Movie Mistakes Part I

I know that this blog’s title suggests it is not the place one is likely to find a review of certain, (hopefully) interesting common movie mistakes/inaccuracies. But a cursory examination of previous posts suggests that most of my posts are at best tangentially related to research reviews, appear sporadically, and in general aren’t exactly faithful to either what one would think a blog Research Reviews concerns or to my original intent. Basically, I think the following is important to know, undoubtedly because I’m insane and/or neurotic, and it’s my blog so I can post about whatever I want.

Also, common inaccuracies I intend to address have two properties that make them worth talking about:

1) They are something that most people could not know are inaccuracies


2) They aren’t technical (i.e., this isn’t some explanation of why movies like the X-men films or the Matrix Trilogy are inaccurate because e.g., even if you are able to move so fast you can dodge bullets, if you hit something with your bare hands when moving at that kind of speed you’ll pulverize your hand and a good portion of your arm).

Common Movie Mistake 1: On bullets and cars

From procedural cop shows to buddy cop movies and beyond, we frequently see a bunch of LE officers breaking down doors to get the bad guys (in Law & Order and a number other shows, the main characters are leading the entry team holding pistols while everybody else is armed with an mp5, m4 carbine, or similarly superior weapon). For whatever, reason, often enough the individual (or pair) running point are armed with pistols. Ignoring the fact that there’s a reason SRTs make entry with “long guns”, there’s the issue of low-light situations. Most LE officers who aren’t a member of an SRT don’t have tactical lights on their weapons, but all do carry tactical flashlights. There are a few ways to hold such a flashlight so that it is almost like having a pistol with a tactical light attached, such as the “Rogers method/technique”:

tactical flashlight1

I hate this one, mostly because it requires too much fine motor control for a situation in which fine motor control is severely limited, but also because it reminds me of violin lessons. A better (and I think more common) technique is the Harries method:

tactical flashlight2

I recall an episode in some show in which several LE officers were clearing rooms in a low-light environment, and several had flashlights they were using almost as depicted above with one small difference: instead of putting the hand holding the flashlight under the hand holding the pistol, they put it over the pistol. There are a few issues here:

1) Instead of adding support and stabilizing your pistol, this will put weight on it making it harder to aim

2) Pistols are semiautomatic because shooting not only fires the bullet, it also causes the slide to “blow back”, ejecting the spent shell and sliding the top round from the clip into position. This means that if your flashlight hand is above the pistol and you shoot, the slide will blow backwards and hit your wrist area with a good deal of force.

I haven’t seen that kind of error in a while. In movies especially we find vast improvements thanks to the use of experts to train the actors and to advise whomever is responsible for how a scene will be shod (stunt coordinator, director, etc.). Even in television shows everything from H2H combat scenes to dynamic entries are more accurate. There is, however, one basically universal and extremely common exception to this general increased realism: bullets and cars.

In movies like Taken, the Bourne trilogy (Renner’s film doesn’t count) , etc., and in any TV show where there is some shoot-out involving cars, inevitably we see cars being shot full of holes but protecting either the person or persons in the car or perhaps crouching behind the car using it as cover. There are a few high-end training facilities that teach seminars/courses to LE/military, contractors, and civilians (often, many courses are off-limits to civilians). In one such facility, because they teach a lot of driving tactics (for LE/Federal paramilitary units, close personal protection, & high-risk security), and because this means doing things like deliberately crashing into another vehicle in a particular way, learning how to drive with flat tires, etc., they end up with a lot of wrecked vehicles. This doesn’t make such vehicles useless, though, as (particularly in courses for LE personnel) it’s important to show just what should be considered cover (cover refers to a barrier of some sort that protects you, whether it’s a wall or a tree or whatever; concealment is mainly cover that bullets can go through, or cover without the protection; obviously for scout/snipers and recon concealment is really about concealing). Thanks to Hollywood, too many people believe they can use cars as cover. So in many courses, one of the wrecked vehicles will be towed to one of the 100 meter ranges (in our case it was a Lincoln Town Car). A life-sized, human shaped target will be put behind the car, and often various materials commonly available “cover” is made out of (cement blocks, bricks, etc.) will be put on or near the vehicle. Then the students will shoot the vehicle with a variety of common pistol calibers (9mm, 40 S&W, 45 ACP, and whatever exotic ammunition someone might have- in one case armor piercing 5.7x28mm rounds), .223/5.56 rifle/carbine rounds, and usually 12-gauge shotgun shells.

In order to maximize the lesson taught here (I’ll get to it in a moment), usually someone will be asked to fire a single 9mm round (or the instructor will), then a single .223/5.56 round, and then moving up from least “powerful” pistol rounds to most powerful. This is important because a 9mm round isn’t very powerful. So when you see someone shoot (or you yourself shoot) this rather puny round at a target behind a car, and this little 9mm round not only goes right through the car but hits the target behind it doing more damage than if the car hadn’t been there, it’s very educational (the reason it does more damage is partly because the bullet is much slower and will therefore “deposit” all of its energy onto the target rather than go through the target; partly because instead spinning along the x,y axes thanks to the barrel’s rifling it’s now spinning along all three axes, increasing the area hit on impact as well as the volume torn up as it traverses into the target; and partly because in addition to the bullet various pieces of the vehicle are now “carried along” with the bullet at high-speed, so it’s a bit like being shot with a much more powerful round and a shotgun at the same time).

It turns out that vehicles don’t make for good cover. While few rounds can go through an engine block (and none of these are pistol rounds, with the possible exception of a .500 S&W), not only will rounds travel through the hood and into the target but will often skip off the pavement into the target (even when the person shooting wasn’t trying to do this). Apart from the engine block and one other exception, just about every caliber likely to be involved in a firefight will go right through a car, no problem (a few 9mm rounds will also break up a cement block , and more powerful pistol calibers can do this with a single round; just an FYI).

What’s the other exception? Interestingly enough, it’s the one part of a car any gun will always destroy with a single shot in some TV episode or movie: the tire. If you fire a .223/5.56 (rifle) round at a tire, it will puncture it, but the tire will close up around the hole resulting in a slow leak. In order to cause the tire to instantly deflate as in the movies (at least, the movies/shows where the tire deflates instead of blowing up), you have to hit a small region of the wheel that the tire connects to. This was demonstrated at one time by an ex-SEAL team 6 sniper using a Bushmaster carbine (iron sights) firing prone at a distance of maybe ~15-20 meters. His first round missed, but he did hit the right spot on the next try. Keep in mind that not only is this individual an ex-operator (who has to be good enough to teach elite units, and in order to do this as well as for other reasons, who spends an enormous amount of time perfecting his skills), but also that this is a stationary vehicle, there’s no incoming fire, and he’s shooting from the position with the most support (prone). In movies, somehow one guy in a car is able to shoot out one or more tires from a pursuing vehicle (or vehicle being pursued) with a handgun while both vehicles are driving at high speed and usually weaving all over the place.

So, on the one hand (spoiler alert) Liam Neeson can drive an SUV being shot at with various automatic weapons such that we see the bullet holes appear in the driver’s side door without Liam getting a scratch, even though in reality those bullet holes would cause pieces of the car along with the bullet to basically shred him to pieces. On the other, the one part of the car that can actually make decent cover- the wheel- is the one part that will blow-up when hit by a pistol round.

Admittedly, even though this pair of inaccuracies is somewhat interesting because TV/film always get them backwards, this wouldn’t be interesting enough were it not placed in the larger context I started with: the increased accuracy in this very context. Gone are the days when being shot in a movie meant clutching your stomach and falling over; military movies in particular now show us soldiers being hit multiple times and still staying in the fight. Although martial arts movies continue, movies like the Bourne trilogy, The Hunted, Lone Survivor, Blackhawk Down, etc., get pretty realistic in how they portray close-quarters combat, firefights, even the carbine/rifle carry position (high port) SEALs use:

high port

I’m sure SEALs aren’t the only operators to use this position, but Rangers and many other operators train to run using some form of low ready (by “some form” I mean that for some ready/carry positions, especially this one, there are different names for the same positions or very similar positions).

Basically, a lot of effort is taken to ensure that details few people would be able to identify as accurate or inaccurate in many films and shows. Why, then, do we have the kind of John Wayne inaccuracies when it comes to cars and bullets?

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