"Cost-benefit analysis." You might expect the barons of Wall Street or politicians or think tankers of the Pentagon to be experts in that discipline. But Mark Boal says the people who truly have mastered it are defusing bombs in Iraq.
"Explosive ordnance disposal techs "are doing that sort of math constantly," says Boal, the journalist-turned-screenwriter who wrote The Hurt Locker, a movie about that dangerous work and the soldiers who do it. "The longer you're in any one place, defusing an IED (improvised explosive device), the more likely you are to become the target of a sniper. If you take four hours to defuse a bomb, everybody within miles knows you're there. And somebody's got a relative who has a gun who takes shots at soldiers. EOD techs hate getting shot."
Boal, 36, was a free-lance journalist embedded with bomb-disposal units in Iraq on assignment for Playboy magazine, when it occurred to him that this work and the people who do it would make a great movie thriller.
"I could spend 30 seconds trying to make a decision that these people make in one second," he says. "I could see myself paralyzed into doing nothing. And yet they have the nerve to make a life-death decision in a heartbeat. That's special."
The Hurt Locker is a traditional war movie, with firefights with the enemy and tensions within the unit. It's also a classic "ticking clock" thriller, with soldiers in a combat zone surrounded by potentially hostile locals, sweating and trying to defuse the bombs "that are the way this war is being fought," Boal says. The film has won the best reviews of the summer. "Spellbinding," Roger Ebert called it.
"Physically, these techs are all over the map — linebackers, beer-guts, squirrelly looking little guys who look a little like me," says actor Jeremy Renner, who stars as a nervy, impatient and fearless defuser of bombs. "They have a mental toughness that you really are in awe of, as an actor. This laser focus they have about the job is intense."
"They're also very smart," says Boal. "They're nerdy guys who carry guns and defuse bombs."
Boal says he realized right away how important speed and cost-benefit analysis were to these soldiers. His reporting revealed that the military didn't have many bomb-disposal experts in uniform when the United States invaded Iraq. But as Iraqi insurgents and terrorists got their hands on tons of unused, unguarded artillery shells, the Army figured out they needed a lot more. The Hurt Locker is set in 2004, when the "IED war" was at its peak.
"What you see in the movie is what I found out in my research — that guys who'd been doing this in the military for years might have defused three bombs in their entire career before Iraq," Boal says. "They get there, and they're defusing 10, 20 or more a day — hundreds of them during a tour of duty."
To survive that environment, disposal teams get good and get fast.
"The ones I got to know say they don't think about all the things that could go wrong," Renner says. "They aren't afraid of the ordnance, the IED. They know that inside and out. All they care about is time on target. Get in and out of there as fast as possible. They don't like getting shot. They worry more about that than they do handling this 155mm round that could vaporize them."
Boal, who also turned a magazine story he'd written into the script for In the Valley of Elah, said he knows that movie-goers have been reluctant to buy tickets to Iraq war films, even the good ones. His movie has the advantage of being directed by an action specialist (Kathryn Bigelow of Point Break). The Hurt Locker (it takes its name from sports jargon) is, first and foremost, a thriller.
"I don't underestimate the public," he says. "They don't want to be preached to. This is a movie that takes you into that world and puts you in those guys' boots.
"Whether you're Republican or Democrat, think we should be there or not, and no matter what you think about how we got there, you should think about this. People are over there doing this, for us, for not a lot of money and no glory at all to it. All they get out of it is the personal satisfaction of doing this job — outsmarting the bomb maker. And staying alive."