The Deconstruction of “The Hurt Locker”

(originally posted January 16, 2010) I’ve gotten a lot of requests to give my perspective on The Hurt Locker, I’m guessing as a double-edged sword, both for my penchant for writing movie reviews and my own military experience. It’s a sound request, I suppose, but one that borders on begging the question, “How much do you REALLY want to know?”

Stirring the pot of a veteran’s experience can trigger a lot of unwarranted or unwanted information. It’s primarily why a lot of vets don’t talk about their experiences. The level of input needed to be shared in order to get your point across is usually not worth the wind in your lungs. It’s just best to keep it locked away in that deep, damp, prison in your mind.

However, I’m going to try and not turn this into that, but will diverge into some rocky territory. Don’t be offended. You asked for it.

When I heard about The Hurt Locker being produced I was pretty excited. I am a big fan of Kathryn Bigelow’s films and to see her doing an Iraq War action film about EOD seemed like a perfect fit. After seeing the first trailer, my initial feelings were reinforced. This looked bad ass. The super slow motion shots, the grit, the energy. However, you can do a lot with a movie in a two-minute trailer to make it look great. That’s not news.

With great expectation and anticipation I was finally able to see The Hurt Locker and was left with a mixed bag of thoughts and feelings on it. I wish I could give it my blessing to those who are seeking it, but it’s far too complicated. I have felt that, more so than on any other subject, war films are more sought after for validation than any other. The likeliness of that is because not many people go to war and fight.

The Hurt Locker was written by Mark Boal (as well as the article that inspired the pile of shit “In The Valley of Ellah”) who was embedded with EOD for TWO WEEKS. That’s not enough time to really get into these guys heads and certainly not enough time to get into their true tactics and everything behind them.

Evan Wright, the author of Generation Kill, rode with the Marines for two months.

I had my own experiences with embedded journalists in Iraq, who were typically annoying and being put in charge of babysitting them is no fun. It’s a chore. One such journalist who decided he wanted to write a fictional book about American Soldiers in Iraq decided to hang out in Jurf, our sweet little outpost in Iraq, and did nothing but walk around on his own and whine about when we were going to eat again. I never saw him interview or do anything to gather information on what was really happening there.

Being a Soldier does not mean you go to Iraq or Afghanistan, pick up your M4, jump in HMMWV, and start blasting bad guys. That’s a combat Soldier and there’s a difference. More people sit on the FOB, doing what they’re supposed to do, but not what Joe Q. Public views as a Soldier’s job. What that creates is a true lack of general knowledge of what it really is like to be a Soldier in combat, because you just can’t know unless you’re there. That frustrates so many people. Even offends them. To say that they could never know what it is like to be a combat Soldier. Many believe that it is saying they don’t have the ability to comprehend war.

Well, guess what?

There’s only one way to find out and it’s not by watching a movie about it.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a car mechanic or a corporate executive. I can imagine. I can sympathize. I can empathize. But, I sure as hell can’t KNOW. Never done it. Have no training. No experience. Seeing it on TV or reading a book may give me some insight, but not the true knowledge.

I grew up on war movies and GI Joe. I read books about Navy SEALS and Army Rangers and Special Forces and put them up on the highest pedestal I could. What lingered in my brain every time I watched a war movie was how much was real and how much was bullshit. Could you really do that? Could you survive that? Would you know how to shoot that weapon? AND that one? Do you learn all the hand signals and martial arts in basic training? How do you know what everyone’s rank is?

So many questions and no Google at the age of ten. I had the Dewey Decimal System and a card catalog and a library that was bigger, longer, and wider than a football field to find the information I needed. For me, it was easier just to speculate and theorize with friends, but the nagging thoughts lingered. They lingered all the way up past a really bad day in September, which catapulted me to find the answer to all those zingers, starting at the Army Recruiting Station.

Certainly, I’m not saying that everyone must do what I have done (or the thousands just like me) to understand every plot point of Blackhawk Down and enjoy the ride. No, I’m saying that you simply must accept that you will always see those kinds of movies in a different light than someone who has been in similar circumstances for real and that you will NEVER know their vision unless you’ve experienced it yourself.

(Blackhawk Down, by the way, was the Top Gun of Army recruiting movies for the early 2000’s. It certainly poured a gallon of gasoline into my fire. Once that movie hit, everyone wanted to sign up to try out for Rangers. If only they explained how political THAT process is. Just another example of how movies can influence people.)

With all that being said, let’s take a look at the reason you’re here today. Sit down on the table, take off your shirt and take deep breaths for me.

The Hurt Locker opens with Guy Pearce and his two teammates, SGT Sanborn and SPC Eldridge as they are attempting to find and disable a reported explosive. Just another day at work for EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal, for the acronym-challenged). The technical work is there, but the tactical work is way off base. Within minutes I realize that I am going to be nit-picking the shit out of this movie, because the simplest research wasn’t done to just let me relax and enjoy the damn thing.

To the casual viewer, none of what I’m going to rip apart is going to make a lick of difference to you. But, to a Soldier, especially a combat Soldier, it means the world. Our names are dragged through the mud everyday on every dirty slice of media bread you can get your mitts on, so when we are subjected to another production about our “real” lives, it gets even more personal.

I was not EOD. I did not disarm bombs. My job was to seek and destroy the enemy, which means if EOD was ever going to even be called out, it would be from someone in my position (i.e. infantryman), because we found the bombs either by spotting them or getting blown up by them. It’s important to understand the process, because The Hurt Locker showcases these guys as rampant cowboys just driving all over the place looking for bombs. That’s not their job. It’s way more complex and deserves the respect it demands.

Typically, the way it happens is you either receive a tip, from a civilian or local police/army and investigate or you simply spot the IED (Improvised Explosive Device) yourself. At that point you will be staying with that bomb until it is taken care of. The area is secured and cordoned and THEN EOD is called, at which point they will take anywhere from 30 minutes to four hours to show up.

When they arrive you will point out where the IED is, etc. and they will commence their work while you protect them. It isn’t just three dudes rolling around in their HMMWV (what you call Humvee…actually stands for High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle) and just disarming shit.

EOD rarely uses the green suit. They have a series of wheeled robots (as seen in the film) which they use for everything. The opening sequence shows this process pretty well and is typical of just about every IED detonation that EOD is doing while you’re reading this sentence. (If you ever happen into my home, I will be happy to show you any number of videos I have of EOD doing its work on the IED’s we found in Iraq.)

The fact that they use the suit as much as they do in the film showcases the filmmaker’s love of the mysticism of army gadgetry vs. reality.

Anyways, Guy Pearce gets killed by falling down while running from an explosion. Weird. And so we are treated to Jeremy Renner as the new team leader of the EOD team. Typically, there are a few three-man teams in theater to work together. They kind of make Renner appear out of thin air. Renner is SSG (staff sergeant) or SFC (sergeant first class – I saw two rockers, people) James and he’s a stereotypical cowboy who does those bad boy things that audiences love so much like switching off the radio, flipping the bird, ignoring questions, and *gasp* taking off the cool bomb suit to “die comfortable.”

I’m sure EOD will attest that safety is its number one concern, not just for themselves, but everyone else in the area. The screening process to become EOD is extensive and the process to getting there even more so. Cowboys need not apply, trust me. Bottom line, as good as Renner plays it (and he is good) I wouldn’t want this dude coming to disarm an IED I found. Reckless is cool in movies. Reckless costs lives in real combat.

The film is structured in such a way that, well, there isn’t any. The three-man team doesn’t seem to have any high echelon of leadership or mission guidance. They don’t spend any time creating briefs or taking pictures of blast sites or doing any of the smaller pieces that make a huge impact to the line Soldiers. They just get drunk in their rooms and have clichéd conversations, while beating the shit out of each other.

The drinking bugs the shit out of me, because it’s illegal to drink alcohol in country. It’s simply not allowed. Have people done it anyway and gotten away with it? Absolutely. Do most people get caught? Absolutely.

Additionally, James befriends a local market kid who sells him some bad DVDs. The kid, obviously NOT an Iraqi, tries his best to sound like one, but ends up sounding like a kid trying to sound like a kid from Iraq and it’s weird. Whatever. Deep breath.

I think the lack of anyone giving these guys any kind of directive hurts the film and robs it of the complexity it so desperately needs. There is no accountability or consequences for these guys, whatsoever. You may be bored of some of my minute details, but I’m telling you, they make a difference, and in doing so, enhance the story. EOD does more than cut wires and sweat frantically. They also do a lot less than what is portrayed here.

SPC Eldridge, the junior man on the team, is played as an annoying, whiny specialist with proclivities to death. The scene of him playing Gears of War and then going all batshit on the Lieutenant Colonel who is trying to help counsel him would have landed him in mental health ASAP. Grabbing your M4 and racking the slide and then pulling the trigger again and again is not just a juvenile display of bravado emotions, but subject to some serious counseling while in-country, which starts with taking away that M4.

Hey, let’s drive around and blow more shit up! OKAY!The next scene we have is the new team, SSG James, SGT Sanborn, and SPC Eldridge just rolling out the gate all by themselves in one HMMWV. Now look, I realize 2004 is a little early in the war (which begs the question why they’re wearing the ACU uniform, which wasn’t in mass use until 2005), but that’s basically suicide.

Even if you have no experience in the military whatsoever, do you really think that a lone HMMWV rolling around in Baghdad by itself with no support and three Soldiers is a wise thing to do? Come on, now.

NOBODY leaves the wire (“leaving the wire” is when you leave your base…the only semi-safe place in-country) with just one truck and three dudes unless they are looking to be in a cheap looking video wearing an orange jump suit.

The scene at the U.N. in which Cowboy James (his new name for the rest of this review) disarms an intricate car bomb is decent enough, but I kept getting distracted by the fact that these three guys were the only ones around. We could surmise that troops are surrounding them and covering the area, but we never see it and that makes it rather unbelievable.

Bottom line is, EOD is protected when doing their work. The area is secure. They don’t have to worry about spotting bad guys with video cameras and pulling security. It’s NOT their job. So, the whole shit with Sanborn asking for constant sitreps (situation reports) is ridiculous. He would be just nearby, walking through the whole thing with Cowboy James, not spotting bad guys on rooftops.

Later we are treated to a scene of macho Soldiers being macho Soldiers by sucker punching each other in the tummy. It felt excessive, as if trying to show that they are attempting to replicate their “war high” by beating each other up and keeping the adrenaline going. It felt convenient to the film’s opening message that “war is a drug.” And yes, Soldiers beat the shit of each other regularly, but it’s a lot more brutal and long lasting than this silly shit.

And nobody even blinks an eye while Cowboy James is dragging a drunk Sanborn back to his hooch. “Nothing to see here…Just dragging my drunk Soldier buddy here back to his room…keep moving….”
Yeah, I’m sure no senior NCO’s would ask what’s going on with that…

The sniper scene is talked about as the most intense and cool scene of the movie. I’m sorry, but I was just baffled. Call it a hindrance of knowledge. A three-man EOD team in ONE FUCKING GUN TRUCK roll up on five or more armed personnel dressed like locals and they are going to take them prisoner? HA! EOD is not Delta Force boys and girls. They don’t stop bad guys in the desert. Also, why were they just driving around out there? I don’t know because I’m busy dribbling my forefinger between my lips and going bubbabubbabubba…

So, the guys dressed up are Lord Voldemort himself and his SAS themed group of mercenaries who have a flat and need a wrench. So, we have a little U.N. picnic and help each other out, but not before a sniper gets a bead and starts taking guys out. Now, the panic sets in and they light up the desert, which is plausible and real.

Then, Lord Voldemort gets out a Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle and attempts to locate the shooter(s), but gets waxed himself. Apparently, he was the only SAS (British Special Air Service, the equivalent of U.S. Army Special Forces) who knew how to shoot a Barrett, because all the boys he has left just freeze up. They call up to their headquarters to say they’re in trouble, which basically just gets them an acknowledgement and no picture of reinforcements or air assets.

LEST WE FORGET that our 3-man EOD crew don’t seem to have anyone to report to either as they are just out on a Sunday drive, so they just decide to man that Barrett and find the sniper themselves. Sanborn, who advises us early on that he’s a prior Intel guy, is somehow the only guy able to man and operate the Barrett. Either Intel has gotten more hands on than infantry of late or Sanborn has the best case of beginner’s luck I’ve seen since Daniel Fucking Laruso caught a fly with chopsticks, because he ends up smoking all the enemy snipers within a few minutes.

And then they wait. And wait. And wait. And drink a juice box. And wait. And wait. And then they leave.

Are you telling me that in 2004 they didn’t use radios to call to higher? That they didn’t request immediate support or QRF (Quick Reaction Force)? You’re smoking the devil’s lettuce if you believe that shit.

FYI: Anytime a unit is under fire (which they will report as soon as possible) ALL assets available will be sent to them, as needed, to include ground and air forces.

On their next mission out, the LTC who was counseling SPC Eldridge requests to join them on their mission. This is common, although you don’t coordinate that shit as you roll out the wire. We commonly allowed guys to roll out with us who weren’t allowed (allowed? This is a privilege?! Ha!) to go outside the wire as it was not their job.

But then, here we go again, as the super-duper 3-man EOD crew does every job in the Army as they arrive at their next mission. An entire Infantry platoon is there and yet EOD goes in and clears AN ENTIRE BUILDING by themselves, room to room. Total bullshit. Could it happen? Fuck yeah, any stupid shit can happen, but that doesn’t mean that the wrong answer should be portrayed onscreen, because that’s not how it is typically done.

Anyways, they find this kid, who Cowboy James thinks is the DVD kid from earlier and after pulling some explosives from his guts, he disarms it and carries him out. The scene feels contrived, trying too hard to evoke a response rather than portray an action. Like Willem Dafoe’s dance of death in Platoon, the death of a Soldier turned into an operatic ballet of deceit. I get it, were watching a movie, it’s supposed to have creative techniques and striking visuals and blah, blah, blah, but when you feel like you’re getting hit over the head, you’re probably getting hit over the head.

Cowboy James, now pissed about the death of his porn DVD selling haji kid friend decides to go off the deep end. Motherfucker puts on a hoodie, grabs his 9 mil and hijacks the haji-kids market buddy and tells him to drive to the boy’s house. Say what, karaoke???

So, let’s stop for a minute, ‘cause I know you are probably winded from this long ass review that you just wanted to know if I liked this fucking movie or not and didn’t need all this boring Army bullshit tactics and techniques and God, can’t you just watch a movie and like it for what it is and no, motherfucker, I can’t because this shit is personal. Boom.

Take a breath. Put your shirt back on. Let’s continue.

So, the hijacked haji and Cowboy James arrive at the boy’s house. Somewhere in Baghdad (By the way, does it seem realistic to you, my dear civilian, that a Soldier could just up and leave his base and go wherever, without telling anyone? I’m genuinely curious). Cowboy James busts in the house and confronts an old man who thinks he is CIA and then is attacked by an old woman, causing him to run from the house, IN THE STREETS OF BAGHDAD, wearing ACU pants and a hoodie, carrying a 9 mil pistol. And he just runs, like Forest Gump, through the streets, a U.S. Army Caucasian Soldier with no gear or back up…straight to the front door of his FOB, where he is allowed in after lying that he was at a whorehouse and that he will tell the guy in charge where it is if he keeps his mouth shut. In-fucking-sanity!

Look, I know that crazy shit happens. It does. I get that. Sometimes, weird circumstances and backdoor dealings and la-de-freakin’-da. But, for all that to happen in a two-hour movie is a bit much for me to swallow.

The grand finale of absurdity comes at the end, when after they receive a call to do a post-blast assessment, a very real and likely scenario, ol’ Cowboy James decides to chase down the bad guys with his three-man Delta Force SpecOps EOD team. For one split second, though, I thought that they may have come to their senses when Sanborn temporarily stops James and brings up the point that there are a couple platoons worth of infantry guys on the scene whose job it is to hunt down bad guys.

Not good enough for ol’ James. He needs that adrenaline. For a second, I think he referred to Sanborn as Johnny Utah and asked to be called Bodhi, and that they were gonna grab their surfboards and chase down the bank robbers by themselves. Wait, what?

So, in the dead of night, WITHOUT TELLING A SOUL WHERE THEY ARE GOING, Cowboy James and his bad ass crew go running after bad guys, even though they have no eyes on them, no real clue as to where they are, they just go running into the night, looking for anyone. Then, even with only three guys, they split up, and ol’ SPC Eldridge vanishes.

Cowboy James comes around the corner and sees two bad guys carrying Eldridge and he decides to lay waste to all of them, shooting Eldridge in the leg. Then, y’know, job done, they shot two dudes with haji masks and AK’s, so they must have been the ones who planted the bomb, right? It’s this kind of shit that just turns what could have been a damn fine portrait of an EOD team in action into a joke. EOD DOES NOT CLEAR BUILDINGS OR CHASE BAD GUYS.

To the casual viewer, you may be saying, “Well, I don’t care, it’s JUST a movie, I don’t need to know all that stuff…”

To which I say, “Spoken like a true ignorant American.” Since when did the facts and reality become so blasé? Oh, that’s right, it’s commonplace now. All we need to know about American Soldiers is what we see on the b-roll video behind Wolf Blitzer.

As they load SPC Eldridge into a medevac chopper and go to say their goodbyes, he tells Cowboy James to go fuck himself and to me, I was cheering for him. Because I would have laughed myself to tears if he would have thanked him, which the movie up to that point would lead me to believe could happen. No, he tells James that he’s reckless and stupid and an asshole and he’s right. James is a fucking asshole. Not a hero or an awesome, cool guy. If every EOD team leader acted like that then our Troops would be in a lot of fucking trouble, believe me.

The end sequence has an aborted attempt to save an unwilling suicide bomber. Cowboy James can’t save him and they’re forced to just let him blow up. It’s a decent and realistic scene, although it could easily have played in many different ways. As it is, though, is fine.

Sanborn and James’s last exchange in the HMMWV after the mission is an attempt to get to the root of each character, asking why James is the way he is and Sanborn finally breaking down that he’d like to go home and start the baby factory. It hits on one truth, and that is that every time you leave the wire it’s life or death. One of my Soldiers in Iraq put it better: “Every day we roll out is like Russian Roulette.”
That is truth in a handgun.

The most profound, true, and real scenes of The Hurt Locker are when James returns home. At the grocery store, staring at the wide colorful swath of cereal boxes aligning the aisle, left with all these choices that are so trivial. It’s the first time in the movie we see so many colors. And that’s how it feels coming back to the states. The colors are blinding. And when you really think about what you’re looking at, the big decision, Cheerios or Lucky Charms, compared to the decisions of cutting a red or blue wire, you have to ask, what the fuck has my life come to?

It’s not so much that war is an addiction. It’s a purpose. You have a mission. Every minute of every day, you have a goal you are working towards and you never know what each new day will bring. When you are faced with that kind of operational tempo for 12 months or longer at a time, shopping for cereal on a “day off” is one of the most frustrating and monumentally depressing things you are faced with.

And in the end, the best scene of the film, which speaks volumes about the way of war, the way of life for a combat Soldier, comes as James plays with his infant son. James comments on how his son loves all his toys and his parents and everything, but that as he gets older he will come to love things less and less until he only loves certain things. And he confesses to his son that he now only loves one thing.

Cut to James redeploying on another tour and we know that he loves his job, loves having a purpose, a direction, and not being stuck in the mundane, risk of death be damned. This is a true and honest sentiment of so many Soldiers. Ask any COMBAT Soldier how he feels after a month of being back in the states and he will likely tell you that he’d rather be back in Iraq. It’s not an addiction. It’s not Johnny Utah jumping out of an airplane. It’s a pattern, a way of life, a source of pride, a meaning, which puts so much on the line that only those who were there can truly grasp the gravity of, and it makes you yearn to be back amongst the fray, where things make sense amongst confusion, where you don’t have to worry about what cereal to buy.

War, to a combat Soldier, is a purpose. It is HIS purpose. It’s not a political choice. It is the reason he lives and breathes, for better or for worse. A Soldier is given a task and he works that task until complete. To that end, The Hurt Locker succeeds in showing that, albeit in many, many unbelievable ways.

So, did I like the movie? Not really, no. I was pretty hard on it here, it seems, but the bottom line is that when something so personal is depicted onscreen you can’t help but be critical. A movie, in itself, has a huge impact. It’s easier to watch a two-hour depiction of a “true story” or factual event than to read a book about it or do serious research on the subject or even talk to the real people about it. So, when people who are otherwise unaware equate something they saw in a movie as real and true, especially something as profound as a Soldier’s life, then it becomes personal.

Not caring about the details costs us everything.

The Hurt Locker is entertaining, well shot, and engaging. It’s inaccurate more than accurate and the story is contrived and illogical. The overall theme is relatively true and the last five minutes are the best of the entire movie.

In the end, you could do a lot worse than this movie (Stop Loss, anyone?), but if you want to see what it’s really like, really get into the hearts, minds, situations, and realities of modern war, I recommend Generation Kill, the HBO mini-series that kind of swept away in the breeze as many grew “tired” of the war (even though they weren’t even fighting it…strange they are so battle weary). Generation Kill speaks truth. The Hurt Locker speaks fiction, masked as reality.

4 Responses to The Deconstruction of “The Hurt Locker”

  1. .Mark S November 4, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    Naturally as a fellow infantryman I agree with you on over 98% of the review as it was presented. However, I have work daily with a few EOD techs (who hate the movie) and I must say..suprisingly I find most of them to be mentally unstable and perhaps …..cowboys.
    Hell..FOB Salerno produced more dead EOD techs than soldiers of any other MOS, unless you consider the lazy ass rangers dying in their tent combat losses.

  2. Paul Shirey November 8, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named is a combat loss. That being, said I think it takes a certain mentality to want to dismantle bombs. We lost two EOD techs, both senior leadership withing 15 MINUTES of each other at the same location in Iraq. Neither was wearing the green suit. Strangely enough, I was watching the National Geographic show “Bomb Hunters,” which featured the 23rd Engineers from Alaska (shout out!) and is as real as it comes. I would recommend to anyone seeking out the reality of the Hurt Locker by watching “Bomb Hunters” to see the real deal.

  3. Dan M. August 6, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this review. I am prior service Army, and even though I wasn’t infantry, I was on a QRF team for about 3 months; I was in country during the whole surge thing in 2007 -2008. I actually saw the Hurt Locker when I returned home, and I thought it was absolutely insane! I think the first thing that struck me was how these 3 guys seemed to work with complete autonomy; they came and went as they pleased. That sniper scene almost made me turn off the movie. And finally, that scene where cowboy James goes off the FOB without a vehicle (wearing a hoodie, I think) to look for someone/something… I think my brain just shut off.

  4. Brettb November 16, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    Thanks for giving us a more realistic review. When dealing with war movies, detail and realism of cinematography and storyline are critical. I also had to chuckle at how EOD techs take over the Barrett and, more interesting, the leadership from the special ops guys! In that type of combat situation where you have much older, hugely experienced contractors/SF types there is no doubt which group will take the lead. The EOD guys would have never come across this situation before, whereas the SF guys (who were correctly portraid as a older) have been dealing with contact situations for most of their careers. I actually think Hollywood decided not to put American SF/pvt contractors in, instead giving them comonwealth type accents, because it would have created too much of a controversy and negatively impacted on movie sales.

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