Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Circling The Wagons

or: Hurt Locker updates will continue until Iraq movies improve

While The Hurt Locker is still considered to be the heavy favorite to pick up a few Oscars this Sunday, the negative reviews are pouring in from the last people Kathryn Bigelow Mark Boal wanted to hear from: veterans and war savvy journalists. The nearly unanimous criticism of the film from our camp is the baffling level of cowboy machismo imbued in James, the leader of a three man EOD team that leads his subordinates (literally) down a dangerous path in the streets of Baghdad. Coupled with laughable breaches of real life protocol and enormous leaps of artistic license, it's difficult to argue with those who know the intimate details of combat.

As I've touched on before, many civilians use movies as a stand-in connection to a war when they personally don't know a soldier or veteran. The reservations I have about The Hurt Locker center on reality versus perceived reality, be it with people or procedure. I don't want people to think that men like James not only exist but knowingly and actively send men into deadly situations to get an adrenaline fix. It would be irresponsible of Hollywood to cast soldiers and veterans in a negative light while the real life difficulties of reintegration challenge veterans to once again be a part of society instead of apart from it. But can veteran-civilian relations be any more tenuous than they already are? A fellow student veteran recently brought up his deployment to Afghanistan in a class discussion about how people live around the world. As soon as the word Afghanistan came off his lips, the mood of the class palpably shifted. Whispers and murmurs were cut off in mid sentence and everyone in the room looked at him, but only for a moment. As he continued on, they looked at anything but him. Here is a film that has people talking about the wars again, even if it's simply within the context of the movie. It can only help to elevate the subjects of Iraq and Afghanistan out of the lurid, unmentionable void many people subconsciously place them in.

What does this mean for the Oscar voting? I doubt anyone holding an awards ballot really cares what veterans think (how else would you explain the greenlight of Redacted and In The Valley of Elah, Mark Boal's unforgivable celluloid excrement?). This criticism seems to come too little, too late. Producer Nicolas Chartier might be the biggest threat to The Hurt Locker's chances after sending out inappropriate (yet true!) emails to Academy members. That intense lobbying might have turned off would be voters. While I have defended The Locker on this electronic rag, I don't think it deserves to win Best Picture for what amounts to a bunch of contrived action scenes attached to one flawless, beautifully expressive scene. I found A Serious Man, Inglourious Basterds and District 9 to be shades more enjoyable than The Hurt Locker and would gladly substitute Precious: A Stupidly Long Title and The Blind Side with Moon and In The Loop. Still, I wouldn't mind if The Hurt Locker won Best Picture if it means Dances with Wolves in Space loses.

Addendum: Fox News published a couple lines from my Hurt Locker review that gave me a case of deja vu.

From the Wikipedia entry of The Hurt Locker:

At the blog Army of Dude, infantryman and Iraq veteran Alex Horton noted that "the way the team goes about their missions is completely absurd," though he went on to call the film "the best Iraq movie to date."

From the Fox News article:

Alex Horton, for example, wrote on the ARMY of Dude blog that “the way the team goes about their missions is completely absurd,” but he added that it was still “the best Iraq war movie to date.”

Bang up job, Ed Barnes. What would get me an F in an English essay passes as journalism these days. Barnes even paraphrases without attribution the wildly popular and controversial review of The Hurt Locker written by my friend and fellow milblogger Kate (thanks to Richard for pointing that out).


Unknown said...

"Dances with Wolves in Space"


My feelings on The Hurt Locker is I'll take what I can get from Hollywood. You mentioned Stop Loss and Redacted- pure crap that doesn't even attempt to make an honest portrayal of the Iraq War or American troops. At least The Hurt Locker gets some things right. On the issue of how it portrays EOD and how it operates, they generally got their mission correct (they showed them doing UXO det, doing PBAs, etc. which is what they do). I thought the opening scene was a dead-on depiction of how an EOD team would operate in Iraq (in a cordon, with a bot, and when the bot doesn't work you go to the suit). At least that is how I saw them operate in my AO and in the Marines.

Also on the issue of James, those guys do exist in the military, especially in MOSes like infantry and EOD. There are guys that stay for the adrenaline fix and who don't care who they endanger in the process. I'm sure most of the combat vets who post here had one of those types in their unit when they deployed.

I generally enjoyed the movie and like Dude said hopefully it can open some dialogue about the Iraq War.

-Operator Dan

Red said...

Great post! Love your style of writing! I finally watched "Hurt Locker" this weekend... uh, yeah... I don't know what I expected it to be but it sure wasn't what I wanted it to be. I agree that at least the general public is TALKING about Iraq and Afghanistan and that's good but I hope no one takes this movie as reality because it obviously is waaaayyy off.

Richard Allen Smith said...

Go back and check the wikipedia article and you'll find that since our conversation last night, someone edited the blurb on Kate to be less-obviously the source of the Fox News piece.

Alex Horton said...

Yeah, what the hell! And I thought taking a screenshot would have been too much. The cached page turns up the same text unfortunately.

Joe said...

I think needing to see a movie to relate to veterans says more about our passive-aggressive pussy culture than anything else. No one wants to come out to Student Veterans of America BBQs (FREE) on campus and ask questions of us, but they'll go pay $30 to see a shitty movie to fulfill their curiosity. With the high probability of a combat vet in every classroom, these kids will stare at the ground for 2 hours in silence and not contribute anything for discussion, but then go home to write on facebook about how boring college is.

GI Kate said...

The Hurt Locker is a prepackaged Iraq war experience with a side of popcorn for lazy Americans. Forget The Hurt Locker. I suggest watching OPERATION HOMECOMING.

Excited to see you in NYC!

CI-Roller Dude said...

I only saw a few min of the "Puke Locker" and almost threw up.
But, that's what Hollifuckingwood does...they make shit to make money.
If you ask most folks about Nam Vets, they'll tell you that they are all crazy baby killers on drugs...because that's what Hollywood made them to look like.

I vote with my wallet, I refuse to pay for this movie.

Dottie said...

Great post.

I also thought the movie was waaaayyyy too Hollywood, but it did make me think about my time in Iraq.

Also, I don't know if you saw this, but there is a soldier suing because he says that the movie was based on him:

Alex Horton said...

Yeah I saw that Dottie, and it'll be interesting to see how the suit will be settled. I don't know if Mark Boal should have paid him and is being a dick, or if writing fiction loosely based on someone's life is kosher from a legal standpoint. Any lawyers around?

Unknown said...

I agree that the grocery store scene is the best part of the movie. As a civilian I have no clue what other parts of the movie are accurate or not, but I thought that scene really got it right. I was with a friend of mine when he had a similar moment after returning from Afghanistan. Being with him in that moment helped me understand what he could not put into words.

Mark and Suzanne said...

I was involved in carrier-based Naval Aviation about the time that Top Gun was released, so many of the arguments about this movie sound very familiar to me. I remember Top Gun being played many times over ship-wide TV during our six-month cruise, and we all watched it as comedy/parody. Our commentary during the movie was merciless and relentless.

Hollywood will never get this stuff right and it's not realistic of us to expect them to do so. We can, however, expect the media not to take this type of movie as the literal truth of what happens in the military.


Kanani said...

Isn't it a bummer that The Hurt Locker has managed to sap off any attention at all from the other fine (excluding Avatar) movies also nominated?

I mean, if this is what the studios wanted --a movie whose controversy would propel people to see it an generate millions, that's what they've got.

From a writer's POV, I think the writing cheesed out. It fell into hackneyed stereotypes which misinform the public greatly. They settled for so little in writing this. A pity. It should never have gotten beyond the critique table.

Pattie Matheson said...

Interesting comments all.

Yesterday Matt Whitfield wrote that Hurt Locker would win Best Picture, but Inglorious Basterds should win. And he went on to tell his readers why: "Only three films have a legitimate chance of winning Best Picture - Avatar, The Hurt Locker, and Inglourious Basterds. But because Avatar’s mastermind, James Cameron, and Inglourious Basterds' writer/director, Quentin Tarantino, and distributor Harvey Weinstein are all hated by hordes of Academy voters, the Kathryn Bigelow-directed war drama will take home the evening’s top prize."

A win by default, well I'm guessing that in Hollywood a win is a WIN.

Anonymous said...

Dude, remember when you raked the two Big Hollywood reviewers over the coals? Now it turns out everyone in your camp agrees with them. You kinda owe those guys an apology, right? They were first people out of the gate defending military from cowboy portrayal.

Alex Horton said...


First, my camp is a bit small - those with military or embed experience that thought it was just "okay" and had a lot of technical errors. It's just me, Tom Ricks and a few other people. If by my camp you mean soldiers and veterans, it's true most don't like the movie, but for reasons very different from Big Hollywood. Alexander Marlow had the tortured logic that follows:

war is a drug -> drugs are bad -> wars are bad.

He took umbrage from a perceived political viewpoint of the film more than anything else. Marlow and his boss John Nolte don't really care how soldiers are portrayed unless it offends their political sensibilities and how soldiers act in their minds. Nolte and Marlow criticized the crew for not taking into consideration what motivates EOD soldiers, but those two didn't ask any soldiers or veterans how the movie made them look. You have to keep in mind that Big Hollywood is a conservative site that pays the bill by feigning outrage about, GASP, liberal Hollywood. If you think Nolte and Marlow care about soldiers, I would ask how many non profits that benefit soldiers they contribute to, or if they volunteer at the VA on the weekends, or if they spend some of their time putting together care packages. Anything except paying lip service and speaking for us, something we are more than capable of doing for ourselves. If soldiers and veterans need people like Nolte and Marlow, we're in more trouble than I thought.

Soldiers and veterans don't like the movie because of the many procedural inaccuracies, and that is an important distinction from Marlow and Nolte. In all seriousness, we despise people like them, those who never answered the call but still offer vociferous rants about a cause they'll never understand.

Anonymous said...

This is kinda a non sequitor response. We get it that you take offense to Nolte and Marlow suggesting 'Hurt Locker' was an unfair portrayal of troops because they haven't served. That's a debatable position, but I understand. But even if I grant you that their characters are questionable, they see eye to eye with the troops who weighed in on the film more than you do. You defended the film before you even saw it, then again after you saw it. Vets complained about the "cowboy" portrayal as much as they complained about anything; that's precisely the word used to describe Renner's character in the first Big Hollywood review you trashed.

You accuse them of having an agenda, and it's hard to disagree with you, but it's obvious you have one too (you did, after all, defend the film before you saw it). While film critics loved the film, the vets didn't, and it appears that you're on the wrong side of this one.

Purpletiger006 said...


I really enjoy reading your thoughts about life post-military. While I never have served in the active duty military, I did spend 12 years in the Air Guard with a Combat Communications Squadron. I have worked with active duty units in all branches of the military while deployed. I understand how military procedures are written and carried out. While we complained about many procedures as being 'stupid' or 'overkill' they were implemented for a reason, whether we realized it or not.

Some procedures are not meant to be known to the rest of us. I do not need to know how a EOD Tech proceeds through his 'checklists.' If I knew this, perhaps an unsavory individual would use that information to build a device that would defy those known procedures. I want every one of our people protected any way possible. I truly beilieve that these types of procedures fall under OPSEC. I'm OK with that.

For those of us who have never served in that particular theater, I took what I saw in that movie with a grain of salt. I have met and personally know individuals who prove the idea that, "...war is a drug." holds true. Someone close to me that I grew up with was seriously injured during an IED explosion and subsequent attack. He, to this day, still says he'd go back tomorrow, if he could.

I also took away an awareness of what we are asking you all to do while over there. The decision on whether to engage or not because of a cell phone, is not one a 19 or 20 year old young man should have to make. The consequences of making wrong choices are issues all of us have to deal with in our lives. However, the choice that these guys make have reprecussions that we could never imagine.

I get it.

I pray for all of you who have experienced conflict overseas daily. I also thank you all for the things you have done and the sacrifices made. Good luck and thanks for the continued writing, Alex.


Alex Horton said...


Marlow does use the word cowboy in the review, but it's more to describe his personality attributes more than it is a question or challenge of how accurate the portrayal is compared to real soldiers. Here is the context:

"The characters are color-by-number. James is the cowboy. He’s willing to be reckless, abandon protocol, and bone-headedly puts himself and his men in harms way time and time again. If war is a drug, this guy is Ozzy Osbourne. Sanborn is the dude who plays by the books, has a business mentality, and is always the one who says, “I don’t know, maybe this isn’t such a good idea…..”

Hardly a focal point of his review. It's tossed in there right before his two chief complaints for the film, which are: a) the characters don't drone on about bringing a flourishing democracy to Iraq and b) the Iraqis portrayed were either suspicious or absent.

He wanted more Iraqis in a movie about EOD, for Pete's sake!

It's pure coincidence he used the word cowboy for James. He saw it as a tired character device while veterans saw it as an affront to their professionalism. Totally different.

The points I defended before seeing the movie were ones that stemmed from a political gripe. I know the war is intertwined with politics, but not liking a movie because of perceived slights against your stance on war is just silly. That is all Big Hollywood cared about.

As for an agenda, I hope you can show some examples of how I'd benefit from my (less than glowing) review. No, Kathryn Bigelow didn't take me out for a milkshake because I didn't absolutely hate The Hurt Locker. If you go back and read the review, you'll find that I agreed with just about every veteran out there that saw inaccuracies in procedure that made it nearly distracting. I even suggested his behavior would be the result of a stack of Article 15s. And I have been pretty clear on my position that it was just an ok movie, and that the absence of the grocery store scene would make it forgettable. I believe I also said that out of ten nominees, I liked three of them better. So tell me again, how is this defending The Hurt Locker? The early "defense" was more about calling out two boneheads who have to pee in everyone's Cheerios and make everything about politics when they should be concentrating on the film itself. I had every right to hate the movie going into it like they did. Boal's writing in "In The Valley of Elah" was awful and a huge insult to soldiers. But I went into The Hurt Locker with a clean slate with Boal, something that our two favorite reviewers don't seem capable of. They decided to hate the movie as soon as the epigraph appeared. It's difficult to approach that level of crybaby critique...(cont)

Alex Horton said...

(cont from earlier)...And one final point: why is it that I have to agree with veterans who didn't like it? How can you be on the wrong side on the opinion for a movie? I would say that I love movies more than most, and in watching them I look for things that go beyond what is said and seen on the screen. That is why I liked the grocery store scene so much, for what it said while saying absolutely nothing. Even Paul Rieckoff, who trashed the movie in Newsweek and pretty much daily on Facebook, agreed that the scene was accurate when it comes to the feeling of suddenly being home. I don't hear anyone else mention it, likely because they forgot about it in a haze of absurdly crafted scenes. That's what made it just an OK movie to me, but if you would call that glowing, we have wildly different definitions of that word.

I really don't care if someone has served or not when talking about war movies. That's not the point. The point is how some tend to speak for soldiers, especially when they don't seem to know any and would like to keep up the fantasy that we are all at once perfect, brave and selfless. That kind of mysticism helps perpetuate the idea that PTSD stems from some kind of weakness or character flaw. It's that kind of attitude that keeps people from getting help, both in the military and out of it. That those who need help should just suck it up and perform like the men in Marlow's head. It would be a lot easier if everyone accepted that soldier are people too, imperfect people that have flaws but do extraordinary things. That would help deconstruct the myth that PTSD only touches the cowardly and ill prepared.

Alex Horton said...

Ah yes, forgot one thing. When I saw the movie and wrote the final review, I agreed with Nolte that the scene where a colonel pretty much orders an insurgent prisoner to bleed to death was silly and needed to be cut out, though I did provide real life context of how something like that does happen. Again, that's hardly shilling for the movie. I was cheering for Tarantino, one of my favorites, to win best director last night, but the chance to award a woman for the first time was too irresistible for the Academy.

Anonymous said...

"It's pure coincidence he used the word cowboy for James. He saw it as a tired character device while veterans saw it as an affront to their professionalism. Totally different."

It's pure conjecture on your part, especially given that review defends troops when colonel allowed insurgent to die and for James repeatedly sending troops into harms way.

"When I saw the movie and wrote the final review, I agreed with Nolte that the scene where a colonel pretty much orders an insurgent prisoner to bleed to death was silly and needed to be cut out."

Both BH review brought up this disgusting scene. How can a movie truly be scene as pro-military or neutral-military when colonels behave that way?

You're protesting too much, over-thinking. Looks like you're trying to save face now because you got this one wrong.

Alex Horton said...

You're right, it is conjecture on my part, but I've seen and heard enough phony sentiments to tell the difference.

Again, I only care about the political stance a movie takes (via the director and screenwriter) if it begins to interfere with the narrative. That is one of the many reasons Redacted was so terrible; it insisted its point that soldiers are violent thugs so much that the story became muddled. It's hard to call The Hurt Locker politically neutral, but it's closer to neutral than it is to pro war/anti war or pro troop/anti troop. It's all in what you see. I've read many liberal rants that slam it for being pro war, and conservatives often rip it for being anti soldier. Boal left out his opinion far better than in "In The Valley of Elah." Like Daniel said above, I'll take what I can get. The film is almost worshipful praise of soldiers when compared to what we've had so far, so people need to lighten up a bit. Would I like a technically accurate war drama respectful to soldiers? Of course, but we're lucky in art to get a perfect product. If someone can balance all three of those, I'll be the first in line.

If the message is not overbearing, a film should be judged on the merits inherent to film. That is, acting, cinematography, scriptwriting, directorial compositions et al. If you don't want to accept that, or decide to use your wallet to protest directors and actors you disagree with, that's fine. But I see art and the artist as mutually exclusive. The artist speaks through the art, but is the art that ends up speaking to us. That's why I don't care about Boal's stance. I just want to see a good movie, and I judge each of them based on their own merits.

As for saving face, I've maintained my unpopular opinion within the veteran community since I posted the review in July of last year, eight months ago. It was then I gave the film three and a half burning cars out of five, or 70%. A grade of C would be considered OK, and I have maintained that stance ever since I posted the review. You have eight months of archives to look over to find a hint of opinion reversal. This blog is an open book. I suggest you start looking.

Demeur said...

Not to be a wet blanket but there's a reason Hollywood won't portray the ways you guys really work. Ya think maybe the guys you're fighting just might get a coy of the movie? Notice cop movies aren't very real either.
So it'll be up to you guys who were there to write about how it really happened.

Rob W said...


You're the man man, and I love your opinions on this movie. The inaccuracies are enough to piss Vet off, that's for sure. You know all of guys from 5-20 who were there in 04 sure as shit didn't wear ACUs, and I've never met an EOD guy that was as out of control like that guy. Yes, I as an NCO may or may not have partaken in a little bit of booze while downrange, but not to the point of drunken retardation like in that movie.
But, they did capture the "war is a drug" motif pretty well. I agree, war is a drug and after I got back from my last tour and settled in to Benning, I was immediately looking for a way to get back to the war zone myself. I dont feel quite at home when at home and I sure as shit dont know how I could go to a big college like you and actually get along with the normal American civilian populace. I salute you for that. So yeah, the movie sucked and was good all at the same time. Unfortunately there will never be an accurate war film outside of documentaries. Sad but true.

BTW, I can't wait till you're a politician! Ha!

Alex Horton said...


I know what you mean. If it was possible to get all of B Co together for a deployment to the 'Ghan, I don't think I'd hesitate. For all its terrible nature, the battlefield is a place for clarity above any classroom I've ever been in. And the people, lord! You would not believe kids these days (I sound old, huh?). "Getting along peacefully" is relative.

Mark my words: I will never be a politican. Sell out maggots, they are.

FishEagle said...

You've had some discussions about the inaccuracies regarding military protocol, and how it probably didn't do much harm to the image of the military. Could the 'feel good' factor in the movie, the result of this artistic liscence, be sending the wrong message? My comment on another blog follows:

A lot of the war veteran criticism centered on the main character, who is a loose cannon; and the autonomous 3 man team, who drive alone all over Baghdad and its periphery in a single Humvee with no escorts, convoy or communications gear.

Liberals have judged the actions of the US army in the Middle East harshly and sometimes one wonders whether they believe in the fantasy created by the media.

South African

Bill Gardner said...

HUA, enjoyed the line regarding english essays and journalism!

Military News said...

I have to agree with you on that one, Bill! Lets hope journalistic standards, especially when meddling in military affairs, do actually increase.

Pepe Fanjul said...

if The Hurt Locker won Best Picture it means Dances with Wolves in Space loses.The points I defended before seeing the movie are ones that stemmed from a political background.