Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated film The Hurt Locker, about Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) troops in Iraq, has been facing criticism from real-life service personnel. “Many of our members around the country have noted the flawed portrayal of EOD,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “It is disrespectful.” Last year, former British Royal Engineer bomb disposal expert Guy Marot expressed similar reservations, saying he was “appalled” by the film’s “numerous glaring inaccuracies”. Both men point out mistakes relating to tactical decisions, chain-of-command procedure, the amount of ordnance characters lift, and even the vintage of their uniforms.
Fair enough. No one likes to see their work misrepresented on screen and if you identify inaccuracies, you have every right to challenge a film’s credibility. Whether this matters for the general viewer is a different question.
The answer depends on what the film is for. If it asks us to engage emotionally and politically with lived reality, then its version of reality matters. To question the accuracy of the information Michael Moore uses in his documentaries, for instance, constitutes a serious charge because he uses it to encourage audiences to revise their opinions and change their behaviour.
Feature films purporting to represent specific real-life events bear a different but comparable responsibility, depending on the story they seek to tell: the slipperiness of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, George Clooney’s adaptation of the implausible memoirs of US TV personality Chuck Barris, aptly reflects its subject’s questionable grasp on reality; on the other hand, the massaging of facts in Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, about the wrongful conviction of the Guildford Four, is more problematic as it’s a story about the devastating consequences of misrepresentation.
But The Hurt Locker isn’t really like any of these. Although inspired by the reportage of an embedded journalist, it doesn’t purport to be a true story. It doesn’t explicitly engage with the geopolitics of Iraq. And it doesn’t claim to be an authentic portrayal of the reality of bomb disposal. Rather, it uses the situation more or less as a McGuffin — the device by which its characters are placed in stressful, psychologically revealing situations. The film aspires to communicate how people work, not how they do their jobs, but how they are. Reporters and campaigners depend on the credibility of their engagement with reality. A storyteller is judged by different criteria.