- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is an item from last July made more relevant by this movie winning a boatload of Oscars last night, including best picture, best director, and best screenplay:
My wife’s idea of a good time last weekend was going to see The Hurt Locker, the new movie about Army EOD techs (explosive ordnance disposal guys-that is, the bomb squadders) in Iraq. So off we went, faster than an EFP in Sadr City.
It’s a gripping movie, and I think it gets the emotions right. I also am guessing that it was good on the technical details of EOD work, since the credits listed an expert in that. The film was well-made, notably with persuasive bomb detonations — not just the usual Hollywood explosions of a cloud of fiery gas, but big rumbling blasts with lots of rocks and dirt and dust hurled your way. Also, they got lots of the American military in Iraq right-the feel of a FOB (forward operating base), even the look of the latrines. And they do the heat of Iraq and its trashy streets right. I think it is the best movie made about the Iraq war so far — the only one that comes close is The Situation, and that was more about journalists than about soldiers. Interestingly, both movies are set in the summer of 2004, when it was becoming clear that this thing was kind of a fiasco.
But there were enough mistakes on the details to keep me squirming in my seat:
- The squad appears to travel around alone in one Humvee. I have never seen that in Iraq. There always is a minimum of two, if only so one can tow the other, or if one gets hit, everyone can pile into the other.
- When they run into a group of British mercenaries in the desert, those guys also are in one vehicle. Not gonna happen, especially way out in the desert. I’ve been in the desert west of Najaf and watched Strykers get stuck in mud after a sudden burst of rain. You’d want a minimum probably of three vehicles.
- The Brits also would have identified themselves to the American soldiers a lot sooner, especially because they tended to see Americans as trigger-happy back then.
- The mercs tell the Americans they have caught two members of the deck of cards in Najaf. As if senior Baathists are going to hide out in Shiite Central, the home of the Mahdi Army. This would be like known KKK leaders seeking refuge in Harlem.
- Also, in the same scene, two EOD techs suddenly turn into an expert sniper team, getting a headshot with a .50 caliber Barrett at least 750 meters. This whole Brits-in-the-desert episode should have been dropped, which also would have improved the length of the movie, which is a half hour too long. (Several other technical details wrong with the weaponry in this scene are detailed by Internet Movie Data Base.)
- A colonel is way impressed with the bomb squad, which I am sure happens, but I doubt he’d be all slobbery. That’s just the Army culture that I’ve seen in Iraq. At any rate, any brigade commander also is going to be aware of the thousands of hairy situations his own guys have encountered, so isn’t likely to gush. Overall, the portrayal of officers in this film was kind of weird — they were mainly absent, but when present, they were laughable. Yes, I saw a few genuine dud officers in Iraq, but overall this is not the Army I know, or the relationship between NCOs and officers that I see.
- A combat trauma counselor is a big wanker. I am sure that there are some, but this guy seemed over the top. Not like the ones I’ve seen.
None of these missteps really diminished the movie as entertainment. In a way, they made it easier for me to watch it, because they diminished the intensity by reminding me that this is just a movie. On the other hand, like a clock that strikes 13, they did give me pause, pulling me out of the moment of the movie, again and again. I love it when the small details are right — it shows the moviemakers cared enough to get it right. It wouldn’t have cost much to hire a couple of non-EOD consultants.
Afterward, we went out for Middle Eastern food, which seemed appropriate. The restaurant actually served EFES, the Turkish beer my bureau would drink in Baghdad when Heineken wasn’t available. Back then I actually found EFES better because it was fresher — I suspect the Heineken spends an awful lot of time cooking in the desert en route.