One of the big-time Oscar favorites this weekend is The Hurt Locker. The film describes the work of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team, a group of soldiers in Iraq whose job it is to diffuse bombs. Host Marco Werman talks with Michael Kamber, a New York Times photographer in Baghdad, about the unrealistic aspects of The Hurt Locker and with film critic and historian David Thomson in San Francisco about the role of war films.
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman. This is The World. One of the favorites at the Oscars this weekend is “The Hurt Locker”. It describes the work of an EOD, explosive ordnance disposal team in Iraq. In other words, the U.S. military bomb squad. This week an Army soldier sued the movie’s producers. Master Sergeant Jeffrey Sarver, who served on a bomb squad in Iraq, says the film makers stole his real life story without consent. Whatever the case, other soldiers don’t think “The Hurt Locker” is realistic. That’s what Michel Kamber found out. He’s a photographer for the New York Times who followed the work of an EOD team in Iraq. He also wrote an essay last week called “How Not to Depict a War”. Kamber says some of the soldiers he spoke in Iraq weren’t impressed with “The Hurt Locker”.
MICHAEL KAMBER: They laughed about it and joked about it. They even have a term, the EOD team that I was talking to here in Diyala Province, they say you know you’re getting all hurt locker. It’s actually a joke because they felt the movie was so over the top and unrealistic.
WERMAN: And so to say somebody is going all hurt locker, what is that mean precisely?
KAMBER: It means they’re getting sort of Hollywood. The EOD team said they joke around with each other and say alright I’m going to take off my bomb suit and you know, you’re getting all hurt locker. So it just means to over-dramatize things, basically. That’s the way they use it.
WERMAN: There were some specific things that you cited that some of the soldiers took issue with.
KAMBER: There’s a scene in the movie where a gun jams because there is some blood on the bullets. It’s a big 50 caliber, massive, powerful gun. And it just wouldn’t happen. Blood, it’s very unlikely that some blood on a cartridge would jam a 50 cal.
MALE VOICE 1: Jammed. It’s the blood making them jam. Eldridge, you got to clean the bullet off man, it’s making them jam. Specialist, clean the bullet off.
KAMBER: There’s another scene where this guy, a U.S. soldier goes off base in the middle of the night and then he runs back through the streets of Baghdad alone. They laughed uproariously at this. They thought this was the funniest thing they’d ever seen because it was completely unrealistic of course.
WERMAN: So no soldier or marine would leave the wire and go into Baghdad proper.
KAMBER: No journalist or soldier that I know can really imagine that, absolutely absurd.
WERMAN: You know the standard Hollywood come back to this kind of inaccuracy in the details critique of war films is that in an hour and a half or two hour feature film, Directors and Screen Writers have to use shorthand which isn’t always accurate. The reward for them, though, is that they get to tell a story and people experience a side of the Iraq war here in the United States that we don’t hear much about in the news. But I’m wondering were there soldiers that you spoke with about “The Hurt Locker” who felt that there was something that was accurate in a more general sense?
KAMBER: You know I did speak to some soldiers who said it was a good action movie. It reminded people of Iraq. It reminded people that the war is going on. I got some positive comments from soldiers just about the fact that it was really raising consciousness about the war in general. We meet guys over here on their fourth tour. They’ve spent four or more than four years in Iraq and they’ve gone through incredible sacrifices, lost friends and they want people back home to know. They want people back home to be reminded of these sacrifices and of what they’re going through. And I think some of them were grateful that the movie did this.
WERMAN: Michael Kamber speaking to us from Baghdad. Thank you very much indeed.
KAMBER: Thank you, my pleasure.
WERMAN: David Thomson is a film critic and historian based in San Francisco. David, what did you think of “The Hurt Locker”?
DAVID THOMSON: Well I think “The Hurt Locker” does what your photographer was talking about. I think it reminds us that this war is going on and if the war is in a lull at the moment, it doesn’t mean that lull is going to last. They’ve got an election coming up this weekend and some people forecast that that will produce more violence. The state of war in the Middle East in general is clearly wide open and I think that the more we, the public, know about that, and the less it is shoved off onto professionals, the better it is.
WERMAN: The argument that war films are rarely accurate is one we’ve heard a lot. So let’s assume that war films are not going to be wholly accurate. Tell us, then, what you think a good war film ought to be doing.
THOMSON: I think a good war film has always been a movie that reproduces for an innocent audience that has not been there and has not been through it, reproduces a substantial part of the experience. It can be the civilian experience. It can be the onlooker. It can be the participant. I don’t think it’s fair to ask a film to do more than dramatize the war and make you feel you have seen something that moves you and shocks you and that kind of thing. Remember Tolstoy in War and Peace does this great description of, I think it’s the Battle of Boradina, where he says in fact no one knows what was happening at Boradina. There was not a Battle of Boradina until later when historians said we will call it the Battle of Boradina. There was infinite chaos going on and many individuals trying to survive. There’s no way, I think, a camera crew can put itself down in the middle of a battle or combat of any kind and hope to film it truthfully, accurately.
WERMAN: So given the criteria of bringing the war experience to those back on the home front, what for you is the greatest war film of all time or perhaps your top three.
THOMSON: Oh the greatest war films of all time, there are so many because they play to an audience that wants to pretend it’s going to war. I think in many ways one of the great war films this country ever made does not have a single combat scene in it. That’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” which is a film about people coming back from the war. Now you know, that’s a very, very big part of the experience of war. How the world has changed while they went away. While they may have lost limbs, lives and yet they don’t have a place when they come back. So I would certainly put that high up. I’m a great admirer of “The Deer Hunter” because I think it shows how the kind of almost reckless machoism in a society, particularly in the American society, can get channeled off into a war that means something very much more. And I think that oh a film like “The Battle of Algiers”. I would put that high up in the list too.
WERMAN: Now you mentioned “The Best Years of Our Lives” noting that there were no battle scenes in that. There’s also another Oscar nominated Iraq war film, “The Messenger” this year. Did you see that? What did you think of that?
THOMSON: Yes, I’m a big admirer of the film. I like it very much. These films have not, in general, found a large audience. “The Hurt Locker”, I believe the last time I Iooked it up, it only earned about twelve million dollars at the American box office which is not very much. It’s amazing that it should be in serious contention for Best Picture. The audience have made it clear at the moment, they don’t really want to see these films. That, I think, is all the more incentive to some film makers to say well, give it up guy you’re going to see it, we’re going to show you what we can about these wars.
WERMAN: Yeah, interesting the New Yorker pointed out that the twelve million that “The Hurt Locker” received was just slightly more than what Avatar made in a single weekend in Italy.
THOMSON: And of course, don’t let’s forget, Avatar has some of the most complete unrestrained battle sequences of any movie going around at the moment. It’s a huge combat film in it’s last thirty, forty minutes. It’s a totally fantastic, thoroughly organized combat such as no soldier would recognize. But audiences clearly thrill to it and love it. We can’t forget the fact that in 100 years of movie, audiences have persisted in enjoying violent battle scenes.
WERMAN: Film critic and historian David Thomson in San Francisco, very good to speak with you. Thank you for your time.
THOMSON: Good to talk to you.
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