Is there anything more irresistible and more frustrating than seeing your job portrayed on screen?
Whether a ruthless lawyer, saintly schoolteacher or cantankerous cop, most fictional working stiffs have one thing in common: They kind of stink at their jobs. At least according to the real-life practitioners watching them.
Such appears to be the case with "The Hurt Locker," the movie about bomb-disposal technicians in the Iraq war, which is up for several Oscars including best picture and best director. Despite Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates having deemed it "authentic" (as have film critics, who've seen lots of war movies and therefore know what they're talking about), other military personnel, including real-life members of the Army's Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, are apparently less impressed with its veracity (except for one, who, as blogger Steve Pond put it, thinks it's too factual and is suing for "stolen identity").
Last week, several EOD technicians expressed a combination of amusement and dismay over the film's portrayal of their work. One remarked that a scene in which a character defused a bomb with wire cutters was akin to seeing "a firefighter go into a building with a squirt bottle." Others objected mainly to the reckless cockiness of the characters.
Still, Hollywood always plays fast and loose with reality. That's why it usually makes dramas and not documentaries -- and, let's be honest, it's also why Americans buy its products in such bulk. We're not looking for facts; we're looking for entertainment and (even at the movies) some deeper truth that art reveals.
In the end, the controversy over "The Hurt Locker's" authenticity and its worth as an Oscar contender perhaps speaks less to the relationship between truth and fiction than to the relationship contemporary humans have to some mythical notion of "reality."
A lot of us, it seems, are preoccupied with "getting real." We applaud actors who deliver "realistic" performances. We express disapproval of the naive or the foolish by saying they're not "dealing in reality." We've all known some yogic blowhard (or stoned college student) who loves to declare he's "all about being real."
At first glance, it's easy to see why we're reality freaks. The world is an increasingly fake place, right? Entire generations are growing up conducting relationships over Skype and not fully grasping the difference between outdoor sports and Wii games. A parade of reality-TV shows manage to be fake and yet real too. People in power spin the truth while claiming to deliver nothing but. Given that misdirection and remoteness have more or less become society's default mode, it's not surprising that real "reality" would start to feel like a precious resource.
Still, it's hard, at least for the lay person, to understand the objections to "The Hurt Locker." No dramatic representation gets everything exactly right. I loved the brilliant and purportedly hyper-realistic television series "The Wire," but I found the last season the least brilliant because its focus on newspaper journalists -- a world I know something about -- seemed just off-key enough to be distracting (meanwhile, I was happy to pat myself on the back for having gained, from "The Wire's" second season, a complete understanding of longshoremen). As with "The Wire," however, it's clear that "The Hurt Locker" made accuracy a priority even if it doesn't succeed on every count.
But even the most glamorous or dangerous jobs, no matter how intense they can be on occasion, are generally tedious, undramatic affairs. In fact, I'd wager that even bomb defusers, for all the fear and stress they endure, are bored a lot of the time. To that end, is it possible that what's really rubbing them the wrong way about "The Hurt Locker" is that the film's "authenticity" stopped short of showing the drudgery of their jobs? Do they feel they're not getting credit for what, in most professions, is the most difficult part of going to work: the mind-numbing grind of doing the same thing day in and day out?
Maybe it's no accident that the comedy series "The Office," which boils the workplace dynamic down to its most doltish, tedious essence, is a hit, without complaint.
After all, seeing the heroic aspects of a job reflected back at us might be gratifying, but seeing its inanities and indignities acknowledged? That can be downright vindicating.