Ten years ago, they walked down the red carpet to the lights of camera flashes, as reporters and photographers shouted out their names; they were about to make cinema history. The cast and director of the worst movie ever released were about to walk away with an astonishing six Oscars. After the premiere of The Hurt Locker in 2009, it was nominated for an impressive nine academy awards. Surprisingly though, this Iraq War drama, which was somehow beloved by Hollywood, was hated by service members and veterans alike. After nine years of active-duty service and two combat deployments to Iraq, I can undoubtedly concur. If you happened to miss this gem when it premiered, consider yourself lucky. The film follows a US Army explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) team through their year-long harrowing combat deployment. The problem with The Hurt Locker is that nothing in this film was even remotely accurate in regard to the Iraq war, the Army, the stressors of combat, or the obvious one – EOD.
The film is centered on the loose cannon character of Staff Sergeant James, played by Jeremey Renner, as a fearless and reckless EOD team leader. Set during the height of the insurgency in Iraq, the film highlights the dangers of combat and plays to the suspenseful anticipation of diffusing a bomb. The movie opens in an intense scene with the clearing of a suspected improvised explosive device (IED) along an Iraqi roadside. In stunning cinematography, the magnitude of a 155mm artillery shell being detonated by an enemy insurgent is felt directly through the screen. Unfortunately, that’s where the beauty ends. Insert Staff Sergeant James; the film takes an immediate turn for the worse and never looks back. Renner’s character is the Martin Riggs (Lethal Weapon character) of the U.S. Army that defuses every bomb in the most cinematic clichés of wire cutting and ticking timers. In between ridiculous encounters with IEDs, the three-man EOD team traipses through Iraq completely alone, getting into firefights, clearing massive buildings, and, oh yeah, operating as a highly-skilled sniper team as well. Totally plausible. Then, to drive the final nail in the reality coffin, Staff Sergeant James dons a hoodie, grabs a pistol, and runs off into the Iraqi night. The premise of the entire film is based on Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of a lone “warrior” who operates on his own program. This cowboy attitude is visited over and over again as Staff Sergeant James ignores procedure and risks the safety of himself and his team at every corner. The storyline never seems to fully develop, and the plot is probably still lost somewhere in the Iraqi desert. The only viable option that is apparent throughout the film is that Renner’s character is an adrenaline-seeking war junkie that needs, well, war. It seems that some actually shared my assessment and confusion, long before the film even hit the U.S. A film critic for Variety explained, “But whether it’s the adrenaline rush, a death wish, macho posturing or just ‘doin’ a job’ that drives these men is little clearer by the end than it is at the beginning” (Elley, “The Hurt Locker”). The film attempts to dive into the psychological aspects of combat but slams headfirst into the shallow end.
I am still at a loss on what film critics saw in this picture and how it racked up nine academy award nominations, winning best picture, best director, and best screenplay, along with three other Oscars. One critic even acclaimed, “Combining intellectual and philosophical ambition with gut-wrenching, visceral action, The Hurt Locker is unquestionably one of the best films of 2009” (Rocchi, “The Hurt Locker”). After reading many of these reviews, it’s as if we were watching different films. I have been a fan of director Kathryn Bigelow before in iconic films like Point Break, and in her later Oscar award-winning Zero Dark Thirty. Unfortunately, this film just missed the mark for me and many others. Task and Purpose is a military and veteran-focused digital media company that sat down with an actual Army EOD technician and Afghanistan War veteran to reflect on how the film and more specifically, Jeremy Renner’s character, portrayed his beloved profession. Kollin Knight, who may not have been eloquent, but was most certainly accurate, was reported saying, “…you’re just like, what the fuck?” when describing how he felt throughout the film. When asked directly about the legitimacy of the character Staff Sergeant James, he replied, “A toolbag idiot” (James, “Here’s Why ‘The Hurt Locker’ Is The Worst War Movie Of All Time”). I’m not at all ashamed to say that I fully agree with his sentiments.
It would be a lengthy process to describe all the different nuances of this film that make up a blundering list of inaccuracies and demonstrate a complete disregard for any realism. A simpler explanation would be a version of Top Gun, in which Tom Cruise takes his fighter jet out alone, while not wearing a helmet or oxygen mask, and shoots down enemy planes by firing a pistol from the cockpit. Oh, and when he’s not flying at Mach 1, he’s captaining the aircraft carrier and reprograming the rescue helicopter’s control panel. He does this all because he can’t let go of Goose, loves the Navy, and just needs to go fast.
There is an opening quote in this film by journalist Chris Hedges that states, “[W]ar is a drug”. I think the majority of viewers and critics bought into that inkling so much they overdosed on it. However, those of us who have actually been to war, don’t appreciate it when Hollywood panders to the horrors of conflict for the rise of an audience. If this movie would have been presented for what it is, then it might have resonated differently among military and combat veterans, but it didn’t. It tried to be so much more than what it was. It tried to be dark and edgy and explore the psychological effects of combat and post-traumatic stress. It misrepresents the Middle East in stereotypical settings, downplays, if not dismisses all together, the professionalism of true warriors, and paints an inaccurate and unfavorable image of the mental health issues our service members and veterans still struggle with today. Sometimes directors come up short. Every now and then, studios pick the wrong screenplay. Occasionally, actors are just miscast. Seldom though, does all of Hollywood fall in love with such a horrible film. Maybe, I’m just standing too close. This may not have been the worst film ever made, but it most certainly wasn’t deserving of six, yes, count them, six Academy Awards. Not even close.