"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

The Mule: A Review

MV5BMTc1OTc5NzA4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTAzMzE2NjM@._V1_.jpg

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. An underwhelming dramatic misfire from Clint Eastwood that never lives up to its intriguing premise or its cinematic promise.

The Mule, written by Nick Schenk and directed by Clint Eastwood, is the true story of Leo Sharp, a war veteran in his late 80’s who becomes a drug courier for a Mexican drug cartel. The film stars Eastwood as Leo, with supporting turns from Bradley Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Michael Pena, Laurence Fishburne and Andy Garcia.

Clint Eastwood is royalty out here in Hollywood, and rightfully so. The reasons for his kingly status are pretty obvious, it is because he has been a huge box office star, a cultural icon and an Oscar winning filmmaker as well as the fact that he has been around forever and has made lots of people lots of money, something which Hollywood REALLY likes.

Unknown-7.jpeg

As esteemed as Eastwood’s career has been, it is his longevity that has afforded him the ability to be alive while the industry lauds his career accomplishments. For instance, Eastwood won his Best Director Oscar for his genre defining and closing western masterpiece Unforgiven at the age of 62, it felt like the final chapter of a remarkable career. But then Eastwood won Best Director again in 2004 at the age of 74 for the less than award worthy Million Dollar Baby in what most definitely felt like a lifetime achievement award, a gold statuette from Hollywood to say thank you to Clint one more time before he died. But then the unexpected happened again…Clint Eastwood didn’t die. He didn’t fade away. He didn’t retire. To his credit, he kept making movies…and he kept making people money because he was always on time and always on budget, which is the true secret to Tinseltown success.

As great as Eastwood’s Unforgiven was, and it is truly one of the great pieces of cinema, the truth is that this Emperor of Hollywood has no clothes in regards to his later works, which have been decidedly sub-par and shoddy. Yes, he and his movies have won awards and made money, but the bottom line is this, Eastwood’s late career movies haven’t been good films. A good test of this is that you can watch Unforgiven a dozen times over and still come away with something new each time, but if you try and watch any of Eastwood’s later films, like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, American Sniper, more than once, you are struck by the glaring lack of craft, skill and artistry on display. His late career films, even ones with a lot of accolades and box office bang, are cinematically tenuous and artistically shallow. All of Eastwood’s golden years movies are paper thin, and upon closer examination reveal themselves to be really shoddy pieces of work.

Unknown-8.jpeg

A hysterical example of that shoddiness is the infamous fake baby in American Sniper, but the problems with Eastwood films runs much deeper than using a fake baby, it is why he used a fake baby that causes the problem. The fake baby came about because the two babies lined up to shoot that day fell through, so instead of shifting on the fly and rescheduling the baby scenes, Eastwood stubbornly stuck to schedule and budget, and shot with a doll instead of a live baby. What this silly little example shows is that Eastwood is more interested in getting it done (on time and on budget) than getting it done right.

Now, the uninitiated and/or “regular people” might think, “hey, why is getting something done on budget and on time bad?” Well, it isn’t bad in and of itself, and it is a wise move in terms of making a living and making a lot of powerful friends in Hollywood, as a minimal talent like Ron Howard has learned, the problem is when it is craft that is the victim of a strict adherence to budget and time. Think of it this way…what if a construction company building the bridge you drive over every day cared more about being on time and on budget than getting it done right. In that case, cutting corners means the bridge will be structurally unsound and will, over time, collapse…which is a perfect metaphor for Eastwood’s later films, as they are structurally unsound and collapse over time and repeated viewings. You wouldn’t want to drive on that bridge, just like I don’t want to suffer through a shoddy Eastwood film.

Unknown-9.jpeg

Another problem born out of Eastwood’s adherence to tight schedules and budgets is his preference for doing a minimal amount of takes of each scene. This approach works on a film like Unforgiven because you have a murderer’s row of old pros like Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris and Eastwood himself carrying the film. This approach works less well on films like Gran Torino, where Eastwood cast non-actors and amateurs, or American Sniper, where much of the cast were less experienced, less talented and less skilled actors.

Actors with less experience need direction, and direction comes about over the course of a few takes. Eastwood’s hands off approach may keep his schedule and budget in tact, but it also makes his movies feel second rate and amateurish.

What is so frustrating to me is that Eastwood’s films all feel like they SHOULD be good, and in theory they are good as they have good ideas, good stories and often times good actors, but the problem is not in theory but in the execution and in the attention to detail, and that falls on Clint.

The Mule is a perfect example as the story of a 90 year old man working as a drug mule for a cartel is certainly intriguing, and so is the idea of a cultural icon, Dirty Harry or The Man With No Name, playing the role, but it is in the execution where the film stumbles and staggers.

Unknown-12.jpeg

In The Mule, Eastwood’s weaknesses are on full display, with a notable addition, Eastwood himself is so old at this point, that he himself is not much of an actor anymore, and that is a problem when he is supposed to carry this movie not only as an actor but as a director. It is asking quite a lot for an 88 year old to walk around the block, nevermind muster the energy to act in front of the camera and direct from behind it.

It is for these reasons that The Mule is a bit of a conflicted and underwhelming hodge-podge of a movie. To be fair, The Mule could have been a whole lot worse, but that certainly doesn’t mean it was great or even good. The frustrating thing for me is that The Mule could have been great. Maybe if Eastwood just acted in it and there was a more visionary director at the helm, then it could have risen to worthy heights, but as it is, the film is a disappointment.

Eastwood’s acting is painful to watch. There are moments when he flashes back to being the Outlaw Josey Wales (another great movie) or Dirty Harry for a second, but those glimpses quickly fade into oblivion and are replaced by an actor pushing too much or not enough. Clint never firmly grasps the character, which could be due to the script, and so he staggers around from comedy to tragedy and back again.

Eastwood isn’t helped by the script or by his own directing, both of which leave a lot to be desired. There are some scenes with painfully obtuse exposition, like where Leo, out of the blue, tells a stranger that he has driven all over the country and never…NEVER got a ticket or pulled over. Leo shares this bit of information about five times in less than thirty seconds and then the stranger propositions him to be a drug mule. Yikes.

Leo’s relationship with his wife, kid and grandkid are so hollow their dialogue could echo. There is not a single, genuine, grounded human emotion or encounter in the entire film. Not one. Every interaction rings false and forced.

images-7.jpeg

The characters are one dimensional card board cutouts, but that would make sense since the plot is equally thin. There are all the usual bad movie tropes in there, the interrogation scene where tough guy cops get a bad guy to flip, the drug lords living their decadent and lavish lifestyle, scantily clad women included, and the family drama of a bitter ex-wife and daughter, and the hope of a new beginning with a granddaughter. The whole movie is painfully predictable and is sort of like a amalgamation of every bad drug movie and family turmoil movie ever made.

Besides Clint, the rest of the cast are less than stellar. Bradley Cooper does the best of the bunch, but even he is hamstrung by a nebulous character. Dianne Wiest does her best, but the script does her no favors. The rest of the cast are pretty dreadful, from the tattoed tough guys to the non-tattoed tough guys to the granddaughter with a heart of gold, none of them seem even remotely believable.

There is one thing that stood out to me about The Mule, and that is that it contains the single worst scene I’ve witnessed in a film this entire year. The scene is not only remarkably poorly executed in terms of the writing, directing, acting and editing, but it is remarkable because it doesn’t need to be in the film at all. I won’t say what scene it is, but I will tell you that it comes very near the end, and you’ll know it when you see it. I audibly groaned when I saw the scene, so much so that my fellow movie goers probably thought I was having a stroke…I should have been so lucky.

images-8.jpeg

As hard as I am being on this movie, it actually could have been worse, and while a cinephile like me disliked it, people who aren’t quite the film snob I am, will probably enjoy it. For instance, old people love to go to the movies, and they love to see other old people in movies. So old people will probably like this movie since they get to watch someone who is most likely older than they are star in a movie. In fact, as I entered the theatre for my screening, a decrepit old lady, probably in her late 80’s, grabbed my arm as I walked past her and stopped me just to tell me “you’ll love the movie…it’s really great.” I didn’t know this woman and had no idea why she needed to share that with me or why she felt it was ok to grab my arm, but obviously she felt strongly about the film. I would love to share my review with her and hear her counter argument, but sadly, even after passionately and expertly making out with her for the majority of the movie, I never once thought to get her name or number….such is the glamorous life of an internet film critic.

In conclusion, The Mule is a formulaic film that looks and feels more like a made for tv movie than a piece of serious cinema. I am a fan of Clint Eastwood, and he is one of the all-time greats in this business, but his acting and directing fastball left him long ago, so much so that he is basically throwing a slow-pitch meatball up to the plate with The Mule. The movie is so rough around the edges and so soft in the middle that it ultimately fails to deliver much drama or any cinematic punch. If you are curious about it or are an avid fan of Eastwood, feel free to check out The Mule when it comes out on cable or Netflix for free, but avoid paying to see it at the theatre because you’ll end up feeling like The Mule kicked you in the head and stole your hard earned money if you do.

©2018

The Pentagon and Hollywood's Successful and Deadly Propaganda Alliance (Extended Edition)

mockup-63860f6e.jpg

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes 48 seconds

The Pentagon aids Hollywood in making money, and in turn Hollywood churns out effective propaganda for the brutal American war machine.

The U.S. has the largest military budget in the world, spending over $611 billion, far larger than any other nation on earth. The U.S. military also has at their disposal the most successful propaganda apparatus the world has ever known…Hollywood.

Unknown-6.jpeg

Since their collaboration on the first Best Picture winner Wings in 1927, the U.S. military has used Hollywood to manufacture and shape its public image in over 1,800 films and TV shows, and Hollywood has, in turn, used military hardware in their films and TV shows to make gobs and gobs of money. A plethora of movies like Lone Survivor, Captain Philips, and even blockbuster franchises like Transformers and Marvel, DC and X-Men super hero movies, have over the years agreed to cede creative control in exchange for use of U.S. military hardware.

In order to obtain cooperation from the Department of Defense (DOD), producers must sign contracts - Production Assistance Agreements - that guarantee a military approved version of the script makes it to the big screen. In return for signing away creative control, Hollywood producers save tens of millions of dollars from their budgets on military equipment, service members to operate the equipment, and expensive location fees.

Capt. Russell Coons, Director of Navy Office of Information West, told Al Jazeera what the military expects for their cooperation,

“We’re not going to support a program that disgraces a uniform or presents us in a compromising way.”

Phil Strub, the DOD chief Hollywood liaison, says the guidelines are clear,

“If the filmmakers are willing to negotiate with us to resolve our script concerns, usually we’ll reach an agreement. If not, filmmakers are free to press on without military assistance.”

In other words, the Department of Defense is using taxpayer money to pick favorites. The DOD has no interest in nuance, truth or, God-forbid, artistic expression, only in insidious jingoism that manipulates public opinion to their favor. This is chilling when you consider that the DOD is able to use its financial leverage to quash dissenting films it deems insufficiently pro-military or pro-American in any way.

Unknown-7.jpeg

The danger of the DOD-Hollywood alliance is that Hollywood is incredibly skilled at making entertaining, pro-war propaganda. The DOD isn’t getting involved in films like Iron Man, X-Men, Transformers or Jurassic Park III for fun, they are doing so because it’s an effective way to psychologically program Americans, particularly young Americans, not just to adore the military, but to worship militarism. This ingrained love of militarism has devastating real-world effects.

 

Lawrence Suid, author of “Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film” told Al Jazeera,

“I was teaching the history of the Vietnam War, and I couldn’t explain how we got into Vietnam. I could give the facts, the dates, but I couldn’t explain why. And when I was getting my film degrees it suddenly occurred to me that the people in the U.S. had never seen the U.S. lose a war, and when President Johnson said we can go into Vietnam and win, they believed him because they’d seen 50 years of war movies that were positive.”

As Mr. Suid points out, generations of Americans had been raised watching John Wayne valiantly storm the beaches of Normandy in films like The Longest Day, and thus were primed to be easily manipulated into supporting any U.S. military adventure because they were conditioned to believe that the U.S. is always the benevolent hero and inoculated against doubt.

b4b7fb9a580ebd9e725ad6f2a091-is-hollywood-a-propaganda-machine.jpg

This indoctrinated adoration of a belligerent militarism, conjured by Hollywood blockbusters, also resulted in Americans being willfully misled into supporting a farce like the 2003 Iraq war. The psychological conditioning for Iraq War support was built upon hugely successful films like Saving Private Ryan (1997), directed by Steven Spielberg, and Black Hawk Down (2001), produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, that emphasized altruistic American militarism. Spielberg and Bruckheimer are two Hollywood heavyweights, along with Paramount studios, considered by the DOD to be their most reliable collaborators.

Another example of the success of the DOD propaganda program was the pulse-pounding agitprop of the Tom Cruise blockbuster Top Gun (1986).

Top Gun, produced by Bruckheimer, was a turning point in the DOD-Hollywood relationship, as it came amidst a string of artistically successful, DOD-opposed, “anti-war” films, like Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, which gave voice to America’s post-Vietnam crisis of confidence. Top Gun was the visual representation of Reagan’s flag-waving optimism, and was the Cold War cinematic antidote to the “Vietnam Syndrome”.

Unknown-8.jpeg

Top Gun, which could not have been made without massive assistance from the DOD, was a slick two-hour recruiting commercial that coincided with a major leap in public approval ratings for the military. With a nadir of 50% in 1980, by the time the Gulf War started in 1991, public support for the military spiked to 85%.

Since Top Gun, the DOD propaganda machine has resulted in a current public approval for the military of 72%, with Congress at 12%, the media at 24% and even Churches at only 40%, the military is far and away the most popular institution in American life. Other institutions would no doubt have better approval ratings if they too could manage and control their image in the public sphere.

It isn’t just the DOD that uses the formidable Hollywood propaganda apparatus to its own end…the CIA does as well, working with films to enhance their reputation and distort history.

For example, as the War on Terror raged, the CIA deftly used Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) as a disinformation vehicle to revise their sordid history with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and to portray them-selves as heroic and not nefarious.

The CIA also surreptitiously aided the film Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and used it as a propaganda tool to alter history and to convince Americans that torture works.

Unknown-9.jpeg

The case for torture presented in Zero Dark Thirty was originally made from 2001 to 2010 on the hit TV show 24, which had support from the CIA as well. That pro-CIA and pro-torture narrative continued in 2011 with the Emmy-winning show Homeland, created by the same producers as 24, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa.

 

A huge CIA-Hollywood success story was Best Picture winner Argo (2012), which ironically is the story of the CIA teaming up with Hollywood. The CIA collaborated with the makers of Argo, including alleged liberal Ben Affleck, in order to pervert the historical record and elevate their image.

The CIA being involved in manipulating the American public should come as no surprise, as they have always had their fingers in the propagandizing of the American people, even in the news media with Operation Mockingbird that used/uses CIA assets in newsrooms to control narratives. 

Just like the DOD-Hollywood propaganda machine has real-world consequences in the form of war, the CIA-Hollywood teaming has tangible results as well. 

Unknown-10.jpeg

For example, in our current culture, the sins of the Intelligence community, from vast illegal surveillance to rendition to torture, are intentionally lost down the memory hole. People like former CIA director John Brennan, a torture supporter who spied on the U.S. Senate in order to undermine the torture investigation, or former head of the NSA James Clapper, who committed perjury when he lied to congress about warrantless surveillance, or former Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden, who lied about and supported both surveillance and torture, are all held up by the liberal media, like MSNBC and even allegedly anti-authoritarian comedians like John Oliver and Bill Maher, as brave and honorable men who should be thanked for their noble service. 

The fact that this propaganda devil’s bargain between the DOD/CIA and Hollywood takes place in the self-declared Greatest Democracy on Earth™ is an irony seemingly lost on those in power who benefit from it, and also among those targeted to be indoctrinated by it, entertainment consumers, who are for the most part entirely oblivious to it.

If America is the Greatest Democracy in the World™ why are its military and intelligence agencies so intent on covertly misleading its citizens, stifling artistic dissent and obfuscating the truth? The answer is obvious…because in order to convince Americans that their country is The Greatest Democracy on Earth™, they must be misled, artistic dissent must be stifled and the truth must be obfuscated.

In the wake of the American defeat in the Vietnam war, cinema flourished by introspectively investigating the deeper uncomfortable truths of that fiasco in Oscar nominated films like Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July, all made without assistance from the DOD.

The stultifying bureaucracy of America’s jingoistic military agitprop machine is now becoming more successful at suffocating artistic endeavors in their crib though. With filmmaking becoming ever more corporatized, it is an uphill battle for directors to maintain their artistic integrity in the face of cost-cutting budgetary concerns from studios.

Unknown-12.jpeg

In contrast to post-Vietnam cinema, after the unmitigated disaster of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the continuing quagmire in Afghanistan, there has been no cinematic renaissance, only a steady diet of mendaciously patriotic, DOD-approved, pro-war drivel like American Sniper and Lone Survivor. Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker (2008), shot with no assistance from the DOD, was the lone exception that successfully dared to portray some of the ugly truths of America’s Mesopotamian misadventure.

President Eisenhower once warned Americans to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.”

Eisenhower’s prescient warning should have extended to the military industrial entertainment complex of the DOD/CIA- Hollywood alliance, which has succeeded in turning Americans into a group of uniformly incurious and militaristic zealots.

America is now stuck in a perpetual pro-war propaganda cycle, where the DOD/CIA and Hollywood conspire to indoctrinate Americans to be warmongers, and in turn, Americans now demand more militarism from their entertainment and government to satiate their bloodlust.

The DOD/CIA - Hollywood propaganda alliance guarantees Americans will blindly support more future failed wars and will be willing accomplices in the deaths of millions more people across the globe.

A version of this article was originally published on March 12, 2018 are RT.

©2018

Snowden : A Review and Commentary

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

ESTIMATED READING TIME : 12 MINUTES AND 39 SECONDS

MY RATING : 3 out of 5 Stars

MY RECOMMENDATION : If you saw and liked Citizenfour, see Snowden in the theatre. If you don't like Edward Snowden, or are indifferent, see it on Netflix or Cable.

Snowden, written and directed by three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone, is the story of famed NSA whistelblower Edward Snowden. The screenplay is based upon the books The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena. The films stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden, with Shailene Woodley, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Rhys Ifans and Nic Cage in supporting roles.

Director Oliver Stone, like Edward Snowden, is a controversial figure who is despised and ridiculed by those in the establishment, which is a pretty good reason to like the guy. Stone has spent his career sticking his finger in the eye of those in power and their sycophants in the media. Stone and his films have been an important cultural counter weight to the prevailing winds of his time. During the height of conservative rule and thought in America during the 80's, when the nation was all too happy to forget its sullied not too distant past and corrupt present, Stone reminded America of its unresolved hubris with his Vietnam films (Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July) and his indictment of then U.S. foreign policy in Latin America with Salvador and the economic ruse of the times in Wall Street.

In the early 90's, while the nation was still basking in the warm glow of sunlight from Reagan's "morning in America", Stone pulled back the veil and tore off the scab to reveal the rot at America's core underneath the flag waving veneer with his films JFK, Nixon and Natural Born Killers.  Stone's insistence that America look at and acknowledge its true self was never warmly welcomed by those who need to deceive in order to succeed, thus the Washington and media establishment have always loathed him. All the more reason to admire the man and his work, which certainly struck a raw nerve for those in power.

Edward Snowden is also quite a controversial figure to say the least. As the marketing of the film tells us, some people call him a traitor, like those in the establishment and media, others call him a hero. The film Snowden itself is probably a Rorsharch test for viewers, with those who think Edward Snowden a hero liking it and those thinking he is a traitor hating it. The reality is that if you already think Snowden is a traitor, you probably aren't going to go see this film anyway. The people who believe Snowden is a hero are the most likely ones who will go and see this film.

With that context in mind, director Oliver Stone surprisingly pulls a lot of his punches in the film. In Snowden, Stone "bottles the acid", to quote Judge Haggerty from JFK,  and never goes in for the kill shot on the intelligence community, which is very out of character for the rebellious director. Considering Oliver Stone's past work, I found his indictment against the intelligence community in Snowden to be rather tame. That said, Stone certainly shows Edward Snowden in as positive a light as he can, and there is never any doubt as to Snowden's moral and ethical superiority throughout the story, but the scope, scale and magnitude of the evil being perpetrated by our intelligence community, and the impetus for Snowden to act, is under played and never fully fleshed out to satisfaction.

All that said, Snowden, while not a great film, it certainly is a good one. It is without question the best Oliver Stone film of the last twenty years or so since Nixon in 1995. The only other film of note from Stone during the second half of his career is 2008's W., which like Snowden, is also a Rorsharch test for viewers and is a good but not great movie. Both Snowden and W. pale in comparison to Oliver Stone's genius work during the first half of his career, when he made a bevy of tremendous films such as, Platoon, Salvador, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, JFK, Nixon, The Doors and Natural Born Killers. When I speak of the futility in the second half of Stone's filmmaking career I am not counting his documentaries which can be quite good. His Showtime series Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States is extremely well done and should be mandatory viewing for any citizen.

As for Snowden, as much as I enjoyed the film, the greatest issue I had with it was that it failed to use Stone's signature visual and editing style (think JFK) to tell the complex and mammoth tale of the various surveillance programs that Ed Snowden uncovered and revealed. This is the crux of the story as it shows why Snowden risked so much in order to inform the public as to what was being done to them and in their name to others. Stone does try to personalize the snooping that the programs do, but while that sequence is effective it isn't quite enough. Stone also under-uses actual news footage and cutting between it and the dramatic narrative of Snowden. Stone used that technique to great effect in JFK but fails to utilize it enough in Snowden, much to the detriment of the film. Stone's masterful work on JFK showed how to take an enormous and complex subject and whittle it down so that people could understand and digest it, he needed more of that approach in Snowden, not less. Oddly enough, Snowden almost feels like it was directed by someone other than Oliver Stone, as the film lacks his visual and storytelling trademarks.

As for the acting, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance is simply miraculous. Levitt's work is meticulous, detailed and vibrant. Levitt perfectly captures Snowden's unique vocal tendencies and looks strikingly like the man, so much so that in some shots I was wondering if that actually was Edward Snowden and not the actor. Snowden is not an easy character to take on, he is an enigmatic man, probably somewhere on the autism spectrum, who is both self conscious and self confident, sometimes all in the same moment. Levitt creates a genuine, complex human being with all of his intracacies and inhabits him fully, never letting the character slip into caricature or imitation. Levitt's Snowden is multi-dimensional and is a truly remarkable piece of acting work, proving Levitt to be among the best actors of his generation. In comparing Levitt's performance as Snowden to other actors in previous Oliver Stone films, the thing that is strikingly obvious is that other actors in Oliver Stone films were actors in "Oliver Stone films". For instance, Born on the Fourth of July is an "Oliver Stone film", not a "Tom Cruise film", the same can be said for Charlie Sheen in Platoon or Kevin Costner in JFK or Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, these actors all did solid work but were overshadowed by the talent and vision of their director Oliver Stone, hence they were in "Oliver Stone films" and not in "Sheen/Costner/Hopkins films". The very high compliment I can pay Joseph Gordon-Levitt is that Snowden is, without question, a "Joseph Gordon Levitt film", and not an "Oliver Stone film". Levitt outshines his director, which is a tribute to him as an actor, and a recognition of some creative slippage on the part of Stone the director.

The supporting cast is hit and miss. Shailene Woodley does a solid job in the terribly underwritten role of Snowden's girlfriend Lindsay Mills. Woodley is a strong actress, approachable and artistically honest, who has an undeniable charisma that lights up the screen. On the other hand there is Nic Cage, who is simply a dreadful actor of epic proportions, and frankly, contrary to popular opinion, always has been. Cage is in some very crucial scenes but is so distractingly bad that those scenes and the highly critical information they convey, get scuttled, much to the detriment of the film. It feels like Cage is in one of those god-awful National Treasure films and not a serious Oliver Stone film.

Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo and Tom Wilkinson all do solid work as the documentarians and reporters Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill. The scenes with Snowden and the reporters in the Hong Kong hotel room are surprisingly compelling since they are scenes we have already seen in the documentary Citizenfourthat is a credit to the actors.

Snowden reminds me of two films, one, Citizenfour is pretty obvious. Snowden is a very nice companion piece to Laura Poitras' Academy Award winning documentary Citizenfouras it dramatizes and expands on what was revealed in that excellent film.

The second film I was reminded of is much less obvious, at least on the surface. That film is American Sniper. Here is the round-a-bout way in which Snowden reminded me of American Sniper. As I walked out of the theatre post-Snowden, I was wondering if Oliver Stone has simply lost his fastball as a filmmaker and was not able to land his punches quite as crispy and effectively as he was twenty five years ago in films like JFK, Platoon, Wall Street etc. Then I wondered if maybe Stone had just grown weary of the cultural battle to which he has dedicated his life, which seems never ending and futile at best. I thought this because of Stone's surprisingly conventional storytelling in Snowden, punctuated by an upbeat ending that, in my opinion, defies the reality we find ourselves in, in regard to surveillance and what the intelligence community is up to. And then I wondered if…and this gives a big benefit of the doubt to Oliver Stone, who, frankly, with the stellar filmography of his earlier years has earned that benefit, Stone had made a truly subversive film with Snowden, but it was hidden beneath the surface of the rather tepid bio-pic it was buried under. It could be that Snowden is Oliver Stone's answer to American Sniper, right down to mimicking its flaws?

Here is my theory…that Oliver Stone intentionally made Snowden to undermine the propaganda of American Sniper and reduce its power on the American collective unconscious.  Snowden the film and the man, are counter-myths to Chris Kyle and American Sniper. Like American Sniper, Snowden is structured as a standard bio-pic, almost hitting the same exact beats and with the same exact rhythm as American Sniper. Also like American Sniper, Snowden ties the dramatic film to the actual, real-life man in it's final scenes, blurring the lines between what is dramatized and what is real. That said, one real life difference between the films is that unlike with the Kyle family and American Sniper, Edward Snowden had no say or final approval of the final script, and received no money for Snowden.

I don't think those structural and narrative similarities between American Sniper and Snowden are accidental. If Oliver Stone is anything, he is a true-blue subversive and it is a stroke of genius to make Snowden a parallel to American Sniper. Oliver Stone has spoken of his masterpiece JFK as being a counter-myth to the prevailing myth of the Warren report. The only difference between the Warren report and JFK is that JFK readily admits it is a myth, while the Warren report holds onto the illusion and delusion that it is factual. And so it is similar with Snowden and American Sniper, as Stone sets out to counter Clint Eastwood in his bootlicking, ass kissing, myth making, propaganda with a counter-myth meant to celebrate the thoughtful, rebellious, principled subversive in the form of Edward Snowden.

Why do I think Oliver Stone is intentionally taking shots at American Sniper in Snowden? I think that because Stone has cast the remarkably wooden actor Scott Eastwood, American Sniper director Clint Eastwood's look alike son, as Trevor James, an NSA middle management type who never questions, or thinks, about what he is tasked to do, or much of anything really. It was seeing Scott Eastwood in the film that made me connect American Sniper and Snowden, and I think that that was not an accident. Stone could have cast a million other actors in that role, but he didn't, he cast Clint Eastwood's kid. Scott Eastwood being cast is not because of his superior talent (God knows) and it isn't a business decision, it is a creative and symbolic decision, and it is deliciously stealthy bit of cinematic intrigue.

Stone subtly and surreptitiously shows that Trevor James is, just like his father's American Sniper muse Chris Kyle, an unquestioning and unthinking fool who fights for tyrants and tyranny, as opposed to Snowden, who selflessly risks his life for the truth, and nothing else. That is what stands out the most to me in Snowden as a contrast to American Sniper, namely that Edward Snowden is smart and insightful enough to recognize the true enemy of America is within in the form of Bush, Obama, Clinton, Petreaus, Hayden, Clapper, the intelligence/political and media establishment et al. Stone is showing that Chris Kyle, like Trevor James, is a dupe, a sucker and a fool, who gives his life as a pawn for the powerful to exploit the weak, the stupid and the gullible. If Chris Kyle were a real man and the true American hero he has been sold to us as, he would not have gone to Iraq to keep us safe from phantom enemies a world away, he would have used his substantial sniping skill on the only actual threat to America that exists, namely the same tyrants who were sending him to war for their own benefit. Of course, Oliver Stone would be excoriated if he came out and said what I just wrote, and it is hard enough to sell movie tickets to a film about Edward Snowden, the man our country and culture has labelled a traitor, already, considering we live in a nation of propagandized flag waving dupes, dopes and dipshits who don't have a single clue between them and are as happy as pigs in shit about it. So Stone made a subtle and ingenious dig at Clint Eastwood, Chris Kyle and American Sniper, that only those cinematically savvy enough would be able to catch and I, for one, give him great credit for that.

One other thing to keep in mind in regards to Snowden and some parallels with American Sniper, namely that both of them may very well be pieces from the same propaganda puzzle brought to us by our power and control hungry friends who operate in the shadows (and are unaware of their own shadow - psychologically speaking!!). There is a part of me, and there is substantial evidence to back this up, that believes that The Legend Chris Kyle was created as a propaganda tool out of whole cloth. His story and his rise into public consciousness is very suspect to say the least, as we've seen from the revelations about his less than truthful depiction of his life and military career. The other thing to keep in mind though is that Snowden, as much as I admire what he did, he may very well be just another piece of counter intelligence propaganda meant to spread disinformation and to manipulate the masses. The reason I say that is because while Snowden revealed a great deal of government illegality, yet no one has ever been held to account for these crimes, which is quite convenient. One result of Snowden's revelations are that the public has become numbed into a shoulder shrugging apathy in regards to government surveillance. So with Snowden's revelations, the intelligence community gets to have the cover of being forced to  "come clean", meanwhile they can continue surveillance without anyone noticing or more importantly, caring.

In keeping with the intelligence communities playbook, right after Snowden's revelations the media went into hyper-drive to destroy Snowden personally. The usual suspects at the Washington Post and New York Times and all the television outlets painted him as a self serving, smug, fame hungry man trying to harm his nation for his own advantage. Even ferret faced "comedian" John Oliver got into the act. So now, any other whistleblowers will be reticent to come forward, and any other revelations of government criminality will be ignored. The cavalcade of information that Snowden revealed has been masterfully manipulated into having the effect of creating apathy in the general public and giving immunity to the intelligence community from any crimes committed.  Snowden may not have been a part of the bigger propaganda and counter intel project, but he was certainly useful to it.

Add to that that Snowden seemingly came out of nowhere…his life story reeks of someone who was snatched up by the intel community and groomed to be an asset. He never finished high school? Failed out of the Army Rangers? These are odd things for someone so obviously intelligent and highly functioning. To tie things back to Oliver Stone, Snowden may be a modern day Oswald, nothing more than a patsy. (Oswald too was a high school drop out and was seemingly much more intelligent than he seems at first glance, for example he allegedly taught himself to be fluent in Russian.)

The reality is that if I am to be suspect of Chris Kyle's story I need to be equally suspect of Edward Snowden's story, as both of them are littered with red flags, some waving higher than others. A giant red flag for both of them is that their stories were made into major motion pictures. Hollywood is a very useful tool to the intel community to shape culture and perception. The idea that Snowden is an intelligence asset meant to obfuscate the truth rather than reveal it may be a stretch to some people, but we must understand that nothing can be taken at face value. If you want to be a well informed human being, you have to be skeptical of everything you come across. Manipulation of the masses by the powers that be is as old as civilization itself, and one must always be vigilant against one's owns prejudices.  

The intel community could use Snowden's revelations to divert attention and distract us from what they are really up to, which is probably a hell of a lot more heinous than we can ever imagine. Maybe that is why Oliver Stone made such an un-Stone-like film. Maybe Stone had an inkling that not all was as it seemed in the Snowden story, and so he used the film as an opportunity to subtly undermine the military-industrial-propoganda complex by taking shots at American Sniper while telling a tepid version of the Snowden tale. Maybe…just maybe…Oliver Stone's Snowden is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Or maybe my tinfoil hat is on too tight…who knows?

One final odd contradiction coming from people like Chris Kyle and his flag waving and ass kissing supporters, is that they are usually either Republicans or conservatives, and often times both. They dislike and rail against government, determined to reduce it to a size where they can drown it in a bathtub, but they fail to realize that the military, the intelligence services and law enforcement are all part of the government. In fact, military/intelligence/law enforcement are often times the most expensive form of government and the most dangerous to the things that I, and alleged conservatives, say we hold dear, namely, the constitution and our individual, GOD-given liberties. As Republicans and conservatives like to tell us, and as I certainly believe, government didn't give us our liberties, God did. So why are conservatives in general, and Republicans in particular, so infatuated with government power, violence and secrecy? It is odd. And don't get me wrong, the Democrats are usually just as awful as Republicans on these issues…look at the superstars who have been my Senators and representatives over the years, Jane Harman, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton…they are like a murderer's row for the military/Intelligence industrial complex and against civil liberties.

Which brings us to another point made in Snowden, albeit only in passing. Namely that all of these surveillance programs run by the intelligence community aren't meant to stop terrorists at all, they are meant for corporate and government espionage, and to scuttle civil unrest and protest. In the film, Nic Cage's character Hank Forrester describes to Snowden how he had developed a much better, much more accurate and much cheaper surveillance program than the one the CIA and NSA currently use, but they chose not to use it because they wanted to fill the coffers of the military industrial complex by using a bigger, less effective and more expensive by billions program. This sounds exactly like our trusted government in action. Even applying the most basic, Luddite logic, one would understand that the more information you sweep up, the less usable information you will actually be able to focus on. When you expand the haystack, needles don't get easier to find, they get harder.

This is proven by the fact that the NSA and CIA have never used these surveillance programs to stop a terror attack. They have CLAIMED to have stopped terror attacks using these surveillance programs, but there is absolutely no proof whatsoever that is true. Like the overwhelming majority of police work, these surveillance programs, at best, give the intelligence services something to do AFTER an attack, but never before. So what are these programs really about? These surveillance programs aren't about security, they are all about power.

If the U.S. government were so interested in stopping terrorists, then why do they bend over backwards to protect the home and heart of terrorists, Saudi Arabia. Bush's bestest hand holding buddy Saudi Prince Bandar, has been proven to be an accomplice and paymaster to the 9-11 hijackers, as was his wife. And yet, Bush and his successor Obama have moved heaven and earth to protect the Saudi's at all costs and to protect that information from coming to light…why? The Saudi's have been proven to have supported the 9-11 hijackers…think about that. Saudi Arabia was complicit in 9-11, where three thousand Americans were killed. 9-11 has been used as the catalyst and excuse for all of the intrusive (and illegal) surveillance the government has undertaken, and yet, that same government has no interest in pursuing justice in regards to the Saudi's. In fact, not only are they not holding the Saudi's accountable, they are actively arming and protecting them. Any rational human being could, in the light of this information, see the War on Terror for the Kabuki theatre that it is.

Further strengthening the case against the alleged use of surveillance in the war on terror is the fact that the U.S. is also actively working with, arming and supporting terrorists in Syria. ISIS and Al Qaeda are being used by the U.S. as weapons in their war against the Assad regime and its Russian benefactor.  We are doing the same thing in Ukraine where we supply and arm jihadists in the war against Russian nationalists in eastern Ukraine. We play our little public game of charades and pretend to deplore terrorists but behind the scenes we do everything we can to arm and empower them in Syria, Ukraine and across the globe. Is this the act of a nation so desperate for security that they would trample the Constitution and our civil liberties in order to stamp out terror? 

In conclusion, I have an opinion of what Edward Snowden that is probably right in synch with Oliver Stone's, thus I enjoyed the film. I think it could have been much better, but in the final analysis I think it was good enough. I am sure people on the other side of the argument will loathe the film. I believe that if Edward Snowden is the man he says he is, this is the type of man we as a nation should celebrate and hold in the highest regard. It is a sign of our culture's decadence, intellectual indifference and moral and ethical decay that Edward Snowden has successfully been labelled a traitor and an enemy by those in the establishment. He may be an enemy of the state, but he is undoubtedly a hero for the people. If we plan on getting our country back from the oligarchs, aristocrats, corporatists and military industrialists who currently reign over us with their Eye of Sauron intelligence apparatus, the people will need to wake up and fight back. The film Snowden is not perfect, and seeing it will not be a cure-all for the fear, weakness and stupidity that cripple us as a people, that said, seeing it would be a small and positive step in the right direction. 

©2016

 

Sully : A Review

*****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!! THIS IS A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW!!!****

Estimated Reading Time: 208 Seconds

My Rating : 2 out of 5 Stars

My Recommendation : Skip it in the theatre. If you are a fan of Eastwood and Hanks, see it for free on Cable or Netflix.

Sully, written by Todd Kormarnicki and directed by two-time Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood, is the story of US Airways pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger who famously crash landed flight 1549 into the Hudson River in January of 2009. The film is based on Sullenberger's autobiography Highest Duty, and stars two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks in the lead role. 

Sully, like many of director Eastwoods films in recent years, has some good in it and a whole lotta bad. Let's start with the good. The plane sequences where we see flight 1549 crash into the Hudson river are very impactful and exceedingly well done. It is difficult to watch those sequences and not have a visceral reaction to them. It is every airline passenger's nightmare and darkest fear to go through what the passengers of flight 1549 went through, and when you add to that the fact that 8 years before Sully's aviation heroics, low flying planes over New York city didn't crash harmlessly into the Hudson river, they crashed violently into the World Trade Center resulting in thousands dead, it is easy to understand how those passengers, and viewers of this film, would be unnerved. This recipe of recent history and the magic of cinema make for some heart pounding scenes of flight 1549's two hundred and eight seconds in the air. It is when the film is on the ground (and water) that it wanders aimlessly and sputters hopelessly.

Besides the plane sequences, another bright spot in the film is Tom Hanks. Hanks is not the most daring actor in the world. In the last few decades he has fallen into a lazy pattern of repeatedly playing characters with an almost saintly dignity which often times borders on arrogance. He does the same thing in Sully, but to his credit he does it very, very well.  Hanks has spent a career refining this exact type of performance and his years of experience come to fruition as Sully. The Sully character is one part Captain Philips, one part Captain Miller from Saving Private Ryan and one part James Donovan from Bridge of Spies. If you've seen those films then you've already met Sully, now he is just wearing a different uniform. Hanks work in Sully is not a model of artistry or creative genius, but rather one of experience and comfort with craft.

Now on to the bad. First off, there is actually no dramatic story here at all. Sully is one of those films that isn't really about anything at all except justifying its own existence…and separating people, namely older audiences, from their hard earned money. It is like a headline with no actual story below it. In other words there is no there, there in Sully. It is a meatless sandwich. Eastwood tries to make the narrative about Sully battling the  evil, mustache twirling bureaucracy of the NTSB as they try to stifle and punish good old American individuality and heroism, but not surprisingly that storyline falls impotently flat.

Sully also tries to be about the relentlessness of the media and the difficulty of being caught in the public eye…but that too is a rather dramatically flaccid narrative. It seems an odd thing for Sully to complain about being in the public eye when he voluntarily goes on tv to be interviewed by Katie Couric and followed that up by going on Letterman. He didn't have a gun to his head when he did those interviews. A good strategy to avoid the harsh spotlight of the public eye is to keep your head down and stay off of television.  (As an aside…I have a very simple rule of thumb for any film. Namely…if a film has a scene where a gaggle of reporters and camera people hound the main character and he or she has to plow his way through those reporters and camera people on the way out of his or her home, office, hotel, or courtroom, then that film is a horrendous pile of steaming poop. Most any film that has that scene in it is a horrible film - I'm looking at you Gone Girlyou piece of crap!! Keep an eye out for those type of scenes next time you watch a movie, and 99 times out of 100, you'll see that I am right.)

The only real purpose of Sully is to show the dazzling effects of the plane crash, which stated before are excellent…and to drum up the primal American fear around 9-11. It is no accident the film was released on the weekend of the 15th anniversary of 9-11 and has multiple scenes of planes crashing into the New York skyline. Sully seems to be pining for that feeling of connection and 'we're all in this together' that allegedly permeated the country after the 9-11 attacks. The character of Sully, or should I say the caricature of Sully, is that of the perfect American, heroic, noble and selfless, who is hounded by the twin evils of government bureaucracy and the liberal media. Much like Eastwood's last film, American Sniper, this film would have been much better and much more interesting if it kept a distance from its subject (or in the case of Chris Kyle, his family) and instead made a film about the actual man, and not The Legend or The Hero created by, or built around that man. But Eastwood is not the director to make that kind of film, he lacks the nuance, the skill and the craft to make a truly complex and layered film that isn't a western.

Another really bad part of the film is the non-Hanks acting. As is the case in most of Clint Eastwood's films, the supporting and secondary actors give utterly heinous performances. Laura Linney plays Sully's wife, she is a truly terrific actress, yet here she is embarrassingly awful. Her work is shrill, shallow and devoid of purpose. Anna Gunn, who is also a usually solid actress, is so terrified and uncomfortable in front of Eastwood's camera as to be distracting.

The smaller roles, those of passengers, stewardesses and the like, are filled by actors who are just plain terrible. The airline stewardess' and a father and son who get on the plane last minute are particularly note worthy in their atrociousness. The always shitty Michael Rapaport makes a brief appearance as a bartender and continues to mystify the western world as to how a man so talentless and devoid of charisma can continue to have an acting career. Mr. Rapaport can rest easy though as the actors playing his fellow New York bar compatriots are equally shitty at acting.  

The problem with Clint Eastwood directing a film is that he doesn't actually direct his actors. He does very few takes of each scene and gives no direction or guidance to his actors, so the less experienced, and less talented actors are left to their own devices and often times flounder. Eastwood's hands off approach to directing actors results in a myriad of underwhelming and terribly uneven performances throughout, and his films most assuredly suffer greatly as a result of it. Go back and peruse the acting in the supporting and smaller roles in Eastwood's last decade of filmmaking. They are absolutely cringe worthy. Just as Bradley Cooper did great work in American Sniper but was surrounded by a troupe of actors that could have been dug up out of the Blaine, Missouri community theatre, so it is with Tom Hanks and his supporting cast in Sully.

Why does Eastwood leave his actors to their own devices? I think the biggest reason is that it actually takes time to direct actors. Eastwood is, first and foremost, concerned with getting his films done on time and on budget. He is no fool for he knows if he is on schedule and on budget they will let him keep making movies, this is how the business works. So Eastwood chooses to get things done on time, rather then to get things done RIGHT. Sometimes, like when he has a very experienced and talented cast, this approach works because his actors are up to the task. Eastwood's greatest film (and one of the greatest films of all time) Unforgiven, is a perfect example of this. When you have Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris and Eastwood himself in your cast, you don't have to waste much time working with the actors. But when you have considerably lesser talents and lesser experienced actors, you DO need to spend time working with them and helping them to gauge the size, scope and scale of their performance.

There are other issues with the film that are just egregious errors in filmmaking. After the plane crashes into the Hudson, there are not one but two instances where individual passengers are in peril, and Eastwood plays up this peril to a great degree, spending time and energy on it. Then he just walks away from the danger sequences and lets them resolve themselves without any explanation. It is bizarre, and frankly absurd. The people who were in peril weren't that interesting to begin with, so why even show them in danger in the first place? And then since you did show them in danger, why not play out that sequence to its conclusion? It is a strange, terribly sloppy and unconscionably lazy bit of filmmaking on Eastwood's part. It was one of those sequences that make me shudder to think that Eastwood has two Oscars for directing and Stanley Kubrick has none. Oh the humanity!!

In conclusion, Sully is a rather shallow and thin film that is definitely not worth spending your hard earned money to see in the theatre. While the plane sequences are captivating, the surrounding story and the majority of the acting are sub-par. If you are a fan of Eastwood or Hanks, or even Sully himself, then you can wait to see the film for free on cable or Netflix. If you want to watch a plane-crash survival oriented film while waiting for Sully to come out for free, go watch the much maligned Flight starring Denzel Washington. While the film is definitely flawed, Washington's performance is one of the best of his stellar career and is worth seeing. Or if you want to watch a 9-11 themed film, go watch Paul Greengrass' gut wrenching United 93. Both Flight and United 93 are considerably more worthy of your time than the rather tepid Sully.

©2016

 

American Sniper: A Review

***** WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!!! THIS IS YOUR ONE AND ONLY SPOILER ALERT!!****

 

American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, is the story of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, and is loosely based on his book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.  The film follows Chris Kyle's exploits on the battlefield in Iraq and his struggles with his family and PTSD back on the homeland.

I admit that after seeing the trailer for American Sniper I was excited to see the film. The trailer was really well made and brought with it a palpable tension. But, as with many films, the trailer is considerably better than the actual film. The film itself, just like the trailer, starts off with Chris Kyle prone atop a building in Iraq, contemplating whether or not he should use his sniper rifle to shoot a young boy and woman who threaten US Marines with a Russian grenade off in the distance. The film then deviates from the trailer and we go into  extended flash back scenes which show Kyle's boyhood, his young adult life, his work as a cowboy, his joining the Navy, his SEAL training, his meeting his wife and then his wedding. This is all shown to us in order to give us context for who Chris is and how he got to be that way. After twenty minutes of this exposition, we come back to Kyle atop the roof with his sniper rifle and his pending decision. He shoots and kills both the boy and his mother, his first ever kills. 

Bradley Cooper stars as Chris Kyle and is as good as he's ever been. He fully inhabits the role from top to bottom. His physicality, his Texas drawl and his energy are all spot on. Cooper's performance, without question, carries the film. There are two scenes in particular, where Cooper rises above his already very good performance to be truly transcendent. The first scene is where he has another Iraqi boy in his sniper sights as the boy picks up an RPG and points it at unsuspecting US troops. Kyle talks to himself telling the kid to drop the weapon, he doesn't want to kill another child. Just as the boy is aiming the RPG and Kyle readies to squeeze the trigger, the boy drops the weapon and runs off. Cooper's use of breath once he no longer has to decide whether to shoot or not, is brilliant. He lets out a guttural grunt of relief at being spared the damage to his psyche and soul that most assuredly would have come with killing another child, justified or not. The second scene is when Chris has returned from the war for the last time but has not told his family yet. His wife calls his cell phone and Chris answers sitting by himself in a bar in the states. He is detached and shut down, but his wife Taya tells him his kids miss him and want to see him, and once again Cooper masterfully uses his breath to show the torment and grief that lives deep in Kyle's soul, as he lets out an uncontained weep and wail and tells Taya that he is coming home. These are easily the two best scenes in the film and are highlights of not only the film, but of Bradley Cooper's career. That is the good news about American Sniper. The bad news is that the rest of the film never lives up to the at-times stellar work Bradley Cooper does in it. Sadly, the film never rises above being a standard biopic and run-of-the-mill war movie. Besides Cooper's strong performance, there is nothing remarkable about the film at all. Visually the film is dull and generic. The script is tedious and unoriginal, the dialogue stilted and occasionally cringe-worthy and the supporting actors are, for the most part, considerably below par. The end result is the film looks rushed and cheap.

For any war movie, the battle scenes need to shine in order for the film to distinguish itself. With American Sniper, the battle scenes all look flat, stagnant and lack any texture at all. The battle scenes look like something you'd see any night of the week on an episodic television show. When you consider some of the great war films that have been made, whether it be Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private RyanThe Thin Red Line or Black Hawk Down, just to name a few, and how visually creative, powerful and unique those films are, American Sniper is so visually listless as to be embarrassing in comparison.

Another thing that needs to be done for a war film to be successful is that it must attach us to a group of warriors and accurately describe and detail the unique camaraderie inherent in the warrior culture. The camaraderie in American Sniper rings false and feels contrived. Eastwood attempts to create a sense of familiarity in order for us to feel we know and care about the other SEALs in Kyle's graduating class and on his team, but we never really connect because these characters are nothing more than indistinguishable blurs. We may care about them as US servicemen, but we don't care about them as individuals or in relationship to Chris Kyle. They end up being simply cannon fodder for the film.

As for the script and the story, director Eastwood chose to use standard Hollywood narrative tools to make the story more palatable for American audiences. For instance, he chose to make an enemy sniper named "Mustafa" Chris Kyle's main foil throughout the battlefield parts of the film. The Mustafa character is only mentioned in passing in one paragraph in Chris Kyle's book, so this is a distinct creative decision to make him such a prominent character in the film. Eastwood also uses a character named "The Butcher" as another foil and symbol for the evil and brutality of America's enemy in the war. In the book, the "Butcher" character doesn't exist at all. Eastwood must have felt he needed to give the enemy in Iraq a face and a name in order to make the Iraq war segments more coherent and digestible for American audiences, not unlike what the Bush administration did in selling the actual war to the American public by making it about "Saddam and Osama". It worked for Bush and company in persuading the American public, but it fails Eastwood because he isn't selling a product (war), he is trying to create a great piece of intimate art and you can't do that by rolling out tired Hollywood storytelling devices, stereotypes and cliches.

There are two other fatal errors by Eastwood in the film. They both deal with endings. The first is the final battle scene and the second is how he ends the film itself. The final battlefield scene is nothing short of an artistic debacle, and seems to be transplanted from another film, and it certainly isn't from Kyle's book. In the sequence, Kyle takes a near impossible sniper shot from over a mile away that takes out his nemesis, Mustafa. Here Eastwood, for the first time in the film, uses a visual effect, a slow motion of the bullet as it leaves the rifle, which feels like it is taken from any number of hokey action movies from the last ten years (I am thinking of Wanted et al).  All of this happens while a sand storm and jihadis close in on Kyle and his squad. In the heat of this dire battle Chris decides to use a satellite phone to call Taya and tell her he is done with war and is coming home.  This sequence is so unwieldy and preposterous as to be comical. It belongs in a Mission: Impossible sequel and not in an allegedly true to life, gritty war movie. And instead of the sandstorm being symbolic of the loss of our national bearings in Iraq, it just comes across as being optically muddled and metaphorically befuddling. There are much more visually coherent and impactful ways to make that important point, which gets lost with Eastwood's approach.

Then there is the final scene of the film, which is very manipulative and grating. In it Kyle says goodbye to his family as he heads out to help a former Marine suffering from PTSD. In reality, this former Marine would tragically shoot and kill Chris Kyle and his friend at a shooting range that day (this is not shown in the film). In the movie scene, Taya Kyle tells Chris how proud she is of him, his kids all love him and he is finally healed and whole. It is obviously a fantasy sequence where everyone gets to say what they had hoped to say and hear what they hoped to hear and Chris' journey is neatly tied up, his martyrdom awaiting him in the form of a shady looking veteran right outside the door. Taya Kyle even has a feeling, call it a sixth sense, about this nefarious fellow waiting for her husband…then we fade to black. I understand wanting to do all that for the family, but this isn't a home movie. The final scene rings so hollow, phony and forced that it could have come right out of a Lifetime movie of the week. It is all too neat and clean and perfect (and also not how events actually played out in real life), so much so that it actually diminishes the impact of Chris Kyle's tragic death. How much more gut wrenching would it be if Taya Kyle didn't get to say all those things to her husband? What if Chris wasn't healed and whole before his death? What if he wasn't finished yet? What if he didn't get to say goodbye to his kids? That would have been a way to really emphasize the shock and horror and tragedy of Chris Kyle being so unexpectedly killed in suburban Texas after having survived four combat tours in Iraq.

Those two critical scenes are not well done, but they aren't the only missteps. There is a scene, the 'garage' scene, where a former Marine approaches Kyle back in America while his car is getting fixed and thanks Kyle for saving him back in Iraq. This could have been a really great scene, and Cooper is wondrously uncomfortable in it which is really interesting to watch, but the other actor's work is so disastrously abominable and false that it is cringe-worthy, and because of that the scene loses any dramatic impact it might have had with even a mediocre actor in that role.

Which brings me to the supporting acting. The work of the supporting actors, particularly in the 'stateside' scenes, is positively dreadful. The actor (whom I will not name) playing Chris Kyle's father is absolutely appalling, and the actor (whom I will also not name) playing Kyle's brother is so unconscionably atrocious it is downright shocking. I kept wondering, why does Chris Kyle's brother not have a Texas drawl when his father and Chris do? Also, why couldn't they find the brother a dress blue uniform that actually fit instead of being three sizes too big? The child actors who play Chris and his brother when they were young, well, they are just children, so at least they have an excuse…but boy, they are not good at acting.

So the question becomes: why are all of these supporting and smaller roles so poorly done? Well, Clint Eastwood is well known for being a minimalist in regards to how many takes he will do. That is a good and bad thing. It is good because when you do fewer takes you stay on schedule, and when you stay on schedule, you stay on budget, and when you stay on budget they let you keep making movies. The bad part is, the acting suffers. So when you are giving great actors, like Sean Penn for instance in Mystic River, or Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, or Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris and Eastwood himself in Unforgiven, fewer takes, they are able to adjust their approach and keep knocking it out of the park due to their talent and skill, but with lesser talents, their performances flounder and feel rushed and out of rhythm with the rest of the film. The supporting actors in American Sniper are really abysmal, and it is not all their fault. They weren't there everyday getting the feel for the pace of the work (like Cooper was), they weren't getting the rhythm down, they showed up and had to shoot and then did two takes and it was over and they go home. It is a tough gig, but man, regardless of the reason or who is to blame, the supporting cast did a very poor job and the film suffers greatly for it.

There is one exception in regards to the supporting acting, and that is Sienna Miller. Sienna Miller does her best to bring life to the terribly written character of Taya Kyle, Chris Kyle's wife. Her work is admirable, and her American accent is very well done (which is not always the case when the Brits take it on) but the part only allows her to hit two notes: sassy and weepy. It is such a hollow and empty character that Miller should be credited for giving her all to it in a Quixotic attempt to bring some semblance of life to the character, but sadly there just isn't enough there for life to exist.

One issue which may have been a major reason why the film turned out the way it did, is that Eastwood didn't set out to make a great piece of drama, he set out to canonize Chris Kyle. This canonization of St. Chris Kyle, patron saint of 'Merica, is an example of deification, which is an all too common problem when making a biopic, particularly a biopic of someone who has died and who's family is involved in the making of the film. (I have written two previous blog posts on deification which you might find of interest. The Great Man Theory and the Dangers of Deification Part Two, is more relevant to the American Sniper conversation, but feel free to read them both. Links :  The Great Man Theory and the Dangers of Deification Part Two  , The Great Man Theory and the Dangers of Deification Part One  ) I recently read where Chris Kyle's father told Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper that if they dishonored his son he would "bring hell down on them". I understand Mr. Kyle's desire to protect his son's legacy, which has been called into question for some dubious claims his son had made, not the least of which was that he claimed to have punched Jesse Ventura out for making disparaging remarks about SEALs. That tale was adjudicated in the courts and found to be untrue, but Eastwood and Cooper needed to be more loyal to artistic truth than to any man, alive or dead. A great failure of the film is that it really is nothing more than propaganda (propaganda being defined as "the spreading of ideas, information or rumors for the purpose of helping a cause or person"), not just propaganda for a distinct version of America, the war and a certain view of the world, but more specifically it is personal propaganda for Chris Kyle and his 'legacy'. That isn't a bad thing in and of itself, some people love propaganda and some propaganda can be terrifically entertaining. But you can't make great art and propaganda at the same time. So American Sniper is not great art because it is propaganda, and it isn't great propaganda because as a film it isn't even remotely well crafted, either in the directing, the writing, or besides Bradley Cooper, in the acting. 

As a result of this creative 'deification' of Chris Kyle, a lot of really compelling issues and ideas get pushed aside in order to maintain an agreed upon version of Kyle's legacy. For instance, in the film when Chris Kyle is a young boy, his father tells him that there are three types of people in the world..sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs. The sheep are too weak or stupid to protect themselves or even admit that there is evil in the world, the wolves are evil and prey upon the sheep, and the sheep dog protects the sheep from the wolves. Mr. Kyle tells Chris that he raises only sheep dogs. This story propels Chris Kyle through his life and his Navy career. An interesting topic to explore would be that it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between a sheepdog and a wolf. If the sheepdog goes to someone else's country and kills people, is he still a sheep dog or is he a wolf? Does Kyle's film nemesis Mustafa think of himself as a sheepdog and Kyle as the wolf? Don't all the people fighting for the enemy tell themselves the same story about sheepdogs and wolves and see themselves as sheepdogs? And don't they have a stronger case for being the sheepdogs since they are the ones being attacked and invaded? That brings up another topic which would be intriguing to explore which is that Chris Kyle never ever has any doubt, be it in his mission or the justness of his cause. His faith is entirely in his own virtue and the righteousness of his country. Something that obviously eluded him in his lifetime, is that this faith, this lack of any doubt, is something he has in common with his enemy. The jihadi, whether it be "The Butcher" or Mustafa, is blindingly positive he is righteous and sees any doubt of the righteousness of his cause, by himself or anyone else, as a crime against his faith, his mission, his God. In the film, Chris Kyle's fellow SEAL (a one-time seminarian) had creeping doubts about the mission in Iraq, and after this SEAL is killed, Chris Kyle tells his wife that the SEAL's doubt in the mission is what got him killed. This conviction and lack of doubt is most assuredly an asset in a war zone, but how well does that certitude translate to peace time and a normal, functioning family life? That would have been a fascinating issue to explore.

Someone once said, 'Without doubt, there can be no true faith'. This struggle to hold onto surety is dramatically fertile ground which I wish the film had explored more deeply. For instance, there is a scene in the film where Chris Kyle is interviewed by a psychologist about his PTSD and the doctor asks him if he has any regrets. Kyle quickly answers that he only wishes he could have saved more Marines. I found this an interesting answer, only because there isn't the slightest bit of introspection from Kyle, and he seems blind to an obvious solution to protecting Marines which Kyle has never contemplated. If he had just stopped to think about it, one good and undeniable way to save more Marines would be to not send them into Iraq in the first place. Though that thought would never have occurred to Chris Kyle because he could not allow doubt about the mission to enter his mind. For Chris Kyle, doubt is death. In this way, Chris Kyle was like the jihadis he so masterfully killed in Iraq, he was a 'true believer'. The thing about the 'true believer' is that deep down, his faith isn't so true, because he cannot grapple with doubt. Thus his faith is one of compulsion and force, not one of reason and logic. American Sniper never had the artistic courage for this, and other deeper explorations and that is a shame because it could have been so much more than it was.

Regardless of what American Sniper isn't and what topics it avoids, it still could have been a great and entertaining movie as it was, a straight up biopic and war film. Sadly, it fails at this attempt because it gets the basics wrong. The basics being the visuals which look pedestrian and cheap, the script which is clumsily written and the acting, which, with the notable exception of Bradley Cooper, is amateurish. After the heart pounding trailer, I went into American Sniper with elevated expectations which the film was unable to meet and so I left the theatre exceedingly disappointed with the film.

Once upon a time, Clint Eastwood directed one of my favorite films of all time, Unforgiven, which would have been an excellent blue print to follow in making American Sniper. The regrets and impact of a life of violence upon the human psyche and soul is a vast and rich topic on which to meditate for an artist, which Eastwood proved in Unforgiven, but with American Sniper he chooses to avoid those difficult questions and instead makes a garden variety biopic that is little more than a commercial for the family approved legacy of Chris Kyle. It certainly isn't the worst film ever made, so if you are a fan boy or a flag waver, and there is nothing wrong with being either of those things, then this film might be for you. But if you are a cinephile or thinking patriot, then your time would be better spent elsewhere.

FOR FURTHER READING ON THE TOPIC OF THE REAL-LIFE CHRIS KYLE, PLEASE CLICK ON THIS LINK TO MY BLOG POSTING Truth, Justice and the Curious Case of Chris Kyle

 

ADDENDUM: THE FILM WHISPERER SPEAKS...

After reviewing a film, I am often asked…"okay smart guy, if you are such a god damn genius, then how would you make the film?" So… here is the answer to that question...how could they have made American Sniper (as a straight forward biopic war movie) a better film? Here is my prescription: you start the film with Chris and Taya Kyle's wedding. You have about five to seven minutes of wedding stuff (The Godfather starts with a wedding…remember!?!?). You meet his family and in the form of toasts at the wedding they tell stories of Chris' childhood. You have his SEAL classmates give toasts telling of Kyle's SEAL training and friendships with team members. You have an intimate scene of Chris and Taya having a quiet and profound moment together. Then after establishing the people in Chris's life, and his relationship to them, you put him on the roof in Iraq behind his sniper rifle aiming at the woman and her son. Then you spend the next hour of the film showing every single confirmed kill, all 160 of them, that Chris Kyle ever made. These are not elaborate set-ups and wouldn't bust the budget. Quite the opposite. You just have a shot of Kyle in various locales and then have a shot through his scope at what he sees and you see each person he shoots drop and Kyle's reaction to it. You do this over and over and over, with some interactions with Marines and soldiers he is protecting thrown in, and his 'door to door' work as well, until his first tour is over. Then you show him back home with Taya as she is pregnant and then with the newborn. Chris never speaks in these 'at home' segments, he is detached and preoccupied. The Iraq segments of the film should be especially vibrant, both visually and with sound, in direct contrast to the 'at home' sections, which are washed out and nearly silent. Then back to Iraq for tour two and more sniper kills from Kyle, interspersed with his lively interactions with fellow SEALs and Marines. Then back home for more detached domesticity…and so on and so forth until his final kill at the end of tour four and his return home for good. 

This approach would show how grinding and relentless the work of war is for the men who wage it, and the true impact of that assault on Chris Kyle's psyche, senses and soul. The audience would be rubbed raw from watching an hour of non-stop, methodical killing of 160 men, women and children. Then we transition to back home permanence and the struggle to get back to normal. It would seem as foreign to the viewer as it must have been for Chris Kyle. We then spend the next twenty minutes having very tight and intense scenes between Chris and Taya as they do the hard work of recovering their marriage, family and a sense of normalcy. These would be great scenes for Cooper and Miller to really dig in and have some fantastic acting moments as they fight for their relationship and family. This conflict is resolved when Kyle relents and goes to a psychiatrist who diagnoses him with PTSD and then tells him how he can help other servicemen suffering from the same ailment. Now we get into the final forty minutes or so of the film, which should be spent showing Kyle having very deep and meaningful conversations and interactions with PTSD sufferers. You have one or two guys in particular who we get to know and we see how Kyle's work impacts them and transforms them. So we see the tangible good Kyle did for others and how he helped himself by helping them. This gives us a true picture of Chris Kyle being healed and whole. Then you have Kyle and his close friend leave an empty house, Taya and the kids are out and Kyle has to leave the house without saying goodbye, and they go and meet a another young man with PTSD and they have a long drive to a shooting range and we see Kyle helping this guy as he has helped the other men we've met. At the end of this long drive and a profound conversation, Chris, his friend and the young man get out of the truck at a shooting range and you see from a long distance the young man pull a gun and kill both Kyle and his friend. Then, in the final scene, we see Taya with the kids, out at the mall or something, and her cell phone rings, we see her answer but don't hear anything. We see her crumble in horror and grief as she obviously gets the news of her husband's murder. Fade to black, scroll the news footage of Chris Kyle's funeral procession and memorial at Texas stadium.

Doing the film this way maintains Kyle's 'legacy' much more than the Eastwood film does. It doesn't make him another action hero, it makes him an actual human being, who excelled at war, struggled to recover his balance once returning from war, and then found himself once again being of service to others. That is how you make a financially and artistically successful Chris Kyle biopic. Back up the Brinks truck and prepare your Oscar speech Mr. Cooper and Mr. Eastwood and maybe even Ms. Miller. Sadly, this isn't what happened. Oh…and Hollywood studios, please wise up and contact me, The Film WhispererBEFORE you shoot these films,  and you will save yourself a lot of trouble, and make yourself a lot of money and win yourself a lot of Oscars. I am currently available and my rates are reasonable…for now.

© 2014

FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , WHIPLASH , BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) , FOXCATCHER , WILD , THE IMITATION GAME , A MOST VIOLENT YEAR , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .