Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Another American Sniper Review

American Sniper is good. The battlefield scenes leave your heart squeezed into your throat—you feel the punch of Kyle’s rifle, hear the waver in the troops’ voices, and wince at the explosions. Eastwood orchestrates tension like a maestro and not just the combat portions. The scenes depicting Kyle’s struggle with PTSD are equally gripping, all the more because they’re coupled with very realistic depictions of military family life. Ditto the banter of the soldiers, SEALs and Marines—it all sounds genuine. Besides a few hiccups (Kyle’s phone call to his wife during a firefight being one glaring example) the film feels authentic throughout. That’s not easy to pull off.  

One of the Marines I served with posted on Facebook that, “the American Sniper trailer was better than the entire Hurt Locker.” I disagree. American Sniper doesn’t bump the Hurt Locker from its rightful place as the definitive film of the Iraq War. The closest equivalent to Mustafa, (the Syrian sniper antagonist in American Sniper) in the Hurt Locker is improvised explosive devices themselves, something that has largely defined warfare in the last decade. This made the Hurt Locker both relevant and apolitical; we had no moral qualms rooting for the fictionalized Sergeant First Class William James defusing IEDs. Eastwood gives us a fictionalized Christopher Scott Kyle who’s also pretty easy to cheer. The real life Kyle, however—a man lionized in the U.S. military for one hundred and sixty (confirmed) battlefield kills—is both less complex and less likable than his screen equivalent. So, while American Sniper succeeds as a film, it fails miserably as a character study. Fact is sometimes better than fiction, but it always requires a better editor and this is certainly what the depiction of Christopher Scott Kyle needed.

One of the best scenes in American Sniper is a conversation between Kyle and a fellow SEAL following Kyle’s shooting of a woman and child from an overwatch position. It’s a poignant exchange: one young man of morals trying to convince another that he is not a murderer. After reading Kyle’s autobiography though, it’s hard to believe he needed such convincing. In Kyle’s description of the actual event on which this scene is based he does not give the impression of having had any moral dilemmas about taking the shot(s). Quite the opposite—Kyle saw the battlefield in stark terms, repeatedly voicing his regret that he was not able to kill more of the enemy. Eastwood tones this aspect of Kyle’s character down considerably. While we hear Kyle and several other troops referring to Iraqis as “savages” in the movie, we can’t help but weigh this against his initial (completely fictional) compunctions about killing on the battlefield.

Kyle’s real-life rhetoric has drawn accusations ranging from racism to war crimes. Despite the language in his autobiography—which I will be the first to admit, is vile in places—Kyle was not a war criminal. On the battlefield women and children holding weapons aren’t women and children. They’re combatants. Kyle’s actions in theaters of war saved American lives. He more than deserved every battlefield accolade he received.       

The charges of racism and “Islamophobia” are not so easily dismissed. Early in his autobiography Kyle refers to the “despicable evil of the savage” Iraqis. It gets worse from there. Kyle recounts telling an Army Colonel that, “I don’t kill people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.” Ugly stuff. But the traits we want—need—in our fighting forces, things like comfort with violence and selective dehumanization is ugly stuff. Again, I am not condoning Kyle’s views, only pointing out that by misrepresenting Kyle’s character Eastwood excuses the American public from the tough questions of what the military we demand requires of those who serve.

Reading Kyle’s autobiography I was put in mind of a passage from All’s Quiet on the Western Front:

But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?

It’s a beautiful passage and it’s exactly how we don’t want our troops to feel about the “enemy.” We demand our troops view the enemy as an “other”—not as a human being deserving respect and kindness, but as an enemy to be shot. On the battlefield we need men like Kyle and not Eastwood’s portrayal either, but the snarling mongoose finishing a cobra real life version. For some young men this means seeing the enemy as a gook, a kraut, a skinny or a Jap. For Kyle it meant seeing the enemy as savages. We—the American public—prefer not to think too much about the mental adjustments necessary for troops to affect violence on our behalf and Eastwood obliges by sparing us the more unpleasant details of Kyle’s character.

SEAL training is designed to prepare men for the most dangerous combat missions imaginable. But as Eric Greitens puts it in his moving memoir, The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian and Making of a Navy SEAL: the training tests the soul, it doesn’t cleanse it. The traits required for formidability on the battlefield come at a cost both for those wielding the spear and those at its tip. My biggest disappointment in American Sniper is that Eastwood missed the opportunity to bluntly confront the American public with this fact.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Highest Form of Flattery

My love of The Cure cost me. As a black kid in a predominately white school, I was expected to maintain certain standards. These blackrequistes were an intricate set of rules covering everything from speech (including—but not limited to—the selective and artful dropping of various forms of the verb to be), to reading habits (Dragon Magazine was to be enjoyed at home—not on the school-bus), to dating (okay to do so outside your race, just not too consistently or enthusiastically).

The blackrequiestes were the bane of my Junior High existence. I was—as my peers were wont to remind me in pained, drawn out tones—just wrong. The only sport I was interested in was skateboarding. My pride when Storm became leader of the X-Men was akin to what I felt many years later during Barrack Obama’s first inauguration. Worst of all, Siouxie & the Banshees, De La Soul and Love & Rockets were keeping The Cure company in my tape case. I was excused on the dating bit though. I inspired a type of interracial female solidarity that was exactly the opposite of dudes like Idris Elba and Michael Fassbender. A gathering of the girls who shot me down in Junior High would look like a photo shoot for a United Colors of Bennetton advertisement.

“It’s almost like you’re trying not to get a girlfriend,” my older brother Jermaine would lament.

Jermaine was the type of guy whose crossover dribble was a thing of fine beauty. A guy with a high top fade that inspired hour long conversations on the back of the bus which tough guys really should not engage in (“so what you doing, dog—blow drying?”). And he could dance: the running man, that move when Kid n’ Play would jump over their legs and ‘grinds to slow jams’ that were so legendary that flyers with his picture were distributed to chaperones prior to school dances. Even my brother’s name—Jermaine—had swagger. This was years before Messrs. Wade and Johnson. In the 90’s my name only seemed destined for greasy work shirts: “Yeah—I can put a new carburetor in there for you.”

I’d catch a glimpse of Jermaine watching me lace up my neon blue suede Vision Street Wear high-tops—his heart completely broken—and I would sincerely feel sorry that he was stuck with me as a little brother. To his credit, Jermaine kept my love of Elfquest, Robotech and—yes—The Cure from getting my ass whipped at several key junctures during my teenage years. Still, my love of the band cost me and I can’t help but—however irrationally—feel like the lead singer Robert Smith and I have been through a lot together.  

Some years ago I was on vacation with my then girlfriend, now wife, in Budapest when I saw Robert Smith giving an interview on Hungarian MTV. I don’t speak Hungarian, but the voiced over translation was low enough that I caught the gist.

“This kid clearly has no idea who the hell she’s talking to—that’s fucking Robert Smith for chrissakes!”

My stomach tightened further during the next segment: the band 311’s butchered cover of Lovesong. Nick Hornby wrote that we listen to certain songs until we 'figure them out.' The kind of songs which provide a one or two month soundtrack to our life, then we hear them while shopping at Baby Gap and say to ourselves, “Hmmm. I used to dig that.” Lovesong was not that type of song for me. Lovesong infected me like a virus that I never truly shook. The haunting, melancholic ballad left, as they say, an indelible scratch on my brain.

311’s Acapulco-tourist-version was a vicious affront; these douche bags shouldn’t have even been allowed to listen to the motherfucking Cure. I don’t remember what I said out loud that day in Budapest. I do remember my girlfriend quietly taking the remote control out of my hand and changing the channel.

I love this story. I tell it whenever The Cure comes up in conversation.

“Huh. Have you heard Natalay Dawn’s cover of Lovesong?” A friend asked me recently, “It’s pretty good.”

I googled it immediately. Damn it. Dawn’s version was good.

“Do you think only liking the original of a song somehow makes you a more genuine fan?” my wife asked.

Yes. That is exactly what I thought.

She then proceeded, without even really trying hard, to name a number of covers of great songs which I love.

Covers can be great. Some because they sound exactly like the original, just slower (or faster) or with a little more (or less) stank. Others because they sound completely different from the original—different genre, different lyrics—but still add up to a great song. A good cover pays homage. But a bad cover is worse than a just a bad song. A bad song stands alone; a bad cover drags the original down a couple pegs with it.  

So, with another nod to Nick Hornby here’re some of my favorites:

1.       The Sneak Attack. Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing has been covered to death, rarely well. In their covers, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton (both artists I like) tried to match Jimi’s funk. That’s like trying to give Carlos Hatchcock marksmanship tips.  Corrine Bailey Rae  had to dress Little Wing down Neo-Soul style to make it work. The Jackson 5’s I Want You Back is another staple best not taken on in a frontal assault. I’m far from the first to say it, but it’s worth repeating: in the midst of all the insanity, mockery and cruelty, it’s easy to forget the magic that was Michael Jackson at the top of his game. But Lake Street Dive nailed it in their bluesy flanking maneuver.[1]  When Rachel Price tells you “she left tear stains on the ground” you feel like you owe her an apology.   

2.       Out Funked. I’m a big Otis Redding fan. It feels like sacrilege to say that the Black Crowes put more stank on Hard to Handle than Otis. But (apologies to Big O) they did.

3.       New Same Song. The Afghan Whigs transformed the Supremes’ flirty refrain in Come See About Me, into the drawling demand of a drunken former lover. Listen to both of these back to back—hard to believe the lyrics are identical, isn’t it?

4.       The Toss Up. I have to admit I was only introduced to Richard Berry’s classic Have Love Will Travel in the movie RocknRolla. Then it was the Sonics masterful low-fi rendition which provided the backdrop to Thandie Newton walking off like a bad ass with a bag of stolen Euros.[2] (As if we needed another reason to love this woman.) But the Black Keys threw down on this track in their 2003 version. Too close to call.      

5.       The Revisit. Iconic video aside, I was never too into Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love. Florence + the Machine’s version dragged me back to the original. And this is probably the most we can ask of a cover—a song so good that it makes you appreciate its roots.

Alright. What’d I miss? 

[1] Sorry, once you start with Marine Corps metaphors it’s really hard to stop.
[2] Top scenes of women walking off like bad asses. Thandie Newton again in RocknRolla: Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight: And the one that inspired them all, Alida Valli in the Third Man: