« Maybe "Selma" is too smart to be an Oscar movie anyway | Main | The peculiar current cinema »

January 20, 2015

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

george

As soldier-turned-author David Hackworth repeatedly said, "The Army's job is to break things and kill people." That may upset civilians, but that's what is required in war. Especially when the other side is shooting, too.

I doubt anyone (except maybe Charles Lindbergh's followers) were upset that Hawks' SERGEANT YORK "glorified a killer." Both it and SNIPER are about God-fearing, working-class Southerners with incredible shooting skills, who racked up an incredible body count in their wars. And both men were played by an actor named Cooper.

People on the left and right have been using Eastwood's movie to score political points and "prove" their moral superiority over their ideological foes. Maybe they should just discuss it as a MOVIE, instead of a political tract. I plan to see SNIPER tomorrow. Might have more to say later.

Mark

'American Sniper does take the war in Iraq at face value, as in it was a war and that the United States was within its right to wage it and all that.'

Hmm, slightly confused as to how the United States was within its right to wage a war in Iraq? Afghanistan yes, Iraq no.

Oliver_C

I'm glad this movie is going to make a lot of money -- for Jesse Ventura.

Petey

I eagerly await your follow-up: A professional music critic™ answers your "The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley" questions.

Petey

Or to analogize a less snarky manner: if I had been born with a rare neurological condition that prevented me from perceiving context, I'd consider On The Waterfront to be one of the great American movies. Sans context, it's a stunning film, worthy of great admiration.

Unfortunately, I do not suffer from that neurological condition, so I've always seen what Kazan was up to there. A director with auteur-ish control is well able to FRAME a story to make certain things heroic, which may be sorta un-heroic with some context.

So I've never been able to enjoy or commend On The Waterfront very much, despite simultaneously recognizing how good it'd be in a theoretically context-free world...

Petey

Finally:

"It was all, like, state-sanctioned killing. Seems a little unfair to get all up in his face for that, no?"

Frankly, I don't think that's even close to being among the more trenchant objections to the film. But if we ARE going to go there, ummm, I really don't want to get to score a Godwin In One, but...

MarkVH

"War isn't hell at all. It's man at his best; the highest morality he's capable of. It's not war that's insane, you see. It's the morality of it. It's not greed or ambition that makes war: it's goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we've managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we'll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It's not war that's unnatural to us, it's virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved."

MarkVH

"We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on the ministers and generals, or warmongering imperialists, or all the other banal bogeys. It's the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers. The rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow's weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices."

MarkVH

FTR, I don't necessarily agree with either of the above sentiments (or at least, not completely), but they seemed at least somewhat pertinent.

Regarding this discussion, my general feeling is this: why does Chris Kyle need to be lionized as a hero or demonized as a villain? How many of us are just one thing? Haven't seen Sniper yet and plan to soon, but the sheer breadth of the opinions on it make it sound like Eastwood doesn't necessarily see him as one or the other. The need to paint people as just one thing or another seems to me at the heart of this discussion, and one of the primary reasons it's gone so far off the rails. We need to do better.

Brian P

Excellent. Now will everyone STFU about the plastic baby?

Glenn Kenny

"Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime."—Ernest Hemingway.

Petey

"Haven't seen Sniper yet"

But have you seen the trailer? If not, you should. Reliable sources say that's all that's necessary to opine at length in an informed manner.

"why does Chris Kyle need to be lionized as a hero or demonized as a villain? ... Eastwood doesn't necessarily see him as one or the other."

But I think Eastwood uses numerous framing devices to indeed paint him as a hero and wholly sympathetic. To invoke two pullquotes from Glenn's (generally fine) review:

"and by the time the sniper has completed his tour, the viewer has good reason to be a little, or more than a little, frightened by the guy. But Taya is not."

and

"His lack of self-doubt never comes off as alienating in its steadfastness, even at moments when it seems like it’s misplaced"

All this leaves unsaid one of the better objections to the film. While intellectually, one may recognize that Kyle is highly problematic, Eastwood's entire framing is structured to make the audience FEEL him as an entirely sympathetic hero.

-----

And very tangentially, those seeking to kill Shakespeare, jazz, and word "problematic" are History's Worst Monsters. "Problematic" is an incredibly useful word in many contexts, and while I can't speak for those who misuse it, it really does have its place.

Adam Ross

FYI on chaplains -- Under the Geneva Conventions, military chaplains are considered non-combatants and as such do not carry weapons, nor are they trained on them. American chaplains are accompanied by Chaplains Assistants who carry a weapon and are trained to protect the chaplain in any danger.

Glenn Kenny

I think "problematic" is perfectly okay and even great, Petey.

I remember something like 35 years ago having beers with David Edelstein and Bill McKibben at Edelstein's place, and Edelstein was giving me a bit of a hard time over having used the word "inelegant" in some piece of writing or other. "The very word itself is...inelegant," quoth he. McKibben gave his pipe a few considered puffs and weighed in, "It's a perfectly good word." I owe the man.

Oliver_C

Has 'Exodus: Gods and Kings' so tarnished the word 'problematic'?

Petey

"Has 'Exodus: Gods and Kings' so tarnished the word 'problematic'?"

Film Twitter very recently reached consensus for unrelated reasons that its usage should be a capital crime.

Mark Mason

Great read as always, Glenn. Haven't seen the movie but plan to this weekend, based n your praise for it. You addressed whether the film thinks Iraqis are "savages," but do you think the filmmakers had any obligation to show that the real Chris Kyle absolutely thought and proclaimed them so? I'm curious as to whether a film about a real person, in your opinion, should show seemingly irredeemable qualities that existed in real life, or whether it's "right," whatever that means, to use a real-life-based person as basically a fictional construct for the film's sake. I'm specifically wondering about the movie's omission of two of the more heralded examples spotlighted in recent days: Kyle's (apparently fictional) claim to have killed two carjackers in Texas and then used his war record to make the shootings and apparently the bodies disappear, and his claim to have gone down to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and shooting thirty looters from the top of the Superdome. The first is odd, the second downright troubling, as least to me, as if true it would make Kyle a stateside serial killer, though it seems clear at least from the New Yorker article that both incidents (and the Jesse Ventura fight) are bogus. The fact that Kyle claimed credit for these actions I think is fascinating, but I understand if that's not the story Eastwood & Co. want to tell...but should they have at least acknowledged that side of Kyle's character? Or is the film merely fiction and should we divorce ourselves as viewers (at least during the running time) from the messier facts in Kyle's history?

HTS

I'd have to see it again to see how much this holds up, but in retrospect, I think Eastwood may have portrayed something like two opposing viewpoints (or ideologies) by using different methods for both. Kyle's confident, black-and-white views are often expressed didactically and verbally, while skepticism and doubt pertaining the war or what Kyle's done is usually seen or experienced: the way others react to Kyle's confident sense of mission, certain sniper scenes that are more obvious, the way Kyle is uncomfortable around a surviving soldier's own gratitude towards him, etc. Eastwood's films usually have a strong current of ambiguity - maybe less so than usual here, but much more than the harshest critics realize.

Chris Labarthe

I know what you're thinking. "Did he fire two babies or only one?" Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself.

That Fuzzy Bastard

Seems like the robot baby illustrates exactly why Eastwood's "get-er-done" approach makes him a weak director. When a great– hell, even a good– director sees a shot that isn't working, said director changes the shot. Eastwood, faced with a major extra/prop problem, didn't come up with a way to shoot around it, he just went with the plan even when it resulted in some terrible shots. I understand not everyone can be David Fincher, but regarding your movie's quality as more important than its shooting schedule is a prerequisite for making a half-decent movie.

That Fuzzy Bastard

Mark's comment about Katrina looters is interesting too. Eastwood's done what, unfortunately, most filmmakers do on biopics---take out all the weird and therefore interesting stuff in favor of a narrative as smooth and unsurprising as a Ken doll's crotch.

Petey

"and unsurprising as a Ken doll's crotch"

Strongly disagree. I'd say a Ken doll's crotch should be Very Surprising. One would imagine it's caused many traumas.

"Seems like the robot baby illustrates exactly why Eastwood's "get-er-done" approach makes him a weak director."

Well, unlike writers, directors generally don't sustain past 70 to 75. And Eastwood is 112.

I mean, Woody and Roman are current notable outliers. If we go into the past, Hitchcock made Frenzy at 73, and Buñuel sustained well into his 70's. But again, outliers.

But I essentially agree with you on late Eastwood. Personally, while I quite like some of Eastwood's earlier, funnier movies, I don't think he's done anything particularly good since Bridges of Madison County all the way back in 1995, which was sorta his masterpiece. I mean, Gran Torino is a perfectly unobjectionable light entertainment, and Glenn likes Invictus, but really.

All that said, no matter what one says about AS, one has to "note" his success in channeling his Dirty Harry backlash popular appeal into the financial and zeitgeist success of AS at his age, all these years later. It's a feat.

"Eastwood's done what, unfortunately, most filmmakers do on biopics---take out all the weird and therefore interesting stuff"

Genuinely strongly disagree with you here. He hasn't taken out the interesting stuff. He's taken out a SPECIFICALLY SELECTED CHUNK of the interesting stuff. But he's left a different SPECIFICALLY SELECTED CHUNK of the interesting stuff to frame his movie into something that makes 'em line up.

One may make a moral judgment about such decisions, if one so chooses. But very different biopic situation than, say, The Imitation Game.

-----

And speaking of backlash popular appeal, while it's the elephant in the room that no one wants to even mention, that convention slot that helped set this up DID happen...

Kurzleg

"I'm curious as to whether a film about a real person, in your opinion, should show seemingly irredeemable qualities that existed in real life, or whether it's "right," whatever that means, to use a real-life-based person as basically a fictional construct for the film's sake."

It's by no means a perfect comparison, but contrast the omissions about Kyle in "Sniper" with how JMW Turner is handled in "Mr. Turner." Leigh and Spall make sure Turner's less-than-endearing qualities are on full display in the film. But then we're talking about the depiction of an artist - and a distant, historical figure at that - versus a soldier taking part in a relatively recent and controversial war. There's certainly less at stake when "Mr. Turner" shows Turner's warts. Or as Petey puts it, it's a "...very different biopic situation..."

Is it right? To me, there's something disingenuous about omitting inconvenient or unflattering details in a film based the life of a real person. That's especially true when the subject matter is war. What's offered ends up being an incomplete and misleading picture of the person and how or why they're able to do what they've done. Was it selflessness? Purely skill? Or were there other motivations or compulsions? When the subject of your film makes outrageous claims about extra-judicial killings, those claims would seem to be germane to finding out who that person is or has become.

Glenn Kenny

I'm gonna sound almost doctrinaire here, but I think unless it's a documentary then the filmmaker's "obligation" to history or facts or whatever the hell the deal was or was not with Jesse Ventura is...nil. Filmmakers are going to do what they're going to do, and the critic's job is to deal with what's on the screen. I can see someone like Philip Kaufman circa "The Right Stuff" making a Chris Kyle movie that takes on his fabulist side explicitly, and there would be a chance that this imaginary movie could be a good one. In the case of "American Sniper," it's a fiction, and the lead character is a fiction, and the extent to which the fiction of the lead character annoys people who would rather have had another aspect of the "real" person revealed...well, it's irrelevant to what I am obliged to address about the film. Maybe if I wrote for Vox I'd feel differently.

Having laid out my position, I am now going to have to swallow its medicine hard once "The End of the Tour" comes around.

Don Lewis

Finally caught the film last night and completely side with Glenn here in terms of the "troubling" aspects and the hand wringing. I don't think the film is trying to glorify Kyle or the war or anything and frankly, I felt really bad for the guy which I think was the point. I was really kind of surprised how NOT jingoistic the film was but I can also see "less informed" people in the U.S. thinking it's a tribute to a real hero. Therein lies the, I guess, brilliance of the film. Your take on war/Iraq/the military industrial complex pretty much decides your opinion of the film.

I know we had no right to go to Iraq but I have many friends on Facebook and in life who don't get that still. These, incidentally, are the same people praising police of late, for protecting us. Literally every friend I have that sees no issue with Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin or Oscar Grant (et, all) being murdered and their executioner not being held accountable is a big AMERICAN SNIPER fan and considers Kyle a hero. Yes, that's effing gross and narrow minded and...gross....it's a fact and it represents a lot of Americans. Scraming at them to develop some empathy and decency is never, ever going to change their minds and in fact, will only push them into farther gross behavior.

That being said, I thought Kyle was a kind of bro doofus who always wanted to be the High School QB but was too big of a dope to pull it off. Had the war not given him something to commit his indoctrinated Sheep Dog ethos into, he would have either become an asshole coach from a Jr. High team or better, a more buffed Uncle Rico from NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE. Not to cast aspersions, but I know guys like Kyle. I also LIKE some real life people like Kyle. They're a product of their culture and again, just as those who understand finer nuances of society will never like, start keg standing and beating minorities for fun, these guys (and girls!) are never going to hope some change in gun laws occur. The battle lines are drawn. But AMERICAN SNIPER doesn't really, in my mind, seem to be in favor of either pole.

Overall I thought the movie was ok but I think Kyle was an oaf who like many young, poor Americans joined the military, got brainwashed to kill and was really good at it. If anything the film represents the growing culture war between citizens in America where the right/ "dumb" people give us shit for eating healthy, not arming ourselves to the gills and driving a Prius and we "educated" people shake our heads and wring our hands at the savagery of wanting to live a simple life wherein the TRUTH of America is better left in a dark corner.

Kurzleg

"In the case of "American Sniper," it's a fiction, and the lead character is a fiction, and the extent to which the fiction of the lead character annoys people who would rather have had another aspect of the "real" person revealed...well, it's irrelevant to what I am obliged to address about the film."

I'm not sure if this is what you're getting at, Glenn, but this Ebert quote came to mind: “It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it.”

I'm wrestling with the argument that "it's a fiction" as it relates to the choices of the filmmakers (not that the film critic necessarily has to make value judgments on those choices). The things omitted are truly bizarre (stories about extra-judicial killings) and make one wonder if Kyle ultimately wasn't a bit crazy, though it's possible these stories are the product of his post-war dealings with PTSD rather than an underlying condition. And it is understandable that the filmmakers omit certain things in order to avoid putting something on screen that Kyle's widow might not appreciate or agree is germane to his story (or jibe with the way she chooses to remember him). His widow has made a great sacrifice in her life, I'd say. In view of that sacrifice, you could argue it's even commendable for Eastwood and company to try to thread that needle where they're trying to make a film that's as true to reality as possible while still honoring the dead and the wishes of their surviving loved ones.

I've more or less concluded that Kyle's success as a sniper was in part the product of some personality characteristics that aren't fully positive or recommended for emulation. It a conclusion that's absolutely biased, but there you have it.

george

"Excellent. Now will everyone STFU about the plastic baby?"

The fake baby is barely noticeable in the film. There are no closeups. If there wasn't such a big ruckus on the Internet about it, I probably wouldn't have noticed. Most of the robot baby comments are from people who hate the movie and want to make snarky cracks about it. (Hello,Mark Harris.)

I thought the movie was a largely objective portrait of one person's experiences. Eastwood doesn't make a case for defending the invasion of Iraq, and why should he? That would have been a different movie. It would have been about the Bush White House (which made the decision to invade) and Congress (which gave him a blank check).

Some of the attacks on the film are ridiculously over the top. Andrew O'Heir's comment, in Salon, that the movie is about "a Texas good ol' boy shooting kids and old ladies," is typical of the liberal elite's response. All this does is confirm suspicions that critics who live in New York and Los Angeles are out of touch with -- and feel contempt for -- the ordinary people who live in "flyover country."

george

"That being said, I thought Kyle was a kind of bro doofus who always wanted to be the High School QB but was too big of a dope to pull it off."

Kyle is much more of a swaggering bully in the book than in the movie. His character is softened (which makes the movie fiction). The movie omits Kyle's numerous barroom brawls, for instance. He got into two in bars on the Tennessee-Kentucky line, not far from where I lived at the time. One resulted in his arrest; the other resulted in him breaking his hand on a guy's jaw.

I also don't recall the movie Kyle saying he doesn't give a "flying fuck" about Iraqis, as the real Kyle (or his ghostwriters) said in his book. But I didn't go to AMERICAN SNIPER expecting word-for-word faithfulness to the book. As a movie, I thought it was very good.

Mike

Hey, this is my first "big" comment on this site and I hope not to come off as preachy: Questions of real vs. "fictional" Chris Kyle aside, what I found distasteful about American Sniper was the stress on American victimization to the near-exclusion of all else. As with The Deer Hunter back in the day, people are going to be able to argue about whether the film is pro-war or anti-war (David Bordwell: "strategic ambiguity"), but it seems to me that what anti-war elements there may be in the movie relate almost exclusively to its affect on Kyle, his wife and other Americans. (There's Kyle's shooting of the kid, which is pretty harrowing, but ultimately it's seen as justified--and, in the circumscribed heat-of-the-battle context of the scene, it is--and it's offset by a parallel scene where another kid is spared for doing the right thing and dropping the weapon.)

I don't think I buy the well-this-is-the-movie-they-chose-to-make line; I think that what filmmakers choose to show, choose to address, and choose to omit is important in evaluating their work, whether or not it's based on real-life stuff. Eastwood and co. decided to address the Iraq war through the lens of what it did to the aggressors, and I think that's legit grounds for criticism, as it was w/ The Deer Hunter. And, to put my cards on the table, I probably wouldn't have this complaint--or at least it wouldn't weigh so heavily against the movie for me--if the Iraq war wasn't such a recent, and still very consequential event, and if I didn't view it as a disgrace.

Henry Holland

I've seen some of the current biopics recently (The Imitation Game, Theory of Everything and Mr. Turner) and as I know the stories of Turing, Hawking and Turner, I found them laughable as history but terrific movies. I also record a lot of stuff on TCM and I watched the risible "Words and Music" about Rodgers & Hart last night. It was hilarious to watch an amped-up Mickey Rooney play Lorenz Hart as a straight guy mooning after a long-lost lady love when I knew that Lorenz Hart was homosexual and wasn't in to long-term relationships, to put it mildly. Movies: terrible history lessons.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Tip Jar

Tip Jar
Blog powered by Typepad

Categories