Posted tagged ‘War film’

War Film: The Yellow Birds

August 30, 2018

Kevin Powers’ novel The Yellow Birds arrived in 2012 to great fanfare. In company with David Abrams’ excellent Fobbit, also published that year, as the first post-9/11 war novels written by military veterans, The Yellow Birds seemed both preternaturally good and strikingly unique. Combining a heightened lyrical style, gritty scenes of combat carnage, and a psychological interest in military leadership, duty, and guilt, The Yellow Birds attracted plaudits left-and-right, including a nomination for the National Book Award. Part of what made The Yellow Birds so interesting was its prose: rather than hard-boiled grunt-speak and super-concern for realistic military detail, it featured a fractured narrative composed of sentences often more allusive than descriptive, knit together by crafted patterns of color and imagery, and punctuated by portentous stabs at profundity, as in its oft-quoted opening line, “The war tried to kill us in the spring.” Even more striking was its sensibility. The novel’s protagonists are infantryman, but they aren’t the tough guys who populate World War II and Vietnam novels. They drink, smoke, say “fuck” a lot, go to whorehouses, curse their chain-of-command, and shoot people—all the usual infantry things—but do so without the emotional hardening, or posturing, that seems de rigueur for infantrymen in real life and even more so in books and movies. More emo than hardcore, not so much Slayer as Death Cab for Cutie, the protagonists of The Yellow Birds are fragile and vulnerable, and the whole business of war leaves them in morose isolation. Disconsolate and self-loathing when they might be pissed-off and self-righteous (or even proud), they direct their capacity for violence inward, not outward.

With success came backlash, as the very things that made The Yellow Birds unique brought quick strong rebuke from a variety of angles. Powers’ prose was charged with being too mannered, too much the product of the University of Texas MFA program he attended, and too unfaithful to the vernacular idiom of “real” infantrymen. For many, Powers’ characters, in particular the first-person narrator Private First Class John Bartle, were unappealing, more listless dishrags (like Melville’s famous Bartleby; Melville’s Billy Budd also seems to be an antecedent) than decisive men-o-war. To veterans who had kicked-ass-and-taken-names in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seemed unconscionable that Bartle was being held forth as a representative US combat soldier, and as the far greater popularity of works such as American Sniper attested, the reading public wanted little to do with the Bartle model, either. Academics, who one might think would be sympathetic to Powers’ effort to portray the “human cost of war” in a literary way, soon piled on, too. They accused Powers of trying to recoup sympathy for emotionally traumatized young white male veterans rather than castigating them for killing Arabs in an unjust war, as if The Yellow Birds were a white nationalist stealth project designed to assert that white American soldiers were the “real victims” of the war in Iraq. It was a lot, maybe a bit much, as the overall impression rendered by the attacks was that The Yellow Birds was a book that everyone might comfortably find a reason to feel superior to. One wonders what Powers has made of it all, but he has been mostly mum on the subject, even as he continued to write and publish. 2014 brought a volume of poetry titled Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting and a novel, A Shout in the Ruins, arrived earlier this year.

In early 2017 a movie version of The Yellow Birds inconspicuously appeared to somewhat surprisingly little notice. I make it my business to track these things, but I missed it upon release, and I was not the only one, for no one I know seems to have noted its appearance or has yet watched it. The movie’s now available through Netflix, but even so seems still to be governed by mysterious forces minimizing its impact. A terrific John Mellencamp song called “The Yellow Birds,” for example, runs over the closing credits, but is not available on any of the popular music streaming services. As of a couple of weeks ago, the movie was only available by mail-order DVD, not via streaming, and a video documentary available with the DVD version that describes its making is missing commentary by the film’s director Alexandre Moors and its biggest-name star Jennifer Aniston. The signs unfortunately suggest that several of the principals who might best promote The Yellow Birds movie have distanced themselves from it.

All that’s curious, for the movie version of The Yellow Birds, while not perfect, or even great, is pretty good. In at least two ways it excels, garnering in my opinion head-of-the-pack kudos among recent war films for the excellence of its cast and the beauty of the cinematography. Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan, as Bartle and his battle buddy Private Daniel Murphy, respectively, are handsome faces and poised actors who for my money render the best GWOT cinematic portrayals of the 20-year-old white males who still make up the bulk of the fighting force. British actor Jack Huston (son of famed director John Huston) as Sergeant Sterling doesn’t quite capture the body language and rhetorical swing of the career NCOs I knew in the military, but in a stylized way he’s still impressive enough to make his dominance over Bartle and Murphy realistic and compelling. Aniston as Murphy’s mother—in the film an aging soccer-mom—and Toni Collette as Bartle’s mom—a hard-bitten country woman—are also strong. Their characters are given far more play in the movie than in the book, to include a moving scene in which they commiserate about their sons, and it’s all to good effect.

Production-values-wise, The Yellow Birds is a little shaky. The use of M113 Armored Personnel Carriers instead of modern Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and and Huey helicopters instead of Blackhawks signals cut-rate reliance on surplus Vietnam military hardware rather than the real stuff used in Iraq. The soldiers’ gear and weaponry also seem to be pared-down simulacra of actual soldiers’ “kit,” as if the film were gesturing at authenticity as in a stage-play rather than replicating it in gnat’s-ass detail. Curiously, Bartle and Murphy consistently call Sergeant Sterling, “Sir,” which is weird because every male sergeant I ever knew announced at least once, “Don’t call me ‘sir’; I work for a living.” Extremely grating from a veterans’ viewpoint is that many scenes feature actor-soldiers wearing their helmets with chinstraps unfastened “John Wayne” style—that just plain never happened in the Army I served in for twenty-eight years. On the other hand, the bang-bang combat scenes are good, and the representation of the soldiers’ blood, sweat, grime, and gore post-battle is excellent to the point of harrowing. Above and beyond reproach is the look of the film—tonally dark in scenes set both overseas and in the States, with faces framed and scenes paced thoughtfully, it has an artistically-unified feel that I’m guessing is director Moors’ effort to create an atmospheric visual style commensurate with Powers’ moody lyricism.

Alterations from the book are not especially significant thematically, but still worth noting. One example is Bartle’s first name; the scriptwriters have seen fit to replace the old-fashioned “John” of the novel with the millennial moniker “Brandon.” In the book, Murphy’s mom is a rural mail-carrier and Murphy is said to have never left the county in which he was born before joining the Army. Bartle, on the other hand, seems to be from some more middle-class place that makes his deterioration into criminality, drunkenness, prison, and isolation more calamitous. The movie reverses those backstories, with Murphy announcing that he hopes to go to UVa and study history after the Army and his mom (played by Aniston) a frosted-highlights suburbanite, while Bartle’s mother ekes out existence on the edge of poverty and respectability. There’s also the scene in the movie uniting Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. Bartle that is not in the novel, which is a shrewd addition, and a long episode in the book set in Germany at the end of Bartle’s deployment is cut without loss from the film.

These are all minor switcheroos, I feel, for the movie gets the most important element of the book—the entangled web of obligation and remorse binding Bartle, Murphy, Sterling, Mrs. Bartle, and Mrs. Murphy—right in just about the same proportions that the novel does. The crux of the story is that Bartle makes a foolish promise to Mrs. Murphy that he will look out for her son on their upcoming deployment. Sterling overhears the conversation and lambastes Bartle for making a commitment that is not his to make and which will prove almost impossible to keep. Sterling, a war veteran who knows war’s capriciousness and who possesses his own over-developed sense of responsibility, lords it over his two young charges in ways that the two privates feel first charismatically, then perversely, and finally diabolically. In Iraq, Murphy begins to crumble under the stress of combat and then falls apart completely when a female soldier on whom he has developed a crush is killed. Murphy subsequently goes AWOL, or in modern parlance, DUSTWUN, and Sterling and Bartle search for him apart from the rest of their platoon. Finding Murphy’s mutilated dead body, they make a fateful decision to dispose of it (in the process killing an innocent Iraqi) rather than recovering and returning it to the States, because they want to spare Mrs. Murphy the emotional devastation they presume she will feel upon seeing her son’s ravaged corpse. In the book, Bartle compounds his duplicity by writing Mrs. Murphy a letter full of lies and evasions; it’s not as clear in the movie that this happens. In any case, the men’s plan succeeds for a while, as the Army lists Murphy as MIA rather than KIA. Over time, though, the difficulty of living with a lie renders both Sterling and Bartle suicidal, and eventually a military investigator (in the movie played by Jason Patric, another “name” cast member) puts together the clues linking Bartle to Murphy’s disappearance—an act of misguided mercy that in fact is a war crime—and brings Bartle both to legal justice and a soul-crushing apprehension of the magnitude of his mistakes and the vicissitudes of life.

As plots go, that’s not bad for an Iraq or Afghanistan war story. The attention paid to the bonds linking soldiers, with the suggestion that heroism is a delusion, leadership is a canard, and camaraderie and loyalty are traps, is fine. The effort to incorporate mothers and the homecoming into a war saga is good, too. The book as does the movie fails to explain why Murphy in particular exacts such an emotional investment on the parts of Bartle and Sterling—I’m supposing it has something to do with his innocence. Similarly, Sterling’s character emits confusing clues as to whether we should understand him as rigid military martinet, caring NCO bound by duty, or ethically-fluid shaman whose evil genius is unleashed by war’s chaos. The suggestion is that his experience is the yin to the yang of Murphy’s innocence, but the end of the novel and film complicate the matter, for it is Bartle who convinces Sterling that they should dispose of Murphy’s body, rather than vice-versa. That seems out-of-character for both of them, as well as being a dumb, under-explained decision that defies plausibility. Oh well, nothing’s perfect and everything could be better. The Yellow Birds was never going to be American Sniper, but it has its virtues and its fans nonetheless. If the film doesn’t quite succeed on all levels, the excellence of the cast and Moors’ direction suggest that Powers’ novel might ultimately find its most powerful expression on-stage as a play, where plot ambiguities and military quibbles would be incidental to the emotional force of the human interactions being dramatized.

The Norwegian Way of War: Nobel

July 25, 2018

Nobel, a television drama about Norwegian special operators in Afghanistan and back home, went largely unremarked in America upon its release in 2016. Sometime since then, Netflix saw fit to slip the eight-part series into my “Recommended for Peter” queue, one more entry in the endless stream of diamonds and lumps-of-coal the video-streaming Goliath can’t stop sending my way. Fortunately and thankfully, this time Netflix is way more hit-than-miss, for Nobel is excellent.

The central story line concerns Lieutenant Erlang Riiser, a stoical and very competent man-of-war who, upon return to Norway after an eventful deployment in northern Afghanistan, receives a mysterious text telling him that a wealthy Afghan land-owner suspected of being a Taliban sympathizer has also arrived in Norway. The Taliban-friendly Afghan is in pursuit of his wife Washima, whom the Norwegians have granted refugee status out of fear for her safety, and he is also chasing a business opportunity brokered by high-placed Norwegian officials and businessmen. Riiser receives the text while attending an official function with his wife Johanne, who works as a deputy to the Norwegian minister of defense—one of said high-placed Norwegian officials. Riiser’s Ranger-danger spidey-sense tingling, he abandons his wife to chase down the anonymous lead. Finding Washima being pummeled by her husband, Riiser kills the husband and one of his henchmen and whisks Washima off to a hide-spot.

That all occurs in the first fifteen minutes of episode one. The rest of the hour and the subsequent seven episodes of Nobel spin out the aftermath and upshot of the fateful event, along with lots of back-story scene-setting in Afghanistan, as Riiser tries to discover the source of the text, deal with its consequences, smooth things out with his wife, and contend with a number of other issues, including a heroin-addicted father, a disabled teammate, the grieving mother of second teammate killed-in-action, a pesky muckraking journalist, and a troubled son coming to terms with the idea that his father is caught in a harrowing game of kill-or-be-killed. All the action is for big stakes: not only are oil-drilling rights in Afghanistan on the table, for which the Norwegians are trying to broker a deal in collaboration with a Chinese consortium, but also hanging in the balance is a Nobel Peace Prize, which, in case you don’t remember (I didn’t), is awarded by Norway, not Sweden.

That’s a lot, but the wide-ranging plot is Nobel’s strength. Its creators have crafted a complex but plausible story, one whose reach spans high and low, close and far, backwards and forwards, and they’ve imbued it with intelligence, drive, and capability of surprise. A couple of scenes strain credulity and it is paced a mite more slowly than you might think a war movie should be, but overall Nobel is dramatic without being melodramatic, exciting without being sensational, and neither reductive nor pandering in its presentation of war’s dangers and complexities. Also good are the production values. The “Afghanistan” scenes (filmed in Morocco) recoup well-trodden scenes from film and fiction—FOB life, soldierly banter and camaraderie, vehicle movement ops, IEDs, suicide bombers, the death of a buddy, shoot-or-don’t-shoot scenarios, tea-drinking schmoozefests with Afghans—with attention to detail and fresh accents, while also throwing in a few new ones—sex in the hootches, green-on-blue killing, and a buzkashi game, to name three.

Aksel Hennie is solid as Lieutenant Riiser. Neither Chris Kyle nor Jason Bourne, Riiser’s a mature man; his BMW station-wagon becomes him, while his Under Armour ballcap makes him look not youthful but slightly foolish, as if his suspect American fashion sense corresponded with suspect American ideas about things, such as the thought that joining the military and going to fight in Afghanistan was a good one. Watchful, thoughtful, and somewhat bug-eyed, he is slow to talk, leaving long pauses in the conversational flow as if he knew a little bit more or a little bit less than everyone else in the room. Only impulsive when the situation demands, Riiser is not addicted to thrill, or perhaps he keeps his addiction dampened down. Asked to deal with a lot, from international intrigue to tense combat to a shaky home life, he’s almost too stoical and practical in his responses for the other people in his life, especially his wife and kid, who practically beg him to be more there for them. His silent competence is both a virtue and a liability as the dramatic focus of the show: we understand that he represents a certain type of admirable-but-also-problematic military mindset, but the series could still do better to open him up emotionally and psychologically.

While Riiser is somewhat one-dimensional, Tuva Novotny, as Riiser’s wife Johanne, better carries off a bifurcated personality: her tightly pulled-back hair and pursed lips signal all business up-top, while her armband tattoo and leather pants below speak to something wilder and more sensual. Miffed by her husband’s remoteness, perhaps she also senses that she’s not getting her due as a very pretty woman, and she finds herself susceptible to the flirtation of a raffish international entrepreneur. This subplot plays out in did-she-or-did-she-not-succumb? fashion, which is interesting, but the tension between the Riisers is even more interesting, if not as erotic. Johanne’s desperate to prove her competence in her own realm as the equal of her husband’s in his, and the series finale brings both members of the Riiser power-couple to Afghanistan, where their marital competiveness—mixed, to be sure, with love and care, however strained—crests on a wave of competing professional interests.

Much reference in Nobel is made to “the Norwegian way” of war-fighting and international business and politics. The mostly-unstated contrast to the Norwegian way is “the American way,” but a cheap-shot delivered early on drives the point home: one of the special operators proclaims if “we were Americans” a possible target “would already be dead.” On the political-business side, “the Norwegian way” speaks to some sort of rational deal-making centered on mutual interest and cultural sensitivity, as opposed, I’m guessing, to American shock, awe, and “kill ’em all” bum-fuckery. To be fair, when first American special operators and then an American Secretary of Defense appear in Nobel, they’re not portrayed as idiots with blood dripping from their teeth, but rather as shrewd practitioners of war’s complexity. Those cameos point to a grander theme. By the end of Nobel, the idea of a superior Norwegian way lies in tatters as events at both the national and individual levels humble the Norwegians. A thematic and visual motif of the series is explosions; they are featured not only in the background of the title sequence, but three characteristic Afghanistan explosions—an anti-personnel land mine, an IED, and a suicide bomb—punctuate the narrative. By the series end, Norway’s effort to escape the worst mistakes and moral quagmires of American folly have been blown to bits, and the men and women whose lives have been ruined by Afghanistan and in Afghanistan can blame neither Afghans nor Americans, but only themselves.

Nobel is directed by Per-Olav Sorensen and written by Mette Marit Bastad and Stephen Uhlander.

Does Anyone Remember American Sniper?

July 1, 2018

Chris Kyle’s memoir American Sniper was a best-seller in 2012, and in 2014, when the movie version was released, the film was even bigger. I’m not exactly sure, but I’d bet American Sniper the book has outsold all other Iraq and Afghanistan war books combined. Likewise, the movie. Both seemed to matter; for a while they were all people talked about. What you thought about Chris Kyle the person and his book and how you felt about Clint Eastwood’s movie meant something: how you felt about them was how you felt about the wars, how you felt about the military, how you felt about veterans, pretty much how you felt about, well, America.

2018 is not 2014, and it’s been a couple of years since anyone I know has wanted to talk about American Sniper. The other week I caught a bit of the movie on TV on a Sunday afternoon while flipping channels between innings of a Mets game. That struck me as an ominous marker of American Sniper‘s place in the cultural memory–a sign that it was quickly moving past irrelevancy toward oblivion. Why has this happened? I don’t know, maybe it was just the flavor-of-the-day to begin with, possessing as much long-lasting significance as a Tamagotchi. Maybe it was more; I can throw out some possibilities. I think the facts of Kyle’s death, at the hands of a former Marine he was trying to help, really screws with people’s ability to decide whether he was a hero, a victim, or something else. His death in that way, as with Pat Tillman’s death in a friendly-fire incident, really short-circuits the logic of respect and reverence that might be or should be his due. Or, maybe it’s all the after-the-fact stuff that’s emerged about the real Chris Kyle that has deflated his reputation and caused people to temper their enthusiasm and lose interest. Maybe his star as a polarizing love-him-or-hate-him national figure has been eclipsed by the even more polarizing ascent of Donald Trump.

Whatever, I think our contemporary moment is an emptier place without Chris Kyle and Pat Tillman. They should be our war-heroes, and surely if they were still alive millions of Americans would hang on their every word. What if they still lived and had Twitter accounts? Veterans Twitter, and to a certain extent, the public veteran presence generally, is a mess, full of pretenders, profiteers, and self-promoters, men and women with thin voices lacking moral and military gravitas, incapable of calming the anxieties and shouldering the burdens of a worried divided people. In other words, leaderless. It’s easy to speculate that Kyle would be a conservative icon for like-minded veterans and members of the public, racking up millions of followers and thousands of likes proclaiming the virtues of a good-man-with-a-gun while “owning the libs” with his well-aimed Twitter shots. In contrast, Tillman might be the Democratic Party savior: a warrior of the highest order who despises Trump, everything he stands for, and everyone who supports him. I don’t know, maybe I have their politics completely wrong. Maybe the two wouldn’t even be on Twitter, but retired to the farm. I doubt it, though–no one’s retiring to the farm these days. Maybe they would be false gods, with feet-of-clay like everyone else. Maybe they could speak across party lines, wise voices for unity and reconciliation, leading us in a national singalong of Kumbaya. As we drift toward Civil War II in their absence we can only wonder.

To return to American Sniper, here are ten questions that I think are important to think about in regard to (mostly) the movie.

  1. Why was American Sniper so popular?
  2. Is American Sniper a pro-war or anti-war movie? Just because a movie shows “the human cost of war,” does that make it “anti-war”?
  3. Is Chris Kyle a hero or a victim?
  4. Does American Sniper exploit and demean Iraqis?
  5. What accounts for American fascination with SEALs and snipers?
  6. What does American Sniper ask us to think about Chris Kyle’s wife Taya?
  7. What do we make of the end of the movie—Chris Kyle’s battle with PTSD, his death, and his funeral? How do those events shape or change our perceptions of the early parts of the movie?
  8. How is American Sniper the movie different from American Sniper the book?
  9. What qualities do director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall bring to the movie that help make it so striking?
  10. What qualities do actors Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller bring to the movie to make it so compelling?

Below I’ve excerpted bits-and-pieces from several reviews of American Sniper that appeared upon its release and also comments from interviews with director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall. I’ve also added a sentence of my own comment to each excerpt.

Army Iraq vet (infantry) and poet Brian Turner, “I Served in Iraq and American SniperGets It Right. But It’s Still Not the War Film We Need.”  The Vulture, Jan 22, 2015.

The film made me remember something else, too: the oft-repeated phrase We should just drop a nuke and turn this whole goddamn place into a glass fucking parking lot. This was an enlargement of what I’d regularly heard prior to deploying from Ft. Lewis, Washington: I’m going to go over there and shoot somebody in the face. And so, what started as an erasure of the signature of one’s identity, their face, evolved into the complete erasure of a civilization. But the thing is, I don’t think there was any clue about what was actually being erased in the first place. And in that cluelessness lays the problem with American Sniper….

The biggest problem I have with American Sniper is also a problem I have with myself. It’s a problem I sometimes find in my own work, and it’s an American problem: We don’t see, or even try to see, actual Iraqi people. We lack the empathy necessary to see them as fully human. In American Sniper, Iraqi men, women, and children are known and defined only in relation to combat and the potential threat they pose. Their bodies are the site and source of violence. In both the film and our collective imagination, their humanity is reduced in ways that, ultimately, define our own narrow humanity. In American Sniper, Iraqis are called “savages,” and the “streets are crawling” with them.

Comment:  Turner decries American desire to reduce war to simplistic acts of violence and bemoans American obliviousness to Iraqi history, culture, and people.

Army Iraq vet (artillery) and author Roy Scranton, “The Trauma Hero:  From Wilfred Owen to Redeployment to American Sniper. LARB, Jan 25, 2015.

American Sniperfocuses in tight on one man’s story of trauma, leaving out the complex questions of why Kyle was in Iraq being traumatized in the first place. The Iraqis in the film are villains, caricatures, and targets, and the only real opinion on them the film offers is Kyle’s. The Iraqis are all “savages” who threaten American lives and need to be killed. There’s some truth in this representation, insofar as this is how a lot of American soldiers thought. Yet the film obviates the questions of why any American soldiers were in Iraq, why they stayed there for eight years, why they had to kill thousands upon thousands of Iraqi civilians, and how we are to understand the long and ongoing bloodbath once called the “war on terror.” It does that precisely by turning a killer into a victim, a war hero into a trauma hero.

Comment:  Scranton wonders about the sympathetic portrait of Kyle at the expense of the hundreds of Iraqis he killed and the thousands more killed by other American soldiers.

Journalist Susannah George, “Here’s What Moviegoers In Baghdad Think of American Sniper.” Global Post, Jan 28, 2015.

In Baghdad, where much of the film is set, the movie drew full crowds at one of the city’s new upscale cinemas. Dressed in a fur-collared coat and loafers, Mohammed says many of the showings were sold out, and he knows of people who had to book their tickets a day in advance during opening week.

But after just a week on screens, the Mansour Mall theater pulled the controversial war movie. A theater employee sitting at the box office says management made the decision “because the hero of this film boasts of killing more than 160 Muslims.”  The employee declined to give his name because he did not have permission to speak to journalists.

Comment:  George points out that many Iraqis wanted the same people dead that Americans did—insurgents, Al Qaeda, jihadists, future ISIS members, and sectarian warfarers.

Army Iraq vet (infantry) and author Colby Buzzell, “Chris Kyle and the Iraq War are More Complex Than American Sniper—Or Criticism of It.”  The Guardian, Jan 23, 2015.

I still didn’t get all the criticism. I liked Kyle – at least, the Kyle in the movie, as I know nothing about the one on the page or off camera. In the movie he did his job, did it well and hit all his enemy combatant targets with not a civilian killed. He followed the rules of engagement and, if anything, was a pretty squared away soldier – one I’d be honored to serve along side – and, if people think that the real Kyle was a monster for doing the job that our country sent him to do, then that must mean that they think I’m a monster as well. I also tried to do my job to the best of my abilities while over there, just so that we could all go home and nobody in my platoon would get killed.

Did I give a shit about the Iraq people? Yes, but I, too, joined the military and not the Peace Corps. I had a pretty good idea what I was getting myself into. War is shades of grey, but I had to view it in black and white while doing my job over there. I’d have gone mad if I hadn’t. It was us vs them, kill them before they kill you, and, as my Battalion Commander once told us all right before rolling into a heavily insurgent occupied city of Tal Afar, “Shoot first, shoot straight, protect the innocent and punish the deserving.”

Comment:  Buzzell sees a lot of himself in Kyle—a pretty good guy who did the job the military asked him to—and wonders whether if people hate Kyle, they hate him, too.

Marine Iraq vet (infantry) Jon Davis, “A Former Marine’s Review of American Sniper.” Time, Feb 9, 2015.

The scene that meant the most to me when thinking about Cooper’s acting ability was one that most people were probably bored by. I’ll throw a spoiler because the plot point really doesn’t matter. It was the scene where Kyle and his family are having the tire on their car changed. A Marine recognizes Kyle and comes up to thank him with all the “you saved me in, blah, blah, blah… and ‘a lot of guys didn’t come back, blah, blah, blah’” tropes that are in every war movie. What you probably didn’t notice about that scene was Cooper. To moviegoers he was boring, but what I saw was something I don’t understand how he got right.

In that scene, Cooper displays classic signs of a veteran who doesn’t enjoy being thanked. He immediately deeply retreats upon being recognized and becomes politely evasive. His speech breaks down into monosyllabic chirps of general acknowledgement, while not maintaining eye contact and attempting to not carry the conversation further. While I’ve never saved anybody, I’ve had this experience dozens of times when random strangers thank me for my service. You really can’t describe the feeling that follows, but last Veterans’ Day when my boss made a big deal about thanking me in front of all my students, a motive I am deeply appreciative of, I was overwhelmed with a feeling I can only describe as a profound and sudden sense of humiliation which I can’t begin to quite understand. All I can say is Cooper’s portrayal of this feeling was something I saw in his short chirps and expressionless awkward glances that communicated a level of detailed research, coaching, and acting, to say the least of getting to know realveterans that needs to be known and acknowledged.

Comment:  Davis is attracted to the scene that shows Kyle’s discomfort at being thanked for his service, and sees it as representative of the skill the Clint Eastwood/Jason Hall/Bradley Cooper team brought to the film. 

Army Afghanistan vet (infantry) and author Adrian Bonenberger, “There Are No War Heroes: A Veteran’s Review of American Sniper.”  The Concourse, Jan 23, 2015.

Kyle embraces his role as a Navy SEAL sniper, which is central to both the plot and his identity. It’s interesting that the literary and cinematic history of snipers goes unaddressed in the film; up until the 1990s or so, it’s difficult to find them mentioned in valorous or positive terms. (America’s first unequivocal sniper heroes were Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon, the Delta duo who insisted on landing amid hundreds of hostile Somalis during the Battle of Mogadishu, sacrificing themselves to save a wounded comrade during the events portrayed in both the book and the film Black Hawk Down). For much of human history, a person who stayed back from combat and killed the enemy from afar was seen as unscrupulous at best. The original sniper is Paris, who dastardly kills the Greek hero Achilles from long range with a bow and arrow; Michael Moore, always a lightning rod for progressives and conservatives alike, stated the case more strongly in a tweet this past weekend suggesting that snipers were cowards.

Comment:  Bonenberger explores America’s new-found fascination with snipers as emblematic of the modern American way-of-war.

Movie-maker Michael Moore, Tweet, Jan 18, 2015.

My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes. And invaders r worse

Comment: Moore gets to the point quickly why he doesn’t like American Sniper.

American Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall interview with Charles Thorp.  Rolling Stone, Jan 28, 2015.

Q:  So how much of the script was pulled from the book American Sniper?

A:  The book was written less than a year after he got back from combat. There was a lot of great material in there, but I absolutely knew there was more to this guy than was in those pages. It was more about what happened when he was over there, which was useful. You could tell he still had his armor on when he was writing; however; there was a lot of edge there. It didn’t really get into what happened when he came home and what going to war had cost him. I wanted to take a deeper look at that.

Comment:  Hall explains that he knew there was a more complicated man and a better story than was revealed in the book version of American Sniper.

Jason Hall interview with Ted Johnson.  Variety, Jan 10, 2015.

“The cost is man, the toll is man, and it’s this man and every other soldier that fights.  If we understand that, maybe we won’t be so hasty into jumping into war, and if we understand that, maybe we’ll find a way of welcoming [veterans] home better.”

Comment:  Hall explains that the real point of American Sniper is the human cost of being a combat soldier.

American Sniper director Clint Eastwood interview with Stephen Galloway.  The Hollywood Reporter, March 16, 2015.

Q:  The film became quite controversial when it came out because there were… People said it, you know, glorifies war or glorifies American snipers. Is that how you view it?

A:  No I don’t think it glorifies… I think it glorifies it, sure. I mean in the first sequence he shoots down… Yeah, the sniping part is. But you know then eventually as that scene indicates that he’s getting… You can see it’s starting to tell on him and later on when he visits a psychiatrist and has to talk to him and the psychiatrist says did you do anything along the way over there that you maybe or you felt you shouldn’t have. And you could tell by the look on his face that yeah, he’s got some regrets in there. And that’s just the way it is. I think it’s anti and it’s… It just depends on how you want to look at it. It’s probably… I think the whole picture and with him dying and everything it’s no good deed going unpunished.

Comment:  Eastwood ponders whether or not American Sniper glorifies war.

 

 

From Baghdad to Hollywood: Sand Castle

May 6, 2018

Does every veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan believe he or she has a story that deserves a larger audience than just family and friends? The journey to and from the battlefield, hooked to larger ideas about the nation, the military, and war, seems to be the very stuff writing was made for. The urge to render the particular flavor of one’s personal voyage in just the right form so that it expresses something approximating truth in a way that connects with larger audiences is nearly irresistible. This very understandable idea helps fuel the tremendous output of memoirs and essays by veterans over the last few years.

The grandiose outcome of such thinking is Hollywood. Not content with publication in print or online, ambitious artist-veterans shoot for the stars: their story is one that deserves transformation into an entertainment-art form viewed by the millions, not one read by the dozens. Plus, the money and the fame…. The only thing that could be more gratifying to the veteran’s desire for recognition and approval is Twitter superstardom….

Such were my thoughts as I watched Sand Castle, a Netflix original film released in 2017. Based on screenwriter Chris Roessner’s tour in Iraq in 2003 as a civil affairs specialist with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, Sand Castle made me wonder how Roessner accomplished the seemingly unimaginable feat of convincing real live moviemakers and money-men to pour their energy, talent, and dough into bringing his self-penned biopic into being.

The answer to which, as it happens, is recounted by Roessner in two interesting interviews here and here. The short version: after war, undergraduate and graduate film school at the University of Southern California. Then, several years of low-paying internships and assistant positions. Finally, catching the attention of the right person on a Friday evening and waking up Monday morning one of the hottest young bucks on the Hollywood screenwriting scene.

More on that below, but to the movie itself…

Sand Castle begins with an extended voice-over from the Roessner character, named Private Matt Ocre in the movie and played by British actor Nicholas Hoult. His unit staging in Kuwait prior to the invasion of Iraq, Private Ocre tells us that he is no gung-ho soldier, but a misfit who joined the Army Reserves for the college money (which actually doesn’t make him that different from most soldiers–it’s the gung-ho ones who are exceptions). We witness Ocre mutilating his hand by slamming it in a Humvee door to escape combat, but the ploy only earns him a cast and a bottle of painkillers, for which the battalion surgeon tells him, “Whatever the suggested dose is, double it.” Ocre meekly rejoins his squad, a trash-talking, iron-pumping pride of lion cubs who appear to be auditioning for the next Jarhead sequel: One of Ocre’s squadmates welcomes him back by declaring, “I think I smell pussy” and another exclaims “Baghdad or bust, bitches!” when the invasion order arrives.

The voiceovers disappear when the troops roll into Iraq, and as the movie settles into some very straightforward, literal recounting of things that happen, there’s little more that demarcates Ocre’s interior thoughts or places him at the center of dramatic tension. After a bit of initial excitement, his unit’s tour turns boring, and to escape dull routine in Baghdad, Ocre’s squad leader volunteers them to assist an Army Special Forces team assigned to a remote village. Upon arrival, Ocre’s unit learns their job is to help rebuild a water-treatment facility. “Rebuilding” apparently consists of endless digging by hand a big hole that a backhoe could scoop out in ten minutes, but whatever. The soldiers try to enlist local Iraqis to assist them, but they meet resistance until they broker a deal with a kind-hearted Westward-leaning schoolteacher. A moment of forward movement on the big hole ensues, along with a moment of rapport between Americans and Iraqis, but it all goes to hell when local insurgents douse the kind-hearted schoolteacher with gasoline, hang him upside down, and burn him alive in front of his school.

Ouch.

The Americans launch a raid to kill or capture the evil-doers, which adds a little bang-bang sizzle to the movie, and somehow the Americans rally a few Iraqis to get back to work on the hole. But when a car bomb destroys the water-treatment facility, the Americans, along with the Iraqis, come to a collective “fuck it” moment, and Ocre’s unit returns to Baghdad. As the movie concludes, Ocre’s commanding officer and command sergeant major decide that he has now obtained enough war stories to interest Hollywood, and so they put him on a plane back to the States.

That last bit about being sent back to make a movie is not actually what happens in Sand Castle, but it might well be. Hoult as Private Ocre is not the deep, brooding artist-at-war the movie proposes he is, but pretty much a blank slate. Still, you can see his wheels turning as he considers how he might render his love-hate relationships with his rough-and-tumble squadmates, his tough-but-wise squad leader (Logan Marshall-Green, who is great, the best thing in the movie, he should have played the Sergeant Dime character in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), and the enigmatic Special Forces captain (played by another Brit, Henry Cavill, who was voted by the British Glamour the World’s Sexiest Man in 2013) into a compelling screenplay. Sand Castle tries to get details right, like how soldiers smoke a lot (but where’s all the dip?) and give each other “A-C-E” reports after battles. It also tries to convey “what it was really like” for average Joes who don’t have American Sniper-esque tours to brag about. And yes, its point that it was pretty clear that the war was not going to go smoothly from the beginning is well-taken. But Sand Castle also flubs big-time on other efforts to bring the soldier’s experience to the big screen, primarily in the ludicrous casting choices for Ocre’s lieutenant and command sergeant major. With no major parts for women—not even a love interest back in the States for Ocre–Sand Castle is “all-dudes,” which in this day-and-age is something of a statement. The direction, by Fernando Coimbra, is mixed: scenes are paced briskly, so the movie trips along quite nicely, but the pictorial framing of each shot is flat, especially all those views of soldiers hacking away with pickaxes at the big hole.

A movie about how Private Ocre subsequently willed Sand Castle into existence would probably be a better movie than Sand Castle, to be honest. Called Hollywood or Bust, Bitches, it might mash-up Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by having Billy Lynn by-pass Albert the middle-man to take his tale direct to Tinseltown where he becomes a vet version of the crazed movie-making wanna-be portrayed by James Franco in The Disaster Artist. But Billy Lynn was too unassuming to aim for movie-making death-or-glory, or to put it differently, he didn’t have the balls and vision to turn his battlefield heroics into a cinematic selfie. And so we have Sand Castle, a minor-note addition to the canon of Hollywood war films characterized by outsized pretensions of importance. Somewhere in the admixture of Hollywood-sized vanity and small-scale accomplishment lies the movie’s charm and curiosity, its successes and failures. Watching the movie unfold is to watch it become aware of its limitations: Sand Castle tries reasonably hard to do justice to a grunt’s-eye view of Iraq, but the lead character isn’t all that interesting and the doomed mission to rebuild a village water system not all that exciting.

What Roessner thinks of all this, I don’t know, but I’m curious if he is proud of Sand Castle, in spite of its modest achievement, or if he has regrets about how a better movie got away from him in the sausage-making process. Probably he’s just happy to have punched his ticket admitting him to LA insider status. If that’s the case, I wish him well as he moves on to bigger projects, while I remain on my couch most evenings scrolling through Netflix wondering what to watch next.

****

I love this sympathetic review of Sand Castle by Molly Laich that appeared in the Missoula Independent.

Hyena Road: Bullets-and-Bodies or Hearts-and-Minds?

February 24, 2018

The 2015 Canadian film Hyena Road, directed by and starring Paul Gross, represents a modestly competent effort to portray the complexity of war in Afghanistan. Though not completely successful, the movie, about a Canadian Army mission to build a paved road into the heart of Taliban country outside Kandahar, can’t be faulted for not trying to pack a lot in: the problem of attempting nation-building and infrastructure improvement in a combat zone, the life-or-death aggravation of following rules-of-engagement, the variety of viewpoints up-and-down the chain-of-command, the burden of trying to balance romance and duty while on deployment, the difficulty determining which Afghans can be trusted, and the diversity of motivations among the Afghans themselves.

And all that’s just for starters, for, most of all, Hyena Road is interested in the big question whose unanswerability is one of the main reasons war in Afghanistan has dragged on for over 17 years: whether special operations kill-and-capture or counterinsurgency (COIN) advise-and-assist tactics might best bring victory. In other words, bodies-and-bullets or hearts-and-minds? Something of a cross between War Machine and American Sniper, Hyena Road strives to be both a thinking-man’s war movie and a sensational shoot-‘em-up, a movie that plumbs strategy and psychology at the same time it celebrates masculine fighting ability.

The movie’s approach to dramatizing the kill-or-COIN dilemma is reflected in its two male leads. One, Captain Pete Mitchell, is a civil affairs/intelligence/effects staff officer trusted by the high command, cool with the butch-y women in the HQ, and on the same page, though firmly in the friend zone, with the hot-chick battle captain who runs the Tactical Operations Center that is his primary duty station. Mitchell doesn’t just grind through 12-hour shifts preparing briefing slides, however. Possessing an array of Afghan contacts and a deep knowledge of the country’s history, he also undertakes solo missions through Kandahar’s back alleys and independently leads patrols into the hinterlands. Believing that the royal road to victory is best traveled by drinking tea with Afghans to earn their loyalty and commitment, Mitchell asserts that he trusts Afghan soldiers with his life and that it is “their war, we’re only along for the ride,” while also cynically observing, “Hearts-and-minds is mostly just PR. The Afghans just want our money and a little bit of stability.” Rarely losing his sense of humor, even in the middle of an ambush, he quips when asked if he can shoot, “Fuck no, I’m intel.” A very suave COINdinista-warrior for the modern working-day, Mitchell is played by Gross himself, who, though largely unknown to American audiences, is apparently something of a Canadian George Clooney.

Hyena Road’s other male lead is Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders, the leader of an elite sniper unit composed of burly bearded special operations bubbas. The shooting side of war all he knows, Sanders believes that victory is best achieved by killing bad men doing bad things, or, as he states, “I believe in the possibility of changing everything with one bullet.” Comparisons are said to be odious, but it’s hard not to measure Sanders against Chris Kyle and the actor who plays Sanders, Rossif Sutherland (brother of Kiefer, son of Donald), to Bradley Cooper. (The cheapest shot the movie opens itself up to is wondering why Gross didn’t call it Canadian Sniper, ha-ha.) Sanders is not as uncomplicated as Kyle, which is fine, but as an actor playing a man with more confirmed kills than he count, Sutherland is a little weak in the jawline and puppy-doggish of eye to compare favorably with Cooper.

Mitchell and Sanders join forces to protect the engineers, contractors, and local nationals building Hyena Road (why doesn’t the movie call it “Route Hyena,” in convention with military naming practices?); Mitchell by forging an alliance with a legendary mujahedeen fighter known as “the Ghost,” Sanders by taking out the IED emplacers and other Taliban fighters obstructing the road building project, who may or may not work for the Ghost. Things get dicey, though, when it turns out that treacherous allied militia prove most responsible for the obstruction, and tricky when it turns out the the Ghost is the most reliable partner the Canadians have. Mitchell and Sanders establish an easy rapport when Mitchell congratulates Sanders for bedding the smoking-hot battle captain–“On behalf of the entire battle group,” Mitchell states, ‘I’d like to express our collective fucking jealousy”—but later, after things get dicey and tricky, the two engage in several manly-men-shouting-at-each-other debates about the best way to win the war:

Mitchell: “Unless you see weapons, do not intervene…. Do not engage…. Those are the rules of engagement!”

Sanders: “What kind of fucking war are we fighting here?!”

Mitchell: “It’s not one war, it’s many wars! It’s like playing 3D chess!”

I’m the last one to recommend killing our way to victory in Afghanistan, and I had my own truck with special operators during my deployment there, where I had a job much like Mitchell’s and a major road-building effort of my own to facilitate. Still, Mitchell gets the worst of it in these debates, which I’m not sure is exactly what Gross had in mind. Given the scenarios offered within the movie, Sanders’ focused and righteous indignation at not being able to shoot all the evil people he meets registers truer than Mitchell’s long-range, wide-view, kaleidoscopic perspective that seems to require an awful lot of tea-drinking with people who want you gone, if not dead. But then, it’s complicated, and Hyena Road at its best dramatizes the complications in somewhat cartoonish, but also somewhat compelling, terms.

Hyena Road’s subplot traces the lusty little FOB romance between Sanders and the battle-captain babe, Captain Jennifer Bowman. Worried that their dalliance is attracting attention, which it is, Captain Bowman decides to break things off, even as she tells Sanders, “There’s nothing I’d like to do more than fraternize the shit out of you.” Sanders, his softiness showing after being cut-off from probably the best-he’s-ever-had, replies, “Don’t say things like that. It hurts.” They’ve already done the dirty deed often enough, however, that one of super-sniper Sanders’ bullets—the fertile, not the deadly, kind—has found its mark, as a sonogram reveals Bowman is with baby (oops, someone forgot to wear his wet-weather-jacket…). The development reunites Bowman and Sanders in gooey-eyed contemplation of a shared future, but, spoiler alert, the effort to build Hyena Road doesn’t end well for Sanders (think Platoon), or, for that matter, since single motherhood now beckons, for Bowman either. Christine Horne, as Bowman, is a little too skinny and angular for a thoroughly buffed-up or puffed-up modern military woman, but she looks terrific nonetheless, with gorgeous crinkly worry lines around her eyes and mouth, as she strides about the TOC barking out orders like a cross between Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty and Michelle Rodriguez in Fort Bliss: seriously frowny-faced serious war women who seriously want everyone to know just how seriously serious they seriously are. I joke, in part, but in truth a more interesting movie than Hyena Road would be one that explored war thoroughly and, er, seriously, through the eyes of Horne’s character.

Also very serious—and also terrific—is Clark Johnson as Brigadier General Rilman, the Canadian general who, because his ass is on the line if Hyena Road doesn’t get built, puts everyone else’s ass on the line, too. A man under extreme pressure, General Rilman communicates his orders and desires as bluntly and coarsely as possible to make sure no one has any doubt about exactly what he wants. It’s a fantasy of male decisiveness that many military leaders aspire to (as does our current commander-in-chief) and in truth it’s a pretty appealing leadership style when it works well: lots and lots of smart people don’t mind working for a boss who keeps things very simple for them, and even if such Alpha males are loud-mouthed buffoons it’s often best just to stash them on top “in-charge” because expecting them to handle the details and nuances of staff work is more trouble than it’s worth. General Rilman is not a buffoon, but one of the nicest moments in Hyena Road captures Captain Mitchell eyeballing him as he lets everyone know that completing Hyena Road is his number one priority—you can see Mitchell’s gears turning as he contemplates how such an apparently impossible mission is one that he alone, or he with the help of a few friends, might be able to accomplish.

Hyena Road’s good intentions and best parts unfortunately are undercut by tilts toward half-baked ridiculousness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the portrayal of Afghan characters. Whether their parts are underwritten or the actors themselves are just plain bad, it’s hard to tell, but the result is the same clichéd good guys, bad guys, and comic foils (most given cornball nicknames like “the Ghost” or “the Cleaner”) who populate other movies about Afghanistan, such as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Lone Survivor, War Dogs, and War Machine, to name a few. I don’t think Hollywood, or its Canadian offshoot, has it in itself to portray a realistic Afghan any more than it did in the old days to portray a realistic Native American, but maybe when someone gets around to filming Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue or one of Nadeem Aslam’s novels, I’ll be proven wrong. One can only hope….

Not to end on such a bummer note, Hyena Road does a few things very well. The recreation of Kandahar airfield is excellent, as is the replication of a modern computer-work-station and big-screen-filled operations center. Although the major battles are a little on the cowboys-and-Indians side, the sniper scenes are great. A scene in which one of the sniper’s wives offers her hubby a boob-shot via Skype strikes a nice contemporary note (yay, technology), though in truly predictable movie fashion, the sniper gets waxed the next time he goes outside the wire. A vignette in which Sanders’ men prepare their weapons and gear for a nighttime mission to the thumping soundtrack of a rousing blues-rocker is fantastic gun-porn for our gun-addled times—who cares if Hyena Road ever gets built as long as forever war gives boys endless opportunity to play with the toys they love so much and filmmakers opportunity to make movies about them?

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 alwaysPitt’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 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.


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