MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A feature film about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, "The Hurt Locker," is one of the favorites heading into Sunday's Academy Awards. It earned nine Oscar nominations including Best Picture. But the film has set off a debate within the military.

As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, some say it's a sensationalized portrayal of the soldiers who disarm bombs.

(Soundbite of film, "The Hurt Locker")

Unidentified Man #1: Twenty-five.

Unidentified Man #2: Twenty-five meters.

TOM BOWMAN: Baghdad, 2004. A soldier in heavy protective suit sets an explosive charge to destroy a bomb hidden in a pile of trash. Suddenly, his comrades spot a shopkeeper using a cell phone.

Unidentified Man #3: Butcher shop, 2:00. Dude has a phone.

Unidentified Man #4: Make him put it down.

Unidentified Man #5: Put down the phone.

Unidentified Man #6: Come on, guys, talk to me.

Unidentified Man #5: Drop the phone.

BOWMAN: The cell phone sets off the bomb, killing the soldier trying to destroy it.

(Soundbite of explosion)

BOWMAN: That's the opening scene of "The Hurt Locker," the one Jim O'Neil likes the best.

Mr. JIM O'NEIL (Executive Director, EOD Memorial Foundation): It kind of captured the whole environment over there in that first, you know, nine minutes.

BOWMAN: O'Neil served as a Navy bomb disposal expert during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He now runs a memorial foundation to those who died trying to disarm bombs.

Mr. O'NEIL: I enjoyed the movie. There is some artistic license taken with some of the situations and processes. You know, it's a movie. It's not a training film.

BOWMAN: Not everyone liked it, though.

Mr. PAUL RIECKHOFF (Executive Director and Founder, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America): It's absolutely sensationalized.

BOWMAN: That's Paul Rieckhoff. He served as an Army officer in Baghdad, working with explosive ordnance disposal teams. The shorthand is EOD.

Mr. RIECKHOFF: The idea that you put yourself in so much unnecessary danger is not only irresponsible, it's reckless. And that's really not what our EOD techs do.

BOWMAN: The movie revolves around Staff Sergeant William James. He's the reckless one, an adrenalin junkie who joins the bomb disposal team.

(Soundbite of film, "The Hurt Locker")

Mr. DAVID MORSE (Actor): (As Colonel Reed) How many bombs have you disarmed?

Mr. JEREMY RENNER (Actor): (As Staff Sergeant William James) I'm not quite sure.

Mr. MORSE: (As Colonel Reed) Sergeant.

Mr. RENNER: (As Staff Sergeant William James) Yes.

Mr. MORSE: (As Colonel Reed): I asked you a question.

Mr. RENNER: (As Staff Sergeant William James) Eight hundred seventy-three.

Mr. MORSE: (As Colonel Reed) Eight hundred and seventy-three. Eight hundred and seventy-three.

BOWMAN: The officer calls him a wild man. Sergeant James is a team leader, good at what he does but not one to follow the rules.

(Soundbite of film, "The Hurt Locker")

Unidentified Man #7: What's he doing?

Unidentified Man #8: I don't know.

BOWMAN: Like taking off his body armor before dismantling a bomb.

Unidentified Man #7: What are you doing?

Mr. RENNER: (As Staff Sergeant William James) There's enough bang in there to send us all to Jesus. If I'm going to die, I'm going to die comfortable.

BOWMAN: Henry Engelhardt liked the portrayal of Sergeant James. He remembers guys just like him from when he served as a bomb disposal expert in Vietnam.

Mr. HENRY ENGELHARDT: Usually, the ones that were fast and loose didn't last long.

BOWMAN: Meaning they were killed?

Mr. ENGELHARDT: They were either killed or were - or moved on to somewhere else.

BOWMAN: Engelhardt says in the movie, Sergeant James knows what he's doing, except for one scene when he grabs a cable and pulls, seven artillery shells come up out of the ground all wired together, surrounding him.

(Soundbite of film, "The Hurt Locker")

Mr. RENNER: (Staff Sergeant William James) Oh, boy.

BOWMAN: Sergeant James starts to cut the wires, one at a time. Not the right procedure, says Engelhardt.

Mr. ENGELHARDT: I was kind of like screaming at the screen, cut the main cable.

BOWMAN: A small point, maybe. But Rieckhoff, the Iraq War veteran, worries that most Americans watching the film will get a distorted view of what soldiers face.

Mr. RIECKHOFF: Very seldom is a guy going to put on a bomb suit and walk down there and try to dismantle something by hand. It just doesn't make sense.

For the most part, they're going to use robotics. They're going to use other types of explosives to set off a controlled charge next to it. It's really a Hollywood sensationalized version of how EOD operates.

BOWMAN: Sergeant James goes on to more adventures. The sergeant and his team become snipers in one scene.

(Soundbite of explosion and gunfire)

BOWMAN: In another, he slips out of his base at night to lead a vigilante raid, that all reminds Rieckhoff of actor Matt Damon's rogue CIA character.

Mr. RIECKHOFF: For example, goes outside the wire in civilian clothes and goes roaming around downtown Baghdad like Jason Bourne. I mean, that's just completely ridiculous.

BOWMAN: Okay, so everyone agrees: "The Hurt Locker" is not a training film. Talk to soldiers who do this for real and you get two responses. Some will say they can't bear watching the movie. Others say the main character is based on them. And now one Army sergeant is so sure it is based on him that he's filed a lawsuit against the producers. He even says he came up with the term the hurt locker.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: One of "The Hurt Locker's" nine nominations is for sound mixing. But just what is that? In a few minutes, we'll ask a two-time Oscar-winning sound mixer.

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