Posted tagged ‘War film’

War Films: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and War Machine

August 13, 2017

I wish the movies Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and War Machine were better than they are, but after watching both  several times, it’s hard to argue with the mixed reviews and lukewarm popular reception each earned upon release. Defeating hope that Hollywood might compellingly portray the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in ways that bite hard politically and psychologically, both squander the potential of their print sources and the talent of their proven actors and filmmakers.

In the case of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the Ang Lee-directed movie version of Ben Fountain’s National Book Award-winning novel just plays flat. The beauty of Fountain’s novel about a misbegotten effort to honor the members of an infantry squad at a Dallas Cowboys game lay in its ingenious imagining of the multiple ways the infantrymen, known as the Bravos, exposed a modern America desperately looking for heroes at the same time it has divorced itself from real investment in the wars that might generate them. The allures of big money, big time sports, military idolatry, Hollywood fame, evangelical salvation, and conservative talk radio that consume the citizenry gathered to watch the Cowboys and fete the Bravos quickly reveal their shallowness when bumped up against the Bravos’, and particularly Billy’s, skepticism toward everything that lies beyond the realm of their shared warfighting experience. Holding things together in the novel are Fountain’s stylistic pyrotechnics, which supercharged even the most mundane physical descriptions while giving crazed articulation to Billy’s muddled misgivings. Driving everything forward was a very basic set of questions that generated suspense as the game clock ticked: Would the Bravos make fools of themselves in the halftime ceremony? Would Billy and his cheerleader crush Faison find a way to be together? Would Billy succumb to the pleas of his peacenik sister and a hippie preacher and refuse to return to Iraq? Would the film deal that a big shot Hollywood producer named Albert is trying to put together come to fruition?

Unfortunately, little of this works in the movie, the slackness of which renders the trenchant social critique and human drama of the novel pointless, disconnected, and tedious. The first couple of scenes, which introduce Billy and the Bravos, their military escort Major Mac, Albert, and Dallas Cowboys PR factotum “Pussy Boy Josh” while setting up the basic premises of the Bravos’ battlefield heroics and their arrival at Cowboys Stadium for a Thanksgiving Day orgy of congratulations and celebration, are OK, but just OK. Within minutes of the somewhat-promising start, however, scenes begin to fizzle, storylines start to slog, and soon the actors, and Lee, too, seem to have lost interest in the movie they are making, and the viewing experience becomes a slow grind to the end. Why exactly this is so, and whether it need be so, is a good question. To my mind, many scenes, such as those featuring Billy’s sister (played by Kristen Stewart), and especially the final showdown involving Billy, his squad leader Staff Sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund), Albert (Chris Tucker), and Cowboys owner Norm (Steve Martin) over the proposed movie deal, could have been better staged and more vibrantly acted. A.O. Scott, in an otherwise favorable New York Times review, writes that Billy Lynn feels “more like a filmed play than an adapted novel” and that “the acting has a studied, stagy quality.” I agree, but am not as forgiving as Scott; honestly, some of the scenes have the turgid, blocky quality of 70s and 80s TV dramas such as Mannix and Vega$, shows featuring lunky and ponderous men taking turns delivering very serious lines.

Perhaps, though, something deeper, maybe even structural, drains the movie’s energy. The hole at the center of it all might be Billy himself: sweet and something of an idiot savant, he is also passive and inarticulate—though the formula worked for Forrest Gump, it’s not exactly what you want as the star of a movie that strives to be a blockbuster. Joe Alwyn looks great as Billy Lynn, and God Bless Billy I hope he gets to sleep with Faison as soon as possible and then lives happily ever after with her, but still…. The book strives to make us think that Billy’s battlefield heroics have some connection to his integrity and sound sensibility, as does the movie, but the movie struggles more than the book to make us feel his nobility to the same degree that the other characters do. It’s not hard to imagine Billy ten years on living a low-key life much like that of the protagonist of another recent film: the Adam Driver character in the indie movie Paterson—a former Marine now loved by a woman better-looking than he seemingly deserves, a good man basically, but otherwise so cowed by the complexity of life—in particular his own past life–that he determines to keep everything as simple, as routine, and as repetitive as possible. This is all by the way of suggesting that Fountain’s novel, despite the stylistic razzmatazz and the glitzy trappings of the NFL and Destiny’s Child, is at heart another quiet, minor-key portrait of a brooding combat veteran—a hard act to pull off in Hollywood and an even harder sell in American cineplexes.

In the failure of Billy to establish himself as the dynamic center of the film, Staff Sergeant Dime and Billy’s squadmates takes precedence, with multiple scenes showing them baiting well-meaning Cowboys fans, and the film’s climax consists of several long-winded speeches by Dime defending the Bravos against the manipulation and exploitation of Norm and Albert. But something goes awry with Lee’s effort to consolidate virtue and honor on behalf of Billy and the Bravos. Without Fountain’s wise contextualizing of the Bravos’ hard-earned integrity, their aggressive irritability comes off as more problematic than justifiable or admirable, and eventually one’s sympathy starts shifting toward the subjects of their taunts and accusations, and one begins to wonder why the Bravos don’t just take the damn film deal, no matter the terms—like, who wouldn’t? In so doing, the film inadvertently flips the novel’s perspective on the civil-military divide: rather than demonstrating an American populace out of touch with its warrior class, Ang’s movie suggests that military men such as the Bravos have withdrawn into a self-protective sense of their own superiority they defend by lashing out at civilians they consider lame, which is almost all of them.

War Machine, directed by David Michod and starring Brad Pitt as Glen McMahon, a four-star general based on General Stanley McChrystal, has its own interesting relationship to its source material, its own troubled effort to organize a compelling movie around its central character, and its own interesting take on the civil-military divide. Where Joe Alwyn and the rest of the Bravo junior enlisted soldiers are well-cast as 19-year-old infantrymen, Brad Pitt—far from his Tyler Durden fighting trim–is too doughy to play a convincing McChrystal, a lean, mean running machine if ever there was one. As any YouTube video of McChrystal illustrates, McChrystal epitomizes the Civil-War-reenactor gauntness of the highly-driven modern infantry officer; Michael Hastings in The Operators, the book War Machine fancifully adapts, describes McChrystal as resembling Christian Bale, and based on what I know of Bale, I’d say hell yea, that would work.

Pitt and Michod, however, seem torn between realistic and parodic portrayal of McChrystal—McMahon comes off as a cross between George C. Scott’s portrait of General George Patton in Patton (loud, profane, complex, and admirable) and George C. Scott’s General Buck Turgidson character in Dr. Strangelove (loud, profane, stupid, and reprehensible), leaving the audience to figure out whether McMahon is a larger-than-life, charismatic warrior-leader-intellectual or a buffoon, a fool who doesn’t know that he is a fool. A voiceover (which we learn halfway through the movie is the Hastings character’s) alludes to McChrystal’s cerebral approach toward modern war and his ability to organize “systems” to defeat enemies, but in scene-after-scene, as portrayed by Pitt, General McMahon comes off as neither a Patton or a genius, but a dunce who over-explains things to people who know better as if they were 5th-graders. Similarly, McChrystal was notorious for gleaning information from seized cell phones and laptops, and the intel-and-targeting processes he pioneered in Iraq were highly digitized, but a running joke in War Machine is that General McMahon is an old school low-tech throwback who gets flustered by the challenge of hooking up his computer. Which would be OK, if Michod and Pitt were playing everything for laughs, as the attached advertising poster implies, but it’s clear that they are not, or not always.

Pitt’s over-the-top performance is so bizarre as to short-circuit War Machine’s thematic interest in documenting the failure of military “COIN,” or Counterinsurgency, strategy in Afghanistan, of which McChrystal is portrayed as a primary proponent. The way Pitt’s characterization makes the most sense is that Michod and Pitt make McChrystal ridiculous to reinforce the point that COIN was a foolish and doomed strategy. One of the interesting aspects about The Operators is Hastings’ own working out of his feelings toward McChrystal. Initially charmed, then intrigued, and finally appalled by McChrystal and his inner circle’s insouciant trash-talking, he comes to see them as evil, disloyal, and reprehensible in light of what he perceives as the failure of McChrystal’s leadership in Afghanistan as commander-in-chief there. In Hastings’ telling, it’s not smearing the Vice-President and the French while on a three-day binge in Europe that is McChrystal’s worst crime (to say nothing of his cover-ups of the Abu Ghraib and Pat Tillman fiascos), it’s his promotion of COIN, a strategy that was hated by both Afghans and the US troops who had to implement it. In Hasting’s view, McChrystal is neither a hero nor a joke, but something worse: tangible evidence that one of America’s leading general lives in a bubble comprised of arrogant sycophants deeply hostile to civilian leadership and out of touch with the troops they lead and the people of the country they are nominally helping, men who purvey dubious strategies that might prolong war forever, but never win it.

Michod and Pitt appear to get all that, but torn between parody and biopic, War Machine reduces Hasting’s argumentative edge and subtler portraiture to Saturday Night Live-levels of characterization, and for some reason—given its basic contempt for McChrystal–spins the story to be one of McChrystal’s redemption through an epiphany that the troops in the field hate his COIN strategy and his subsequent avowal at movie’s end to reshape war goals to brutal extermination of the enemy: “Give ‘em hell, boys. Kill those motherfuckers. Eat them alive,” General McMahon tells a group of special operators preparing for a mission. McChrystal, according to Hastings, never publicly renounced COIN strategy, for what it’s worth, but OK, the movie’s allowed to take some liberties to hammer home the point that COIN sucks. Still, more interesting and important aspects of Hastings’ book and the larger saga of McChrystal’s rise-and-fall are left unexamined. The ethics of the McChrystal staff’s shit-talking their civilian leadership, for example, are barely raised, nor are the ethics of Hastings reporting of what might be defended as late night beer-talk among fighting men used to bluntly speaking their minds. Though War Machine portrays at length General McMahon’s staff, it does so for comic and cinematic effect, as if to fill the screen with the type of jazzed-up fast-talkers who populate movies such as The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short, and War Dogs. Michod makes little effort to link McMahon’s staff to corresponding members of McChrystal’s real staff, which might have been a useful way to comment artistically on real historical figures, and he seems to validate the staff’s self-perceptions that they are colorful, tell-it-like-it-is swashbucklers—like grown men still acting like the Bravos in Billy Lynn–not drunken yes-men who naively sabotage their boss’s career, as Hastings ultimately concludes them to be.

So, we’re left with a movie about a foolish man who tries to implement a foolish strategy, but which hints that it might have been about a talented man who tries to implement a flawed strategy under difficult circumstances, and is done in by hubris and the men he trusted most. For the record, I don’t think either The Operators or War Machine has it quite right. Hastings glosses over McChrystal’s effort to bring Joint Special Operations Command operations in Afghanistan to their Iraq-like levels of targeted-killing refinement, and so too does War Machine, save for General McMahon’s final exhortation to the special operations team. McChrystal’s investment in COIN was always inch-deep lip-service, and his real interest in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq, was organizing special operators—SEALS, Delta Force, SAS, Green Berets, and Ranger Task Forces—for dark-side raids to kill or capture high-value targets. From that perspective, anything that involved mollifying Afghans or establishing a framework that made the war understandable to line troops (such as the Bravos) was a cover for missions launched by special operations bubbas after the sun went down—pain-in-the-ass elements of the job that McChrystal took upon himself so others wouldn’t have to. The movie about McChrystal I would like to see, then, would be a much tauter tracing, sans satire, of his transformation (with the help of Admiral William McRaven) of Joint Special Operations Command into the real 21st century “war machine.” Sort of what Zero-Dark-Thirty might have been, if Katherine Bigelow had not made her subject a Global War on Terror side-show organization such as the Central Intelligence Agency and her protagonist a low-ranks bit player like the Jessica Chastain character.

Oh well, the issue is not what films I would have made, but that two recent big-time productions fail on their own terms to be the best movies they might be. With seven years of service in infantry battalions, two years on general officer staffs, and a year in Afghanistan while McChrystal was in charge there, I was eager to see how Hollywood portrayed life in the ranks and at the top of the command pyramid. Perhaps, though, all that has made me too picky: Why in one scene in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is Staff Sergeant Dime wearing an Expert Infantryman’s Badge and in another a Combat Infantryman’s Badge? Why in the battle scene are the Bravos firing their M4s on full automatic, a capability most issue M4s don’t have? Watching War Machine, I noted that the representation of overstuffed, high-tech command posts stuffed with computer terminals and big screens seemed a little thin compared to the upper-echelon headquarters I had peeps of. But ultra-realistic verisimilitude is not the ground on which the two movies struggle most, or something I really care much about. I’m beginning to think that it is beyond Hollywood to make movies contemptuous of war in Iraq or Afghanistan that are both critical and popular successes—with the lack of popularity easier to understand than the failure of so many talented people to successfully stitch together story, character, cinematography, and point-of-view in entertaining, insightful, and aesthetically pleasing ways. Legendary French filmmaker Jean Renoir purportedly said that all war-writing is inherently anti-war, while all war movies inevitably glamorize war. Whether Renoir’s statement is true factually or logically, the most captivating and best-made movies about Iraq and Afghanistan, such as American Sniper and Lone Survivor, are ones that portray soldiers unambiguously proud of their identities and devoted to their missions and that represent battlefield courage and skill without irony or ridicule.

Ben Fountain’s take on Ang Lee’s adaptation of his novel can be found here.

A positive review of War Machine that focuses on Brad Pitt’s performance, from the Village Voice here.

Another positive review of War Machine, from Task and Purpose, that focuses on its portrayal of COIN here.

A negative review of War Machine, from The Atlantic here.

Thanks to Andria Williams for pointing out that the Adam Driver character in Paterson, named Paterson, is a former Marine–a fact revealed only by a quick shot of a bedside portrait. Driver himself, as has been well-documented, is a former Marine who besides achieving acting success has promoted the cause of veterans arts in many forms and venues.

2016

December 16, 2016
Photo by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

Photo by Bill Putnam, used with permission.

By my count, 2016 saw ten contemporary war fiction titles published, one more than in 2015. 2017 promises new novels by David Abrams, Siobhan Fallon, Elliot Ackerman, and Brian Van Reet, as well as a short-fiction anthology edited by Brian Castner and Adrian Bonenberger called The Road Ahead, so that’s a lot to anticipate. The only new poetry collection published in 2016 was a British anthology titled Home Front that reprints two great books authored by American military spouses—Elyse Fenton’s Clamor and Jehanne Dubow’s Stateside—alongside work by two British authors, Bryony Doran and Isabel Palmer. Happy to say, both Dubrow and Fenton will have new work appearing in 2017, titled Dots & Dashes and Sweet Insurgent, respectively. Hollywood released three Iraq or Afghanistan movies in 2016; 2017 will bring the movie adaptation of The Yellow Birds, but I’m not sure what else.

Below is my annual compendium of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction, poetry, and movies. Works appearing in 2016 are in bold. If you think I’ve missed anything let me know. A separate list of romance, male adventure, and young adult fiction is in the works.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson, Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz, Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone, Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter, The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War (2014)
Cara Hoffman, Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC), Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC), Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC), Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Eliot Ackerman (USMC), Green on Blue (2015)
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy), Old Silk Road (2015)
Mary “M.L.” Doyle, The Bonding Spell (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF), I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
John Renehan (Army), The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army), The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army), War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016)
Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016)
Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016)
Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)
Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016)
Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016)
Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016)
Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry

Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army), Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010)
Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010)
Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012)
Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013)
Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013)
Kevin Powers (Army), Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Sylvia Bowersox (Army), Triggers (2015)
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army), Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015)
Colin Halloran (Army), Icarian Flux (2015)
Philip Metres: Sand Opera (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)
Home Front: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, Bryony Doran’s Bulletproof, and Isabel Palmer’s Atmospherics (2016, UK only).

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)
Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015)
A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)

I’ve not listed the important theatrical and literary memoir titles that I’ve included in past years, because I haven’t tracked them as closely in the past twelve months as I have previously. To make up for that omission, I’ve compiled a list of interesting and substantial contemporary war non-fiction books published in 2016, which in my mind was a banner year for such works.

2016 Iraq and Afghanistan Non-fiction

Andrew Bacevich, America’s War for the Middle East (2016)
Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon (2016)
Brian Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade and the Hunt for His Killer (2016)
Eric Fair, Consequence: A Memoir (2016)
Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016)
David J. Morris, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (2016)
Mary Roach, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (2016)
J. Kael Weston, The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan (2016)

…and not to overlook two books that offer glimpses of the strategic thinking and worldviews of the leaders of newly-elected President Trump’s national security team:

Kori Schake and Jim Mattis, editors, Warriors and Citizens: American Views of the Military (2016)
Michael Flynn, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies (2016)

I haven’t yet read all the non-fiction named above, but one that impressed me greatly is Brian Castner’s All the Ways We Kill and Die. Castner, for my money, gets the nitty-gritty of Iraq and Afghanistan combat—complete with accounts of mIRC communication systems, combined ground-air ops, and insurgent IED tactics—better than any work I’ve seen previously. He combines attention to detail with eloquent expression of what it means to belong to close-knit organizations of fighting men and women. Castner, who served three tours in the Middle East as an Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, knows of what he writes, and he uses his narrative to interrogate his decade-long obsession with war’s allure and consequences.

I read All the Ways We Kill and Die alongside a second work that does much the same, but from a very different angle: Hilary Plum’s memoir Watchfires (2016). The follow-up to Plum’s intriguing novel about domestic anti-war radicalism They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013), Watchfires explores connections between Plum’s personal and familial experience of illness and dysfunction with national and global currents of war, terrorism, and aggression. “Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life,” wrote Thoreau, and though Plum’s account is not simple, she seems to have accomplished in Watchfires what Castner has also done, and what every thinking person might try, according to Thoreau: define honestly and precisely how one’s private life and thoughts relate to the violent spirit of the times.

Brian Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for His Killer. Arcade, 2016.

Hilary Plum, Watchfires. Rescue Press, 2016.

At the Movies: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, War Dogs, and A War

September 10, 2016

War Voyeurs: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

wtfThe book upon which the Tina Fey star-vehicle Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was based, a memoir by Kim Barker about life as a journalist in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan titled The Taliban Shuffle, was clever and charming in spots, but overall disappointing. Barker spent some nine years in southwest Asia, with extensive access to important players and witness to major historical events, and she might have written a thick, panoramic, even definitive account of international relationships during a period of extreme interest. Instead, she, or her editors, decided the better story to tell was that of the raffish Kabul subculture of expatriate journalists, men and women “getting their war on” in obvious imitation of Hunter S. Thompson and Michael Herr, complete with coy references to the cocaine and booze that accelerated their hi-jinx, hook-ups, and delusional self-images as rogues and swashbucklers. Perhaps I’m just envious because I missed the party, but honestly, it seems more like a waste.

Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is, if possible, more lightweight than the book on which it is based. Barker the author at least had the decency to understand that returning to Afghanistan after quitting her job as a reporter to work as a bartender at an expat bar emitted a strong odor of inconsequence, if not outright failure. In contrast, Fey, one of the producers of the movie in which she stars, turns the memoir into a tale of triumph in which her Kim Barker character provides the US military forces with important intelligence while goading them into action to accomplish a big mission. Fey the actor is not the problem—she commands the screen in every scene she appears, which in this movie is all of them—but Fey the producer most definitely is. Retired Lieutenant General David Barno, the former commander of military forces in Afghanistan, in this War on the Rocks review smartly praises the broad contours of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s portrait of the war he for a while led. Unfortunately, the movie’s production values are abysmal, with its depiction of Afghans, soldiers, and war degraded by cheapo clichés, poor casting decisions, and story-telling incongruities. Sure, it’s just a (war) comedy, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot could have tried a lot harder. Grade: B-.

War Profiteers: War Dogs

war-dogsTodd Phillips’ War Dogs, like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, views conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan through the prism of those on the war machine periphery, in this case two young American men trying to strike it rich by selling weapons and equipment to US forces and their allies. Production values are not a big problem in War Dogs, though the one scene depicting combat in Iraq is as ridiculous as anything in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. For the most part, however, War Dogs employs the super-slick look and feel of The Big Short, another fired-up movie about craven money-making. Where Phillips really steals a march on Fey, though, is in his choice of subject. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s glamorizing of the press corps war subculture seems tired in part because it such a Vietnam thing to do: by and large, journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan so defanged their anti-establishment bite and compromised their integrity by capitulating to the military’s embedding programs that they rendered themselves unworthy of admiration. By the time Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom got going, all the kids too cool to be common soldiers but still interested in sniffing combat did so not by grabbing pens, notebooks, and cameras. Instead, they became security contractors and arms-dealing entrepreneurs—lucrative jobs that allowed them to snuggle close to the bloody business of killing without having to stand in morning formations and wear safety reflective belts to go to the latrine. Watching Jonah Hill and Miles Teller ham it up as two morally impoverished young men way in over their heads, but forced to be endlessly resourceful, living by their wits and their balls, succeeding beyond expectations and having the time of their life, at least for a while, puts the lack of gusto and independence of journalists, to say nothing of soldiers, in high relief. Grade B+.

War Criminals: A War

a-warProduction values are not a problem in Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s A War, about a squared-away company commander named Claus (played by Pilou Asbaek) in Afghanistan who is brought up on charges that his combat decisions led to the death of civilian noncombatants. The combat scenes are among the best I’ve seen in a contemporary war movie and even better are the quieter moments in which the young officer interacts with his soldiers on a small, remote outpost. Those occupy the first half of A War, while the second half is set in Denmark, where Claus is tried. Mostly staged in court or in Claus’s home, where he reunites with his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) and their children, these scenes are good, too—they certainly do nothing to contradict my impression that Denmark is a far more sensible and hipper country than America. The problem with A War, however, is that the courtroom scenes are unfortunately not very dramatic. No real tension or passion divides or animates its main characters, the plot twists are kind of dull, and the ending flat. As good as it is, the minor key A War desperately needs some Hollywood razzmatazz. Maybe not a warzone rave, as in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, or a clandestine infiltration of Iraq as in War Dogs, but serious shots of energy and imagination along the lines of other military tribunal films such as The Caine Mutiny and A Few Good Men. If only, say, Jonah Hill and Tina Fey had played Claus and Maria, instead of the subdued Asbaek and Novotny, A War might have bubbled with over-the-top irresistibility. Yea, that would have been the ticket…. Grade: B+.

2015: An Updated War Literature and Art Compendium

December 7, 2015
Soldier with mine detector, Iraq, 2005, by Bill Putnam.

Soldier with mine detector, Iraq, 2005, by Bill Putnam. Used with permission.

I’ve updated the list of fiction, poetry, memoir, criticism, photography, and film I compiled last year about this time–new entries are bolded. 2015 was a busy year for contemporary war literature, with at least six novels published and four volumes of poetry. Also notable were new books by Colby Buzzell and Roy Scranton, two veterans who made their names as war writers but who are now expanding their reach to subjects far beyond their experiences as junior enlisted soldiers in Iraq.

Not many Iraq and Afghanistan titles are making year-end “best of” lists in major media venues so far in 2015, I’m sorry to observe. Critics–the “beadles of literature,” as they were called by early American novelist John Neal–apparently are not as impressed by this year’s offerings as they have been in past years by war-writers such as Phil Klay, Ben Fountain, and Kevin Powers. Or, perhaps they’ve decided “Mission Accomplished” in terms of what needs to be said artistically about fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Let’s hope that novels by Roy Scranton, Matt Gallagher, and others to be published next year reverse the trend. Movies about Iraq and Afghanistan also seemed scant in 2015—what am I forgetting?—but in 2016 film versions of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Yellow Birds will be released.

I’ve added a list of major theatrical, dance, and operatic performances that address war in Iraq or Afghanistan.

If you think I’ve missed an important or interesting work, please let me know.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction:

Nadeem Aslam: The Wasted Vigil (2008)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse): You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict: Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army): Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army): The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya: The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter: Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton: What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum: They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson: Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith): The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz: Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone: Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter: The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn: Wynne’s War (2014)
Kara Hoffman: Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC): Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC): Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC): Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Eliot Ackerman (USMC): Green on Blue (2015) 
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy): Old Silk Road (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF): I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
John Renehan (Army): The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army): The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army): War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
Matt Gallagher, Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti, A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry:

Juliana Spahr: This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army): Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse): Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse): Clamor (2010)
Brian Turner (Army): Phantom Noise (2010)
Paul Wasserman (USAF): Say Again All (2012)
Colin Halloran (Army): Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse): Wife and War (2013)
Kevin Powers (Army): Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Sylvia Bowersox (Army):  Triggers (2015)
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army): Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015)
Colin Halloran (Army): Icarian Flux (2015)
Philip Metres: Sand Opera (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)

Iraq and Afghanistan Memoir and Reportage (selected). I’ve greatly reduced this list from last year—I’m only including works that seem supremely artistic, imaginative, conceptual, or literary in their approach. Or, those that seem uniquely alert to new possibilities for publication, such as Colby Buzzell’s and Matt Gallagher’s memoirs, which originated in blogs begun in Iraq.

Colby Buzzell (Army): My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005)
Sebastian Junger: War (2010)
Matt Gallagher (Army): Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (2010)
Benjamin Busch (USMC): Dust to Dust (2012)
Brian Castner (Air Force): The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows (2012)
Adrian Bonenburger (Army): Afghan Post: One Soldier’s Correspondence from America’s Forgotten War (2014)
Jennifer Percy: Demon Camp (2014)
Brian Turner (Army): My Life as a Foreign Country (2014)
Colby Buzzell (Army): Thank You For Being Expendable (2015)
Roy Scranton (Army): Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Photography:

Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington: Infidel (2010)
Benjamin Busch (USMC): The Art in War (2010)
Michael Kamber: Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq (2013)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film:

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Theater, Opera, and Dance 

Exit 12 Dance Company, directed by Roman Baca (USMC), New York City (2007)
Duty, Honor, Profit:  One Man’s Struggle with the War in Iraq, written and directed by D. Richard Tucker/ACT Theater, Seattle (2008)
The Telling Project (participatory staged readings), founded by Jonathan Wei (2008)
Theater of War (staged reading of Greek drama and interactive cast-and-audience discussion), directed by Brian Doerries (2008)
The Great Game: Afghanistan (drama), directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, New York City (2009)
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (drama), written by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Moises Kaufman, starring Robin Williams, New York City (2011)
Home of the Soldier (musical drama), written by Ben Cunis, directed by Paata Tsikurishvili/Synthetic Theater, Arlington, VA (2012)
You Know When the Men Are Gone (drama), based on stories by Siobhan Fallon, directed by Joel Mullennix and Amy Kossow/Word for Word Performing Arts Company, San Francisco (2013)
Goliath (drama), written by Takeo Rivera, directed by Alex Mallory/Poetic Theater, New York City (2014)
Dijla Wal Forat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates (drama), written by Maurice Decaul (USMC), directed by Alex Mallory/Poetic Theater, New York City (2015)
The Lonely Soldier Monologues, based on Helen Benedict’s The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, Concept Theater, London (2015)
The Long Walk (opera), based on Brian Castner’s memoir of the same name, music by Jeremy Howard Beck, libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann/American Lyric Theater, Saratoga, NY (2015)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Criticism:

Elizabeth Samet: Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (2007)
Stacey Peebles: Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (2011)
Elizabeth Samet: No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (2014)
Brian Doerries: The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (2015)
Ikram Masmoudi: War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction (2015)

The lists are subjective and idiosyncratic, neither complete nor authoritative. Still, they might help those interested more clearly and broadly view the fields of contemporary war literature and film. My lists do not reflect hundreds of stories, poems, and photographs published individually in anthologies, magazines, and on the web. Some of my favorite stories, by authors such as Mariette Kalinowski, Maurice Decaul, Will Mackin, and Brian Van Reet, and photographs, such as the one by Bill Putnam published here, thus do not appear. Another deficiency is the lack of works by international authors and filmmakers, particularly Iraqi and Afghan artists. That project awaits completion.

War Film: Green Zone

August 31, 2015

Green ZoneThe 2010 film Green Zone, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Matt Damon, would seem to have admirably met demands that Iraq War art, film, and literature “be more political” while also taking care to “represent the war as it was experienced by Iraqi victims of the American invasion,” to paraphrase two recurrent lines of critique. Greengrass’s point-of-view is so stridently anti-war and anti-administration that no less a progressive figure than Michael Moore said of Green Zone “I can’t believe this film got made” by a major Hollywood studio. Dedicated to exposing the American pretext for the invasion of Iraq—the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction—as a sham, the film’s evil villains are not Sunni or Shia Al Qaeda members, but a scheming, nefarious American bureaucrat based on Paul Bremer and a special operations meanie who didn’t get the memo that Green Berets, SEALs, and other darkside operators were to be the darlings of the war and all films made about it. A female journalist, played by Amy Ryan, is portrayed as the lapdog apologist for the occupation authority, obviously based on Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter whose articles in the run-up to the war seemed to shill for the Bush administration. Two supporting characters with major parts are Iraqis and they are both portrayed as doing the right thing, by their lights.

And yet, Green Zone failed to capture the zeitgeist of its moment, the hearts-and-minds of Bush-and-Cheney-haters (other than Michael Moore), or the ire of red-state flag wavers, a pretty remarkable trifecta of underwhelmingness. What might be the problem? Green Zone’s not a bad movie, all-in-all, in fact, it’s quite compellingly paced and features an excellent cast. Still, it is not as good as we might have hoped for from Greengrass and Damon, the director-actor power duo behind the ripping Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum movies. Matt Damon looks terrific as Chief Warrant Officer Ray Miller, a dashing Nuclear, Biological, Chemical specialist—”dashing” and “NBC specialist” an oxymoronic pairing only Damon could pull off—on the hunt for WMDs in the early days of the occupation. Miller grows disillusioned and then goes rogue as he discovers the fraudulence of his mission, but the Damon-as-Miller characterization is undercut by the film’s effort to overlay a political thriller on a war flick in order to make official lying about WMDs appear suspenseful and exciting. Many reviewers before me have already quipped that Green Zone might be better titled Bourne Goes to Baghdad, as CWO Miller uncovers a government conspiracy and resists its perpetrators’ efforts to silence him. An issue here is that the lives of deployed service members are rarely dramatic enough for Hollywood portraiture, save for sensational scenes depicting them in combat. When not fighting, soldiers are apt to be docile creatures-of-habit, all too content to pump iron and watch videos in their down time, beholden to orders and their units and loathe to jeopardize their safety unnecessarily. Green Zone then, despite admirable production values, ultimately is unfaithful to the deeply social dimension of lived soldierly experience, as the multiple sub-plots depicting American soldiers and civilians at war with each other are just too much. “Don’t be naive” is one of the film’s refrains, but it is the film’s comic-book script that is naive about how political contrivance, military endeavor, and soldier psychology co-mingle in the battle of good and evil, right and wrong.

To accelerate CWO Miller into Bourne-like action, Green Zone takes many liberties with verisimilitude. Damon’s character is loosely based on US Army Chief Warrant Officer Richard “Monty” Gonzales, but Miller is more hard-charging and decisive than any Chemical officer ever–a swashbuckling dynamo of idealized combat manhood who wipes out enemy snipers before donning his protective suit to test suspected chemical weapons. Frankly, he seems kind of dumb; though right in the particulars, his self-righteous single-mindedness and lack of patience makes him more immature brat than “I’d follow him anywhere” leader. Barely tethered by a chain-of-command in the first place, he goes completely off the reservation–a phrase used twice in the movie to describe him–to begin pursuing independently leads and bad guys as if he were the second coming of John Rambo. As does The Hurt Locker, Green Zone contrives to shake its protagonist free of military strictures to operate solo, but let’s remember two actual cases of soldiers leaving the wire on their own–Bowe Berghdal, a dreamy goofball, and Robert Bales, a PTSD-and-steroid-addled psychopath—and then call the alternate reality portrayed by films such as The Hurt Locker and Green Zone what they are: wishful fantasies about American soldiers who see through military pretense to fight for truth, fairness, and goodness according to their individualized code of justice.

Never close to being wrong, the steely-eyed, flat-bellied, morally incorruptible Miller even passes up a chance to bed the reporter played by Amy Ryan when he meets her alone in her hotel room two-thirds of the way through the movie. Hey, good on them, but the movie leads us to believe they are made for each other, so from a viewer’s standpoint the scene’s a letdown that defies both a warzone erotic and a Hollywood movie logic that should have them clawing off each other’s clothes within seconds. Not only do the Damon and Ryan characters not hook-up, neither do they join forces in the movie’s home stretch run to jointly uncover US military and political duplicity–another failure of cinematic imagination. The off-key notes intensify in the movie’s climactic chase, when a portly middle-aged Iraqi Army general eludes Miller and his operator-as-fuck nemesis for over ten minutes of screen time. In real life, the two Americans, both built like CrossFit champions, would have run down the gasping general—who is not even the film’s villain–in a matter of steps. Honestly, considering such poor plot turns, I can only wonder if Damon wishes he had foregone Green Zone for the chance to play Chris Kyle in American Sniper a couple of years later. Say what you will about Clint Eastwood’s movie, the integrity of its narrative and its characterization of its main subject are much more consistent and coherent than what we are asked to consider in Green Zone.

For all my carping, though, I’m willing to consider that I might be entirely wrong. A movie that dares to flaunt its lefty politics and made by a director with the track record of Greengrass probably deserves more respect than I’ve given it here. Green Zone may age well in the coming decades and yet prove to be The Manchurian Candidate of the Iraq War. For now, however, for all its good intentions and latent possibilities, Green Zone is less than the sum of its parts—proof that superb cast + talented director + big budget + righteous politics + historical significance does not necessarily = great art.

“So Many Expectations”: Fort Bliss

August 4, 2015

Fort BlissFort Bliss, a movie about the troubles faced by a female medic following redeployment to Fort Bliss, Texas, from a tough tour in Afghanistan, was released to little fanfare or popular success in late 2014. Directed by Claudia Meyers and starring Michelle Monaghan as US Army Staff Sergeant Maggie Swann, Fort Bliss might have constituted an attention-grabbing statement about women in the military. With the current media scrutiny on women trying to make it through Army Ranger School, getting fired as Marine Corps commanders for being too rigorous and straight-shooting, and trying to combine motherhood and careers, not to mention public skirmishes about whether women need to rid themselves of feminine speech patterns and “Resting Bitch Faces” to succeed in male-dominated fields, you would have thought Fort Bliss would have been the movie, not American Sniper, to stoke national conversations last year. And yet, Fort Bliss seems to have underwhelmed and underperformed, and consequently neglected and passed-by, in spite of the generally favorable reviews recorded on the Rotten Tomatoes website. That’s unfortunate, but upon watching Fort Bliss this week, I too was left wishing the movie was a little more than it was and suspicious that a better movie might have been made out of the film’s basic ingredients.

Before delving deep into critical wonderment, I’ll list several of Fort Bliss‘s clear virtues. Performances by Ron Livingston as Sergeant Swann’s ex-husband, Freddy Rodriguez as her company commander, and Oakes Fegley as her child are excellent. The military details, both in scenes set in Afghanistan and in garrison at Fort Bliss aren’t perfect, but their lapses from verisimilitude aren’t aggravating enough to make me want to throw a desert combat boot at the screen. An ambush set in Helmand province that opens the movie bore enough similarity to one I was fortunate to live through that I grew slightly rattled thinking about where else down memory lane the movie might take me. That feeling of dread didn’t last, fortunately, but scenes set in Fort Bliss and its El Paso environs featured enough Latino faces both in uniform and off-post that I was gratifyingly reminded of the many Mexican-American soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors with whom I served.

Returning to Sergeant Swann, Michelle Monaghan looks right for her role as the high-strung, emotionally uptight NCO. Sergeant Swann brought to mind several women (and men, too) I knew in the military who were almost scarily competent, but who masked their task-crunching proficiency beneath grim, seemingly humorless demeanors. “Do you like to boss people around?” Sergeant Swann is asked by her love interest. “No, I just like to get things done,” she replies. Her hair pulled back in a tight bun, she is all business on the job, and has trouble letting go when the day is done. A telling scene shows her knocking out sets of push-ups while downing cans of Budweiser in her apartment in the evening, her devotion to self-improvement matched by the need to self-medicate (been there and done that myself). A second telling scene comes when Sergeant Swann declines to attend the promotion party of one of her soldiers so she can complete supposedly-important paperwork–a big-time leadership fail. A war-hero whose life-saving exploits in Afghanistan should have made her a military rockstar, as well as imbued with her a charismatic swagger that would have her soldiers dying to please her, she is unfortunately haunted by other deployment experiences—to include fending off the unwelcome advances of a male soldier whose later death she feels culpable for. Now conflicted and made cautious, she resorts to a strict, by-the-books efficiency that is OK, kind of, but not really, in the eyes of both her troops and her boss, who practically plead with her to be more of a person. 

Meyers and Monaghan don’t portray Sergeant Swann’s behavior as that of a fiercely independent woman whom society (meaning, “the military, the men in her life, and male viewers, too”) will just have to get used to. Her speech doesn’t include uptalk or vocal fry or an excess of “so’s,” “like’s,” “just’s,” and “sorry’s,” but she’s got the RBF-thing down cold, with her face locked in a perpetual scowl born either of unhappiness or some idea that a frowny face represents toughness and determination. The movie suggests that she better lose the glower post-haste/most tic/stat if she ever wants to be happy or get anything she wants again, which is not a very feminist-friendly position, but seems like an obvious, common-sense solution to some of the problems she’s facing. Sergeant Swann kicks ass on the job, but outside the Fort Bliss gates, she makes mistakes left and right and they hurt her and those for whom she should care. She intimidates the hell out of everyone she meets, including her young son with whom she struggles to reconnect, as words and behavior that seem appropriate to her are perceived by others as way too strident and directive. Two of the best speeches in the movie come from men—one by Sergeant Swann’s ex-husband and and another by her company commander—who in gentle-but-firm terms tell her what a selfish, awful person—not a bitch, but an asshole—she has become, and Myers doesn’t suggest that they’re being misogynist pricks at all. And this being the movies, but also perhaps like real life, too, all that repressed humanity comes bubbling out in torrents when Sergeant Swann finds a sensitive roughneck below her station to fall in love with/screw furiously.

Fort Bliss’s portrait of Sergeant Swann reminds me of Cara Hoffman’s novel Be Safe, I Love You, in which Hoffman’s protagonist, another female NCO veteran, also seems so tightly wound that she becomes not just repellent to other characters but to the author who dreamed her into being. But where Hoffman keeps the pedal-to-the-metal to the end of her novel in order to illustrate how badly war and the military have damaged her hero, Fort Bliss pulls its punches. At movie’s close, Sergeant Swann comes to her senses, snaps back into line, makes nice with everyone, and is forgiven by everyone she has previously treated poorly—a happy resolution that is achieved by her decision to accept another deployment to Afghanistan. Well, that’s the Army for you, happens all the time, and Myers for all intents and purposes gives the military a pass for the atrocious life-choices it forces on its members. But where soldiers suck such things down either confusedly or as a matter-of course, Fort Bliss envelops its endgame in a Lifetime-esque golden glow of winsome acceptance accompanied by tinkly guitar and plaintive folksinging.

The softy-soft ending is only the culmination of a number of mushy defects that ultimately degrade Fort Bliss‘s excellent acting and interesting premises. I may have just made a ham-handed hash of Fort Bliss‘s feminist politics, but I’m surer of my ground when I say there aren’t enough striking lines of dialogue, compellingly staged scenes, and unexpected twists of plot to make Fort Bliss really good. Instead, the movie trundles along in a very predictable biopic gear, as if its good intentions were enough to earn it a pat-on-the-back. A reviewer named Carson Lund, writing for Slant magazine, noticed much the same thing and wrote of director Meyers, “It’s apparent … that her interest in the personal lives of those in the military is nothing less than genuine, but it’s also clear that the complicated psychological realities of army personnel require a tougher directorial treatment than the maudlin melodrama presented here.” That’s harsh, but not entirely wrong, and I wonder if Hollywood or financial pressure kept Myers from making a movie that burns hotter and hits harder.

Finally, scenes in Fort Bliss that demonstrate Sergeant Swann’s prowess as a combat medic are good, but not as good as the great concluding scene in Captain Phillips, in which real-life Navy Corpsman Danielle Albert treats the injured and traumatized character played by Tom Hanks. Captain Phillips is an important GWOT film for many reasons, but just in case I never get around to writing at length about it, let’s end today by admiring Corpsman Albert’s expertise. In my experience she illustrates how really good combat medics, whether man or woman, take control of the wounded and scared-beyond-belief casualties under their care:

The American Sniper Situation: The Not-So-Secret Inclinations of Public Taste

July 5, 2015

American SniperI’ve been asked to contribute to an anthology of essays on American Sniper and have been working on my contribution the past few weeks. The project’s given me a chance to reread many of the reviews published upon the memoir’s and then the movie’s releases, and below I offer a list of some of the most pertinent ones. One subject of discussion has been whether Clint Eastwood’s movie version of American Sniper is faithful to Kyle’s memoir and if either the movie or the book fully and accurately relate the totality of Kyle’s life and service. Other reviews ask what is so “American” about Kyle and his brand of sniper-heroics. Still others question whether the movie glamorizes war generally or justifies specifically war in Iraq and glorifies the contributions of Navy SEALs to the American military effort. Some reviews take issue with the movie’s portrait of Iraqi civilians and combatants, while a final set discusses the memoir’s and film’s depiction of the potentially traumatic effects of combat and deployment.

Taken together, the memoir, the film, the reviews, and everything and everyone pertaining to their production and distribution, to include the thoughts of the real-life men and women portrayed, to include Kyle’s victims, constitute what Israeli photography critic Ariella Azoulay would call an interpretive “situation”: analysis of an artistically- and technologically-shaped representation of a real-world person or event that incorporates everything that has been said and could be said about both, in order to elicit the most detailed and just understanding of the moral, political, and aesthetic stakes involved. A tall order indeed–too tall for me here, but no doubt the American Sniper situation allows us to gain traction on at least two pertinent questions about the millennial wars:

What does it take for young Americans to kill in combat, what is it like to kill in combat, and what is it like to live afterwards?

What stories about war connect with audiences and why?

I’m writing my anthology contribution on the first question, so will hold my thoughts here, but am happy to take a swing at the question about American Sniper‘s astounding popularity. I think a lot of something Edgar Allan Poe wrote about Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1848. Speaking of Hawthorne’s short story collections in the years prior to writing The Scarlett Letter, Poe wrote, “But the simple truth is, that a writer who aims at impressing the people is always wrong when he fails in forcing that people to receive the impression. How far Mr. Hawthorne has addressed the people at all is, of course, not a question for me to decide. His books afford strong internal evidence of having been written to himself and his particular friends alone.”

That’s a fascinating statement. It suggests that if writers (and moviemakers) want to be popular, they have only themselves to blame if they aren’t. The subjects, themes, and styles that people like, Poe implies, are right there for the taking for he or she who will. I wonder how true that is? And if American Sniper‘s success means that contemporary war-story-tellers have finally hit the sweet spot of war-story popularity, I wonder what that bodes for war writing and war movie-making to come? As another critic of Poe’s time, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it when writing about American theater in Democracy in America (1835), “Authors soon discover the secret inclinations of public taste,” which suggests that the public’s inclinations don’t remain secret for very long. Chris Kyle’s co-authors were lawyer Scott McEwan and veteran writer of military thrillers Jim DeFelice, so we know he had experienced help shaping the material of his life so that it resonated with audiences. An even more telling statement comes from one of Kyle’s editors, Peter Hubbard, who is described in a New York Times article by Julie Bosman as saying that “he was determined to publish [American Sniper] for a general-interest reader, the kind of person who would pick up a big blockbuster thriller. ‘I didn’t want it to be characterized as a genre military book,’ he said. ‘It functions as a great action and adventure story.’” As is well-documted in many reviews below, Clint Eastwood and his screenwriter Jason Hall substantially altered Kyle’s memoir in ways that clearly tapped “the secret inclinations of public taste.” From an ethical-aesthetic perspective, the question is whether they did so according to their own sense of artistic integrity, cravenly, or both. You know what would be interesting? Another movie version of American Sniper, made by a filmmaker/screenwriter team with radically different ideas about Kyle and his memoir than had Eastwood and Hall. If that happened, we would definitely have a “situation” to consider.

****

An American Sniper Critical Compendium

Julie Bosman. “A Wave of Military Memoirs With You-Are-There Appeal.”  New York Times 18 March 2012.

Nicholas Schmidle. “In the Crosshairs.” The New Yorker 3 June 2013.

Brian Van Reet.  “A Problematic Genre: ‘The Kill Memoir.'” New York Times 16 July 2013.

David James. American Sniper and the Hero Myth.”  Wrath Bearing Tree 17 December 2014.

David Denby. “Living History: Selma and American Sniper.”  The New Yorker 22 December 2014.

Alex Horton. American Sniper Feeds America’s Hero Compex, and It Isn’t the Truth About War.” The Guardian 24 December 2014.

Michael Cummings and Erin Cummings. “The Surprising History of American Sniper‘s ‘Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs’ Speech.” Slate 21 January 2015.

Dana Stevens. “The Battle Over American Sniper.” Slate 21 January 2015.

“Confused About How You Are Supposed to Think About American Sniper? Here Are Twenty Thinkpieces That Can Help You Put Things in Perspective.” Clickhole 22 January 2015.

Brian Turner. “I Served in Iraq and American Sniper Gets It Right. But It’s Still Not the War Film We Need.” The Vulture 22 January 2015.

Adrian Bonenburger. “There Are No War Heroes: A Veteran’s Review of American Sniper.”  The Concourse 23 January 2015.

Colby Buzzell. Chris Kyle and the Iraq War Are More Complex than American Sniper–or Criticism of It.” The Guardian 23 January 2015.

Courtney Duckworth. “How Accurate is American Sniper?” Slate 23 January 2015.

Roy Scranton. “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to Redeployment and American Sniper.” Los Angeles Review of Books 25 January 2015.

Cara Buckley. American Sniper Fuels a War on the Homefront.” New York Times 28 January 2015.

Susannah George. “Here’s What Moviegoers in Baghdad Think About American Sniper.” Global Post 28 January 2015.

Joe Davis. “A Former Marine’s Review of American Sniper.” Time 9 February 2015.

If you have suggestions for additions to this list, please let me know.


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