I recently watched two Iraq war movies. Green Zone follows a US army officer on the hunt for WMD in the weeks just after the American invasion. The movie follows the classic three-act structure, with setbacks, rising conflict, and set-piece action at the climax. The main character is your classic hero. He’s brave, honest, persistent, and determined to do the right thing by the Iraqi people and the army.
The Hurt Locker follows the exploits of an army bomb disposal team. At first glance, this movie doesn’t seem to adhere to any kind of writing structure. The action moves from one situation to another without any noticeable plot. The main character isn’t that heroic. Yes, he risks his life every time he investigates a suspected bomb, but he’s a war-junkie, addicted to the adrenalin. He doesn’t follow orders, doesn’t seem to care about the rest of his team and puts them at risk through his recklessness. He doesn’t question why he’s there. In fact, in the end civilian life is just too boring for him.
Both movies are good, but THL resonated with me in a way GZ didn’t, and I think it’s all down to character. GZ takes an expansive view, focusing on the political and moral twists of the war, whereas THL zeroes in on one character and how he’s affected by the war. He’s a flawed character, but still a sympathetic one. Comparing these two films, I realised a viewer (or reader) will forgive a lot of things if the character gets to them. I’m not saying that’s the only ingredient in good writing, but I’m beginning to think it’s the most important.