, interviews, and time spent in Iraq, and he was also awarded the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

I sat down to watch the DVD of the film having read just a basic plot overview and knowing that it had been awarded Best Picture. I purposefully did not read any published or viewer reviews before watching to maintain as an open mind as I could to the film, although I will readily admit to a pre-viewing skepticism of its worth based solely on the simple fact that it was recognized by Hollywood as the Best Picture of that year. Given Hollywood's general disdain for things military and patriotic, a movie that both accurately portrays the brave men and women of our military and puts their actions in a positive light is a dubious proposition in my opinion.

That said, a well-made movie about the military and combat is possible, despite present-day Hollywood proclivities. For The Hurt Locker, I was hoping for a little more We Were Soldiers and less Platoon, to use two polar-opposite perspective Vietnam War movies as examples. What did I find?

Fair warning: a few of the items I'll be expanding on could be construed as "spoilers"; if you haven't seen the film and still intend to, proceed at your own risk.

Before plunging into the specifics, let me shed a little light on my own personal perspective. My own military experience was a brief one. I was a non-scholarship Naval ROTC Marine-option Midshipman from 1989-1992, and attended a full six-weeks at the USMC's Officer Candidates' School in 1990. My military career that I had originally intended for myself didn't come to pass thanks largely to the "peace dividend" at the end of the Cold War. I am not a combat veteran, but I do keep up with military issues, have multiple friends and acquaintances who have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and have probably read as much World War I-to-present military history and information as any civilian for whom following defense issues isn't their livelihood. As I indicated in my recent review of this year's film Act of Valor, this predisposition makes watching entertainment product with the military as subject matter difficult for me. I probably know more about the real world in this area than I should, at least if I expect to go through a film without saying, "That isn't right."

EOD work is among the most hazardous in the military, even in peacetime. It requires nerves of steel, hence the walking away from a lit fuse rather than running. From people I've met and interacted with who have done EOD work there is certainly an air of invincibility about them, a certain cockiness. You'd have to have that, in order to defuse something that if you screw up is going to obliterate yourself and everything in a tens-of-meters radius or more. Our Nation's conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan has embedded the term "IED" into the lexicon of most Americans, and it's the EOD techs who defuse the bombs to protect both soldiers and civilians.

I was introduced to Explosive Ordnance Disposal and the men that perform it at Marine Corps Base Quantico in 1991. The Marines giving the briefing and demonstration of their work were obviously consummate professionals, and certainly had the cockiness I describe above. What follows is a paraphrase, but is as close to a direct quote from the same EOD Staff Sergeant who said "walk, don't run":
Let me make one thing absolutely clear: we are not combat engineers. We both use explosives to do our jobs though. What's the difference? Well, look at this big old tree over here [points]. If you ask a combat engineer to take that tree out, he'll pull out his little manual which will tell him that this much C-4 placed this high above the ground on a tree of that diameter will take the tree down. If you ask me to take that tree down with explosives, I'm going to turn to my friend Dave over here [turns to his fellow Marine leaning against the front fender of their HMMWV] and say, "Hey Dave! How much powder do we have in the truck?"
So, my hope for a film with the subject matter and setting of The Hurt Locker was for an honest portrayal of what EOD troops do with minimal caricature and agenda pushing. Their daily life, in peace or war, doesn't need any amplification of its reality to make it exciting. Sadly, The Hurt Locker is not that, but a badly blended tale of not-so-latent anti-war sentiments, combined with portrayals of service members as either borderline insane, hopelessly adrenaline-addicted, or incredibly naive.

The Hurt Locker opens with a quote on screen from Chris Hedges' book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (which, in interests of full disclosure, I haven't read):
The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.
The words fade to black, except for the last four, which pretty well establishes that any hopes of an overall portrayal of our soldiers as dedicated professionals - a "warrior class", as I like to characterize them - evaporate twenty seconds into the film, and I think the next two hours or so of viewing bears that out.

Regardless, the opening scene of the film features the one character who, albeit briefly, is shown consistently as a professional who fully knows his job: Staff Sergeant (SSG) Matthew Thompson (Guy Pearce). SSG Thompson is the original leader of the EOD team consisting of himself, Sergeant Sanborn, and Specialist Eldridge. They are faced with an assumed IED that turns out to be a 155mm artillery shell that is rigged to be remotely detonated.

After watching the film as prep for writing this, I downloaded a copy of the Army Field Manual for EOD (quoted above, referred to hereafter simply as FM 9-15; page numbers are Chapter-Page, not page ranges) to back-check my preconceptions of soldiers who do this work and how they do it. One of the first things I dispelled for myself was thinking that a three-man EOD unit was unrealistic; turns out that's exactly the real-world case (FM 9-15, page 1-8).

Staff Sergeant Thompson's methods and actions are completely consistent with current US Army doctrine for EOD: he assesses the risk, develops a plan of action, deploys his team, uses a remote method (a bomb robot) to determine what they're dealing with, and only after the robot fails, puts on the blast protective suit to take direct action (FM 9-15, pages 5-4 through 5-11). Thompson doesn't last long (sorry, Guy Pearce fans) as he's killed when an insurgent detonates the IED using a cell phone. Thompson's death affects both Sanborn and Eldridge, as one would expect by the death of a colleague. SGT Sanborn is shown standing silently mourning over the crate containing Thompson's personal effects reflecting, I think, on the tragedy of Thompson being killed just weeks before the end of their tour. SPC Eldridge blames himself for Thompson's death because he had spotted the man holding the cell-phone trigger before the blast, had him in his gun sights, and didn't fire.

Thompson is replaced by SFC James as the team leader, who says to Sanborn and Eldridge that he isn't there to change things, just to get through the next six weeks so they can go home. Well, it would be a pretty boring movie if the new leader just wanted to get by for six weeks, so he spends the next two hours of film pretty much ignoring everything in FM 9-15, much to the distress of Sanborn and Eldridge, who were used to the by-the-book operations under Thompson, and clearly by the characterization of them had read the field manual and took it to heart. Yes, I realize this is a movie. Yes, I realize that if they did it "real-for-reel" one-hundred percent it would probably be frighteningly boring. But, come on, the character of Sergeant Sanborn who's been in country for almost a year and lived to tell the tale is going to let a renegade get him killed in his last six weeks without saying anything to an officer (none of whom you ever see) in the chain of command? Where's the platoon leader? Where's the company commander? Eh, who cares? We [the filmmakers] need to make the military look like it's full of psychopaths whose behavior is tolerated, if not encouraged!

Repeatedly, our three EOD techs seem to be out either in Baghdad streets or literally the middle of nowhere with no supporting units around. In their first IED disposal with James leading them, there are other soldiers around, but rather than them helping James, Sanborn, and Eldridge by securing the area, spotting snipers, etc. most of them are hiding in an alley under cover. Sorry, I just don't buy that. Next, they're called to a UN building that has a suspected car bomb parked by it. Amazingly enough, again, all the other soldiers and security forces manage to vanish from the scene, leaving Sanborn and Eldridge to cover an indefensible position with multiple blind spots and perceived threats from observers who could be insurgents while James disarms the car bomb. Oh, and need I mention that following FM 9-15 would likely have had them destroy a car bomb in-place rather than attempt to defuse it, especially since an insurgent set it aflame with assault rifle-fire prior to them trying to inspect it and find out what they were up against?

Later on, our three heroes are dispatched to a warehouse that is a suspected insurgent stronghold and IED factory. Did the forces who discover the building clear it? No. Do they go in with the three EODs to clear it? No. In go the three lead characters to do the whole thing themselves. The ridiculousness of this is shown all the more when later, at a night scene of an exploded tanker truck that SFC James thinks is the result of a command-detonated bomb, Sanborn protests when James wants to charge off into the dark looking for the insurgent who triggered the blast, saying that it isn't their job to "go hunting" and that there are three infantry platoons coming to do the job. Heck, if I had written the script the next line for SFC James would have been something like, "Well Sergeant, we've been doing the infantry's job for the last 90 minutes of script in addition to our own, why do you want to stop now?"

But wait, there's more! I haven't mentioned the two most ridiculous characters in the entire film. First, we meet Colonel Reed (David Morse) who we see on a Baghdad street with his infantry unit during one of the IED disposals. He alternates between sadistic war monger (refusing to allow his soldiers to aid a wounded Iraqi civilian - maybe an insurgent, maybe not - who might survive if gotten to proper care) and giddy groupie as he prods SFC James to tell him how many bombs he's defused. Can anybody really believe that this is an accurate portrayal of an officer who probably had been in uniform for 20-25 years at least? That as a relatively senior commander he'd have so little regard for the lives of civilians and care for the wounded? An officer who more likely than not was a combat veteran as a junior officer from the early 1990s? That he would have had zero exposure to EOD up until then in their career (remember back to the beginning of the post - I got an EOD briefing and demonstration as an officer candidate on a weekend trip)? Oh, and memo to the filmmakers: colonels command regiments or brigades, it's highly implausible that they'd be leading a foot patrol. The filmmakers went out of the way to portray a commander in a position of authority as less than admirable; more demented cartoon than colonel.

Then there's Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) John Cambridge (Christian Camargo), a psychiatrist who is counseling SPC Eldridge in the wake of SSG Thompson's death and his resultant survivor's guilt. LTC Cambridge chimes in with helpful advice like telling Eldridge that "war can be fun". Yes, that's a quote. Really? Really?!? A doctor who is treating the mental health of our soldiers is going to tell them that their traumatic experiences in combat should be or have been fun? From the perspective of the political left and the filmmakers, I suppose that's what they would have them told, since the military of course is just in the business of training cold-blooded unfeeling killers who murder at will and not professional warriors who do their duty.

I will give the filmmakers - the location people and set-dressers in particular - kudos for portraying the "feel" of what combat situations in Baghdad must have been like, at least what I imagine they could be like. They certainly capture the fear and uncertainty of not knowing who is the enemy and who isn't. In almost all the cases where the soldiers are trying to uncover an IED, there's trash and debris all over the area. You can't tell what's just junk and what's something that's about to blow up, or when you think they've disarmed a bomb whether or not there's more hidden. That was done well, except for one occasion. The one time the makers fail dismally is when there's a white sack in the middle of an open area with nothing around it. Really. It's the cleanest piece of real estate in all Baghdad. I'm looking at the screen and I'm saying, "there's a bomb!" The camera zooms in on it too. Perhaps it's because there was no trash around that even our heroes didn't become alarmed at its presence. The most obvious "someone's about to be blown up" moment happens as LTC Cambridge takes a happy stroll (because war is fun, remember?) right up to the sack and is then merrily (again, fun!) converted into bomb debris.

The film's character development is also quite schizophrenic. SFC James goes from shooting out the window of a taxicab with his pistol, to sticking the pistol against the forehead of the driver while threatening to pull the trigger, to befriending an Iraqi boy who sells pirated DVDs on their base - and reacts irrationally when he thinks the boy has been killed. SGT Sanborn goes from professional soldier, to "we need to kill SFC James and make it look like an accident", to I need to get out of the Army and become a dad. It's all just wildly inconsistent. At least SPC Eldridge stays mostly consistent as a character throughout, but he comes across like the "new guy" and fish-out-of-water rather than someone who's been in a war zone for almost a year already - think Charlie Sheen in the first 30-40 minutes of Platoon.

As I said earlier, Explosive Ordnance Disposal is an incredibly hazardous line of work, even while not in a combat zone. For what it's worth, The Hurt Locker does a fair job of portraying those risks and the raw courage and skill required by the servicemen who perform those duties. I just wish it hadn't been encased in so much drivel. I'm not asking for the 130 minutes of my life back that I spent watching it, but I am glad that I got the DVD from my local public library rather than renting or buying it. I think it speaks to the poor condition of Hollywood's products in the respect that reward is found through compliance with a particular political view that The Hurt Locker was honored as Best Picture, especially when one its competition was Disney-Pixar's brilliant Up (the only other nominee from that year that I've seen). I thus rank The Hurt Locker as a clear Oscar rip-off. Ms. Bigelow became the first woman to be named Best Director for her work, and call me cynical, but I have to say that the award was political in the aspects both of her gender and the film's content. No offense to her or other female directors, I just didn't find the movie that good.

I may be way off base. It may be that the men and women who fought in Iraq and continue to fight in Afghanistan are like the portrayals in The Hurt Locker. I really don't think that's the case. It may be that Mr. Boal's time in Iraq is accurately reflected in every second of the film made from his script, but again, my own instinct and interaction with combat veterans tells me otherwise. The Hurt Locker could have been so much more than it is without an underlying agenda. Want to make a good or great movie about our brave men and women in uniform? My advice: play it straight.

The Hurt Locker is rated "R" for both language and violence. In my opinion the violence and gore level is maybe a bit worse than I recently saw in Act of Valor. The profanity level is extreme to say the least. If there's one thing they got 100% right, it's that servicemen have salty language. Nothing in either area struck me as over-the-top for a present-day war film.

Blogger's note: I was encouraged to see The Hurt Locker and write a review by Rich Mitchell, President & Senior Managing Editor of ConservativeDailyNews.com, based upon my Act of Valor review and the other things I've written here at Their Finest Hour. I'd like to thank Rich for the "assignment that wasn't really an assignment", for his kind words about the content I've generated here, for listing Their Finest Hour on his site, and for having me as a guest on the Internet radio show he co-hosts with Michelle Ray, easily one of the best people I've had the good fortune to interact a lot with via Twitter. Thanks much to both of them!

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