Journalist Mark Boal worked with bomb squads in Iraq in 2004. He later published a piece in Playboy about Sgt. Jeffrey Sarver, a bomb disposal technician, and wrote the screenplay for The Hurt Locker, the movie that earned Best Picture at the 2010 Academy Awards.
Boal’s background lent the script a degree of credibility, but the film has been criticized as inaccurate—specifically that it exaggerates the risks bomb disposal technicians take. It didn’t help that director Kathryn Bigelow presented The Hurt Locker as a near-documentary.
“I knew that when Mark came back from Iraq and had these extraordinary stories and information that I wanted to keep it as reportorial as possible–to keep it raw and immediate and visceral, to give the audience the opportunity to be inside this company, to be a real boots-on-the-ground look at combat,” she said to City Paper.
Sarver sued the producers of The Hurt Locker, and claimed his story inspired the script. The case is ongoing, but Celebrifi.com reported Bigelow is trying to get the lawsuit dismissed. If Sarver’s allegations are true, they support Bigelow’s statements about the film’s accuracy: in essence, if Boal capitalized on Sarver’s story without giving him proper credit, editors like Richard Allen Smith (who wrote a piece for The Huffington Post, “The Hurt Locker, Inaccurate and Disrespectful”) have no basis for their criticism.
Cinema is not reality—it comments on reality. Even documentaries (films from a genre meant to literally “document reality”) are edited, have musical scores and create the world from a distinctly non-human perspective: the camera’s perspective.
It’s notable, then, that another movie concerning the Iraq War, Fair Game, attempted to depict real events and people as precisely as possible.
Fair Game is based on “Plamegate,” the 2003 scandal in which CIA agent Valerie Plame’s name was leaked to the press after she pursued an investigation of aluminum tubes in Iraq. Analysts for the White House claimed the tubes were part of a centrifuge necessary for nuclear enrichment. Plame disputed that claim.
Doug Liman, director of Fair Game, the Jason Bourne franchise and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, favors experimental, handheld camera work similar to what you’d see in a documentary. Fair Game is based on both Plame’s memoir (Fair Game: How a Top CIA Agent Was Betrayed by Her Own Government) and her husband Joe Wilson’s book The Politics of Truth, A Diplomat’s Memoir: Inside the Lies That Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity.
Fair Game, like most movies “based on a true story,” ends with text describing what happened to the “characters” and where they are today. Moments before the text appears onscreen, we see Naomi Watts as Plame. As she testifies before Congress, the scene transitions to the original footage of Valerie Plame giving her testimony.
The story’s motifs have to do with the nature of facts and what constitutes a lie. The ending tells us what we’ve seen represents objective truth, which is ironic in a movie about questioning authority. Shouldn’t we also question the accuracy of Plame’s story?
The differences between the two movies are subtle. The Hurt Locker was a fictional story meant to reflect the inner states of bomb technicians in Iraq. It exaggerated the reality of that career to evoke emotions in the audience. In addition to earning an Academy Award for Best Picture, it also won for Best Original Screenplay. By definition, it was fabricated. Kathryn Bigelow shouldn’t have presented the story as fact, because it isn’t—it’s a movie.
It’s perfectly acceptable to exaggerate historical events in movies, by the way. Audiences understand movies are meant to entertain—no one really expects to replace a history textbook with a movie made in Hollywood, as much as that sells screenwriters short. Filmmakers must be especially careful when they deal with something current. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t ended; misconceptions about our present history are common—the last thing a filmmaker should want to do is spread misinformation about his or her subject.
In a movie like The Hurt Locker, characters are key. Putting them in high-risk situations, ones actual bomb technicians might not encounter, makes them seem heroic quickly. This gives directors time to do other things in the piece, like explore the characters’ off-duty emotions.
Fair Game tried to present a story as close to Plame and Wilson’s accounts as possible, but challenged audience members to look further into the issue, and decide which truth (or lie) they were most willing to accept. Fair Game tried to get us to believe something, The Hurt Locker tried to get us to feel something. Both are manipulations, but Fair Game encoded its motivations in commentary on truth.
We could look at Fair Game as a documentary made after the fact, a re-enactment. It sacrifices a little emotion to stay true to Plame’s account. The Hurt Locker is all about emotion. Fair Game educates, but The Hurt Locker inspires.