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american sniper eastwoodPretty lies sell. Politicians know it. Hollywood knows it. Clint Eastwood knows it – although perhaps he did not intend to sell pretty lies when he made American Sniper. But pretty lies are what Eastwood delivers. And in them rest the sources of the controversy, and the complications, of the movie.

As you likely know, American Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle, an American SEAL who is famous for being the “deadliest sniper in American history” with 160 confirmed kills to his name. The movie is far more interested in telling the story of the impact Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq had on him and his family, however. Much of that story is not pretty and much of it is true.

There Is Much Ugly Truth in American Sniper

There are quite a number of ugly truths wrapped around the pretty lies of American Sniper, which do a good job of giving the pretty lies of the film the appearance of “truth by association”.

Eastwood does not make war look fun. He makes it look like a tough, exhausting, dangerous job — Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post nails it when she called American Sniper a “professional procedural”. (The single exception is the scene where Kyle kills a rival sniper with a headshot from nearly a mile away. We follow the bullet in slow motion as if we were watching The Matrix.)

Eastwood certainly doesn’t make war look pretty. In one scene, one of Kyle’s friends is hit by assault rifle fire that instantly deadens his expression. He dies seconds later. In another scene, one of his friends is shot in the face, and we watch as the man chokes on the blood gurgling in his throat. Kyle’s sniper rifle blows holes the diameter of coffee cans in the bodies of the men, and the woman and the child, he kills.

Eastwood shows us the impact of war on soldiers. We are there outside the operating room when they die. We attend their funerals and see the grief of the family they left behind. We see soldiers trying to recuperate from horrible wounds in hospitals back home, and then try to build a new life with broken bodies and broken spirits.

We see what the war does especially to Chris Kyle’s wife, Taya, played by an excellent Sienna Miller. One of the strengths of American Sniper is just how much attention and respect it pays to the suffering of the wives (all wives in this case) of soldiers at war. And we see the impact of the war on Chris Kyle himself through the outstanding performance of Bradley Cooper – richly deserving his best-actor nomination – who in scene after scene, quietly and almost motionlessly, conveys the anguish of Chris Kyle’s job.

After Kyle shoots an armed enemy, he exhales and drops his head. Then he sniffs and returns to looking through the sight of his rifle, as if each shot were a burden he would need to carry and for which he would need to ultimately answer. This is particularly true after the famous opening sequence, when Kyle has to decide to shoot a young boy who is running toward an American patrol with a grenade, and then shoot the boy’s mother who picks up the grenade after her son is killed.

Later in the film, another boy picks up a grenade launch dropped by a dead fighter and seems to be attempting to aim it at an American patrol. “Put it down, put it down, put it down,” Kyle whispers as he fixes the boy in the sight of his rifle, a look of horror spread across his face. His relief when the boy drops the weapon is palpable.

Balanced against these many ugly truths – and they are very ugly indeed – are the pretty lies of American Sniper. These lies are very pretty indeed. The ultimately overwhelm the counter truths. And these lies start with Chris Kyle.

Chris Kyle: An Ideal and Idealized American Soldier

By all reports, the real Chris Kyle was in many ways the man American Sniper shows him to be. A tough professional elite soldier who joined the military to defend the United States from terrorists. A loyal and unwavering friend. A loving and devoted husband who struggled against the damage the war did to himself and his family, and who then committed himself to helping other veterans with the same struggles – including the man who killed Kyle in 2013.

But there are other parts of Chris Kyle that are absent from American Sniper and which are less than ideal. For example, the movie portrays Kyle as modest and reluctant to discuss his work. The real life Chris Kyle seems to have been much less modest. He actively promoted himself as “America’s most lethal sniper” and made good money doing it.

Kyle’s bragging also extended to things he didn’t do. Kyle claimed to have killed two carjackers in Texas and gone to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to shoot looters. No evidence for these claims exists. Kyle also claimed to have punched Jesse Ventura for criticizing the Iraq War. Ventura won a $1.8 million libel judgment against Kyle.

You could say that these were a few moments when Kyle’s mouth got ahead of his brain. You can’t offer the same defense of some of the opinions Kyle published in his autobiography. Such as these:

“I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL.” [From the introduction.]

“I missed the excitement and the thrill. I loved killing bad guys.” [On why he wanted to go back to Iraq.]

“It was like a scene from ‘Dumb and Dumber’. The bullet went through the first guy and into the second…Two guys with one shot. The taxpayer got good bang for his buck on that one.” [On firing at two insurgents on a moped.]

These are not the words of a modest and selfless soldier, doing the hard work most people are unable or unwilling to do; not the words of the Chris Kyle portrayed in American Sniper who is celebrated by much of the nation as hero. These are the words of a person who enjoyed being paid by the U.S. government to go on a murder junket. And there is nothing pretty about them.

What Exactly Does “Fighting for Freedom” Mean?

As amazing as it sounds, the prettied up Chris Kyle isn’t the prettiest – or biggest lie – Eastwood tells in American Sniper. That distinction goes to the justification the movie presents for the Iraq war. Or more precisely, the lack of justification for the Iraq War the film presents.

War is a brutal business and when a war is necessary (and I do believe some wars are necessary) then we need men like Chris Kyle to fight them; and if these men are less than perfect in their motivations, and less than perfect in their actions, it is nonetheless indecent to criticize them for their imperfections. Men like Chris Kyle are the means to the ends we pursue, and if we don’t like the means then we shouldn’t pursue the ends.

The problem is that American Sniper utterly ignores questions like these. Instead, it takes at face value, unexamined and unchallenged, Chris Kyle’s justification for the Iraq War, which is the pretty, glittering, noble-sounding phrase that he was “fighting for freedom”.

But what does “fighting for freedom” mean in the context of the Iraq War? Don’t look for the answers in American Sniper because they ain’t there. Which leaves us to guess.

One possibility is that “fighting for freedom” means protecting the United States from existential threats – that is from enemies that have the ability to destroy America and the freedoms it guarantees its citizens. In this case, there are two important questions: Was Iraq an existential threat? and if so Was invading Iraq the best response to this threat?

The answers to both questions have been definitely settled as “no” for everyone not living inside an intellectually dishonest fantasy land. (They were also clear to many before the war began.) The same answer holds true for the claims that we were fighting for Iraq’s freedom, and that all that was need to create a stable democracy in a peaceful Iraq was to get rid of Saddam Hussein. History – if you wanted to bother looking at it – would have told you otherwise.

In this context, perhaps “fighting for freedom” means we don’t want to admit we launched a war of choice out of a combination of fear, incompetence, stupidity, vanity, bravado, and magical thinking. Or perhaps “fighting for freedom” means that it would be too painful to admit the Iraq War was a mistake after all the sacrifices made by our soldiers and their families.

Or perhaps “fighting for freedom” means that we really just want to kick somebody’s ass; we aren’t too particular about whose we kick; and we need some high-minded sounding excuse to go do it.

This is an offensive suggestion. The problem is … of all the possible definitions, it makes the most sense. If you were really serious about protecting America, you would believe it is worthwhile to carefully assess threats and deliberately choose the best response, weighing risk against benefit. And examine and learn from mistakes. Yes? If you were really serious about spreading freedom, you’d look at the places where it was done successfully, and the many places it wasn’t, then get serious about exactly what it will take and how hard it will be.

If on the other hand, you’re a fan of the shit-kicking approach to foreign policy – Let’s go kill bad guys! – and you see military intervention as simply a whole lot more awesome version of the National Football League – then “fighting for freedom” full stop, end of discussion, is all you need.

American Sniper: Catnip for Red States

Eastwood has claimed in his public statements that American Sniper is a “character study” and that the film is “anti-war”. Neither one of these claims holds up to scrutiny.

In terms of Chris Kyle, not only are the ugly pieces of his character left unstudied in American Sniper, they are substantially prettied up. This idealized Chris Kyle, with all the storytelling and myth-making fire-power of an accomplished director behind him, is made by the movie into “the” portrait of “the real” American soldier. Too tough, too brave, too accomplished, too loyal, too tender, too strong, too steady, too vulnerable, too modest, too selfless – just flawed enough to be too heroic – to be true.

It’s hard to be anti-war if you make the impact of a war ugly (which Eastwood does) but make the reasons for fighting that war noble when they ain’t. Or put it this way. When horrible sacrifices are justified by beautiful lies, the lies don’t become horrible. The sacrifices become beautiful.

Considering the total effect of American Sniper then, the pretty lies are stronger than the ugly truths, and leave the stronger impression. No surprise then either that the film has the knickers of liberals in a twist or that American Sniper is a smash-hit success in Red State America. It’s perfect catnip. It acknowledges the horror of combat and the heavy sacrifices of military families, while telling us soldiers are heroes who volunteered to fight a good and necessary war. Based on all the reports of cheering during the movie, sounds like the shit-kickers got their money’s worth too.

What Are You Selling Again, Reverend?

Jesus roamed the holy land in a Range Rover, and
I spread the word of God faster the faster I move,
Too. So this is a machine necessary to my ministry.
I favor flawless black – with the perfect high shine
Of the coffins in which we all make our final trip.
Memento mori. In my Father’s house, there are
Many rooms and I have built my additions also, as
The church budget permits. We need the space to
Hold wide the arms of Christ’s welcome, to host in
Generous fellowship and with full table those who
Come in love and seeking more. Clasp my hand and
I will give you assurance of the Lord’s many blessings,
As well as tangible proof of how His enterprise prospers.
For all our salvations shall come with tasteful bling, and
Boundless grace with a pinkie ring.

My Grandmother’s Lisk Roaster

Are you haunting me, grandmother, through the handles of
Your Lisk Roaster? Here the shadow of your hands touch my
Hands. The kitchen air also stirs with your lift and motion,
The heat from the oven is your heat, and stray molecules of
Your dinners linger in my neurons or deep in the decades-old
Strata of an essential bone. Is this all that is left of you? The
Materialists answer smugly yes, congratulate themselves for
Their penetration and courage of truth; but I don’t think all
Truth is as hard and obvious as the metal of this pan, or all
We can touch is all there is to touch, or in exuberant fields
Quantum, undreamed and undiscovered, that spirits don’t
Wander an Elysium fresh green with love and brighter than
A thousand suns.

Selma MovieFor a movie as universally praised – and as well deserving of that praise – as Selma, the film is getting curiously little positive attention lately.

Despite examining the life of arguably the most important American of the 20th century (Martin Luther King Jr.) and one of the major events in that century (Civil Rights), the discussion of U.S. history Selma has provoked is dominated by questions of the film’s representation of Lyndon B. Johnson, the president during the Selma marches.

And despite being better written, acted, and directed than the vast majority of films Hollywood produces, including the “issue” films through which the industry loves to celebrate itself, Selma was largely snubbed by the Oscars.

The question is Why? Having considered carefully, I’ve come up with the answer. Because director Ava DuVernay didn’t make the white guy the hero.

Now this sounds like the kind of provocation on which bloggers depend, but it happens to be my true opinion. And highly defensible. Here’s why.

Selma the Movie Versus History

The first thing to know about any work of art that dramatizes historical people and events is that when the needs of the dramatist conflict with the truth of the historian, the truth of the historian always loses.

This is the nature of storytelling, and we would all be better off if more storytellers would acknowledge this fact up front and more historians would stop bitching about storytellers failing to do their jobs for them, and instead embrace the opportunity to talk about history that movies like Selma offer.

The right questions we should ask film-makers like Ms. DuVernay are What did you change? and Why did you change it?

These are the questions DuVernay answered in a January 5 Rolling Stone interview. She reduced Johnson’s role in Selma because she was “interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma” and because she wanted to portray Lyndon Johnson as a “reluctant hero”.

That is what she achieved. Watching the movie, and reviewing the historical arguments swirling around it, the worst you could say about DuVernay’s LBJ in regards to the Voting Rights Act is that he saw it as somewhat less of a priority than the historical LBJ. But both Johnsons worked with Dr. King, both Johnsons cared about the bill, and both worked to get it passed.

You wouldn’t know this from the reaction of Joseph Califano, a top Johnson aid from 1965 to 1969, who acts as if DuVernay did a full-on Shakespearean Richard III hatchet job on Johnson; who claims Selma was all Johnson’s idea and implies LBJ cared more passionately about voting rights than the people of the Civil Rights movement; and whose self-righteous appeal to the “facts” of history don’t quite fit the facts he quotes (see the New Yorker article).

Califano and other critics are on much more solid ground when they complain that the movie portrays Johnson as behind the FBI secretly taping Dr. King’s extra-marital affairs. If they want to ding DuVernay for that, have at her. While I think the spying is important to include in Selma, the way DuVernay included it in the film is clunky and her defense of the inclusion, clunkier.

But in all the outrage over the horrendous slander against Lyndon Johnson people like Califano express, it would be nice if they paused to also express some outrage at the government spying on one of its own citizens to stop him from claiming rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Or perhaps even a little outrage over the fact that men in the pay of government routinely beat the living sh*t out of people – beat these people with impunity and without consequence – as they tried to claim the same rights. If the truth about LBJ in 1965 is worth getting upset over, shouldn’t the truth about everyone else in 1965 still matter too?

Selma the Movie, What Sells Tickets, and The Great Oscar Snub

The answer is clearly “no” or the experience of the men and women of the Civil Rights movement would be part of the conversation too. To understand the reason why it’s not, the best place to go is Hollywood.

Hollywood is even more attuned to what people want than governments, because while governments can make you give them money whether you like it or not, Hollywood has to convince you to open your wallet through pure selling.

Mostly what Hollywood sells are fantasies of sex, money, love, power, and freedom from social restraint. Occasionally, they sell stories about inspiration, uplift, and redemption. And occasionally within this subset of inspiration, the stories are about real people and real events.

But there are rules that must be followed. Some of these rules are that such movies should be simplistic, over-obvious, and end in triumph. An iron-clad rule is that they must make the audience (that is “white people”) comfortable by assuring them they are right-thinking, right-acting human beings firmly on the right side of history.

Call this the Dances with Wolves model or if you like, the “white savior” model, which is what DuVernay told Rolling Stone she wanted to avoid making Selma. And boy she sure did.

Her Selma gets the formula half right. The movie clearly identifies the “bad” white people like Alabama Governor George Wallace and Selma Sheriff Jim Clark who we can all congratulate ourselves for despising. But Selma then fails to give us (again “us” means “white people”) the counter-balance of the unambiguous white hero whose actions are absolutely essential to achieving the ending’s triumph and with whom we (“white people” still) can identify.

DuVernay takes away LBJ as simple hero and then does more. She mixes into her Lyndon Johnson qualities that fall between those of the obvious hero and those of the obvious villain – those inaccuracies previously discussed. She has King say all those who do nothing while innocent people are killed share complicity in those killings. And she closes the movie with Common and John Legend singing a song (“Glory”) that explicitly connects Selma to Ferguson, which when you compare the news footage of the two events look, ah, kinda similar.

The result? A whole lot of white people going frickin’ bat sh*t because Selma suggests that maybe they aren’t quite as right-thinking and right-acting as they’d like to believe.

This seems to me to be the heart of the matter. The objections to the historical inaccuracies in Selma look strangely out of proportion to the inaccuracies themselves until we see them as damaging the image of LBJ as “white savior” and so damaging the self-esteem of people like Califano who want to identify with him as such. What else would explain Califano over-playing Johnson’s importance to voting rights, after bitterly complaining Selma under-plays it, except that Califano is reflexively defending his self image?

This also explains the strange pattern of Oscar snubs the academy has bestowed on Selma. No person associated with Selma was nominated. Many of these nominations went to other less accomplished, though perfectly serviceable “serious” films like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Only Selma the movie itself and the closing song were nominated. In other words, things.

Things the academy can claim as their own, celebrate, and congratulate themselves as right-thinking, right-acting people for celebrating.

That is what they sell, after all.

11 Ways To Get Through The Day
When Despair Gets An Upper Hand

The philosopher conjures misty castles, calls
Them solid rock. The libertine drinks the ready
Wine, relies upon his cock. Scientists cook up
Molecules, declare all meaning dead. Priests
Wave their holy books, offer daily bread. The
Salesman assures just what you need is here
Inside this bag. Surgeons say the magic cure is
Fix the flesh that sags. School nurses wage long
Campaigns to rid the class of lice. Commentators
Rage and rail, indulge in secret vice. Money girls
Check their phones, tweet It’s only pain that pays.
Children say, Come on, Dad. Let’s go outside and
Play
. Artists say our Beauties are the holes that fit
No keys, peek into the locked-up rooms of endless
Mysteries!

Acts of the Apostles

I know you’re a preacher from your black coat,
The lady said and I smiled and told her Almost.
To what strange lands might we fly if I spread
My black wings, from what strange texts might
I speak if I took the pulpit? Would I please her
Dancing my exuberant heresies on the Rock of
Ages? Perhaps. Her face said she might take
My mysteries for faith, my wonders for reasons,
My beauties for redemption. She might grant me
A God who is all whirlwind and no ash heap, who
Suffered so He could say We are the same now.

Or would she ask me What about love dear? and
Smile at my blank look. Love is simple as a child.
You shuffle Her to one side with your words and
Your rules and your thinking. Then I would sweep
Off my preacher’s coat and settle it on the majesty
Of her stooped shoulders.

The Lament of Milton’s Satan

Oh where are the noble sins? How can
We tempt to betrayal when all interest
Is self interest? To blasphemy when the
Only curse is canceling cable television?
To blood when the grubby bills of trade
Are sticky with gore? How the dignity of
My defiant hell sold cheap? How comes
The glorious army that threw eternity at
Hazard in their rebellion reduced now to
Game-show hosts and sales-dinner MCs?
How I forced to trade my smoking black
Armor for fire-engine Lyrca? To stand in
Red-hot yoga pants and watch Mammon
Revel on my throne?

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