(CN) – A federal judge tossed a defamation lawsuit alleging that “The Hurt Locker,” a box office juggernaut, is based on the life of an Army bomb disposal sergeant.
Master Sgt. Jeffrey Sarvar served in Iraq as a tech for the Army’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit.
Journalist Mark Boal interviewed Sarver for a feature in Playboy magazine while embedded with a military unit in Iraq, and conducted additional interviews when Sarver returned to Wisconsin in 2005. The published piece focused exclusively on Sarvar’s life. Boal later penned the screenplay for the movie “The Hurt Locker” about an EOD team deployed in Iraq.
Sarvar claimed that the movie’s reckless antihero, Will James, played by actor Jeremy Renner, was based on him, and said in his complaint that he never consented to the use of his name or life experiences in either the Playboy article or the movie.
Sarvar said the publicity that followed the movie endangered him during military operations, and that military personnel deemed him a counterintelligence risk for “selling” movie rights to his life story.
Last fall, a New Jersey federal judge transferred the case to Los Angeles.
U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Nguyen ruled Thursday that the “The Hurt Locker” producers had a First Amendment right to free expression through the use of “transformative elements” in the movie.
“Defendants unquestionably contributed significant distinctive and expressive content to the character of Will James,” she wrote. “Even assuming that plaintiff and Will James share similar physical characteristics and idiosyncrasies, a significant amount of original expressive content was inserted in the work through the writing of the screenplay, and the production and direction of the movie.”
Though Will James was possibly based on Sarvar, the character was primarily a creation of Boal and the other creators’ imagination, the 22-page order states.
“Here, the value of ‘The Hurt Locker’ unquestionably derived from the creativity and skill of the writers, directors, and producers who conceived, wrote, directed, edited, and produced it,” Nguyen wrote. “Whatever recognition or fame plaintiff may have achieved, it had little to do with the success of the movie. Thus, plaintiff’s claim is barred by the First Amendment as a matter of law.”
Even belief by audiences that the movie was based on Sarvar does not constitute evidence of defamation, according to the court.
“The portrayal of plaintiff was not highly offensive to a reasonable person,” Nguyen wrote. “If the character of Will James was in fact modeled on plaintiff, then plaintiff was portrayed as a war hero, struggling with presumably the same conflicts experienced by many modern military soldiers, deployed in a foreign country.”
Sarvar said Boal violated his contract with the U.S. Department of Defense when he wrote about Sarvar’s personal life for Playboy. But the judge rejected that claim as well as the veteran’s claims for emotional distress, fraud and negligent misrepresentation.
“Boal was embedded in plaintiff’s unit to report on the efforts of plaintiff’s bomb disposal unit in the Iraq war,” the judge said. “The fact that his report led to a screenplay which became a movie is not outrageous. Rather it is commonplace that movies are based on real events. Further, plaintiff voluntarily submitted to interviews with Boal both in Iraq as well as after returning home to Wisconsin. Finally, even if the lead character was based on plaintiff, defendants used a fictional name for the character, which falls short of extreme and outrageous conduct.”
Nicholas Chartier president of “Hurt Locker” producers Voltage Pictures declined to comment on the decision. Sarvar’s attorney Linda George did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.
Boal won an Academy Award in 2010 for best original screenplay for “The Hurt Locker,” completing a haul of six Oscars, including best picture and best director for Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win the award.