The Hurt Locker : Truth in the Fiction

Isn't it ironic? A Hollywood movie focuses the media away from Kate Gosselin's hair extensions and into a belated frenzy of soldier interviews and Iraq War fact checking. If only this determination to get it right had preceded the invasion.

Excluding some excellent memoirs by Iraq veterans and despite some technical inaccuracies, The Hurt Locker captures more existential truth about the conflict than you'll find anywhere.

A good story is the sum of a series of decisions about what to tell and where in the narrative structure to tell it. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal were right to focus on explosions as the signature experience of the war. The high wire, without-a-net tensions that attend the film's Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit are a perfect microcosm of the endless, metaphorical booby-traps laid by negligent war planners.

Improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings have maimed and killed more American soldiers and Iraqi civilians than any other weapon. An Army surgeon at Landstuhl, Germany calls Iraq "a body parts war." Marines who served in restive Anbar province will tell you that IEDs are impossible to defend against. The intensity captured by the film is absolutely true for any soldier who navigates Iraq's fraught roadways.

The film's protagonist is a fearless "cowboy" whose daredevil antics put his unit at risk. I can't help wondering if on some level Staff Sergeant William James represents the hubris that propelled America into Iraq in the first place.

Does this portrayal of James defame the nation's vets? Some vets think so, but I don't.
The Hurt Locker makes clear that James is actually a good man who who has come to represent war's absurd paradox -- he's not fully alive unless he is risking death.

Nearly all great contemporary war films have been criticized for taking creative liberties. The Deer Hunter (best picture, best director) director Michael Cimino was accused of inventing the scenes of Viet Cong soldiers forcing Russian roulette games on captured Americans. Francis Ford Coppola caught flack for the surfing-down-the-Mekong scene in his masterpiece, Apocalypse Now (best screenplay, best supporting actor).

But even soldiers themselves sometimes resort to invention when crafting their own stories of war. Tim O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran who wrote an award-winning, fictionalized account of his in-country service explained it best. In The Things They Carried, O'Brien's character says, "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth."