Realistic War Films?

A few months ago I had a nice long talk with a smart high-ranking, well-published (ex-) military officer who focuses on soldier psychological issues.  He said most war movies aren’t at all realistic.  When I pressed him for a realistic film, he offered Catch-22, at least for emotional realism.  This doesn’t appear on any of the four lists of most realistic war films I found in a quick search (here, here, here, here), which agree only modestly with each other.

The supposedly realistic Hurt Locker is favored to win Best Picture tomorrow, but some complain about its realism:

Many in the military say “Hurt Locker” is plagued by unforgivable inaccuracies that make the most critically acclaimed Iraq war film to date more a Hollywood fantasy than the searingly realistic rendition that civilians take it for. … To those who were there, Iraq is real life. And they’re very sensitive — some would say overly so — when their war is portrayed via a central character who is a reckless rogue. … “When he puts a hood on like Eminem and starts roving outside the wire, it’s ridiculous.”

Is it even possible to make and sell a realistic war movie?  The experience of war varies enormously across wars, battles, roles, moments, etc., and most of that is insufferably slow and boring.  Since war is so powerfully symbolic, and so many care about those symbols, it seems many would complain about most any emotionally compelling war film, even if exactly accurate on a particular event.

What exactly could it mean for a film to be “realistic”?  Since few are entertained by watching random samples of real life, entertaining films must select strongly from the space of actual and possible events.  One might allow a movie any initial setting, no matter how strange, and call it realistic if events depicted that were typical conditional on that setting.  But then how long does the movie get to “set the scene,” after which we start to evaluate its realism?  And for how many settings could realistic behavior given that setting be entertaining?

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