The Hurt Locker and Realism

I was at brunch on Sunday and the discussion of which Oscar movie you were pulling for came up — either The Hurt Locker or Avatar.

This happens every year when it’s apparent the Oscar race will be primarily between two movies and all others should just sit on the sidelines.

Which is fine.

I told my friend that if I had to choose between one of those two movies it would be The Hurt Locker. Which then segued into a conversation about the movie’s realism.  To be sure, I’ve long suspected there is nothing realistic about the movie, though it is a fine work of action/suspense film making by Kathryn Bigelow.

Which in turn raises another question of what is a movie’s responsibility? To entertain? To reflect reality? Both?  Are there certain obligations when making certain types of movies? The Hurt Locker is the perfect intersection of all of these questions.

Coincidentally, the New York Times’ Lens blog features an essay by photographer/videographer, Michael Kamber, who has been covering bomb squads in the Iraq War over the last six years. He says The Hurt Locker is completely unrealistic.  And then proceeds to tear the movie a new one.  And the thing is I completely agree with Kamber as much as I found The Hurt Locker to be riveting cinema.

If you’re writing and directing a war movie (as Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow have done) then you owe it, not to your audience, but to the soldiers you’re essentially piggy-backing on to get it right.

E.O.D. teams are highly specialized. They do not fire sniper rifles, clear buildings full of insurgents, single-handedly engage a squad of enemy combatants or drive the streets of Iraq alone. What they do in reality is amazing enough: one of the most nerve-wracking and dangerous jobs on earth. It is done a disservice by this degree of dramatization.

When a filmmaker gets that many details wrong, it’s hard to believe she got the war right. “The Hurt Locker” is not a drama about a make-believe event. This is a movie about an ongoing war that has affected millions, in which 100,000 Americans are still serving. It deserves a minimal degree of historical accuracy and attention to detail.

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