Matt Taibbi On American Sniper, Hollywood, and War

Matt Taibbi

This is another article from the always interesting Matt Taibbi, about not only the movie American Sniper, but also the way Hollywood distorts war. 

I have read several books about how the military influences the outcome of movies and how entertainment is taking over every aspect of life.  On the first subject, a real simple fact:  The military will give access to military equipment to productions that paint the military in a favorable light.  If a production does not paint the military in a favorable light, they will not get that access, which in turn can often lead to increased budgets.  As I do not know the backstory, although it very well may pertain to this film, this is not to imply that this is the case with American Sniper.  

My point in any post is not to pass judgment on a film I have not seen, nor to present facts that I don’t know.  I simply want people to think critically when going to movies that have a political nature to them.  Movies take millions of dollars to get made.  What is a movie trying to say?  Who benefits both monetarily and ideologically from a film?  If the movie is a fictionalized version of real events, what are the distortions and why were they made?  These kinds of questions and more should be asked when seeing a movie of any political stripe. 

And yes I said I would not put up any more thoughts having to do with American Sniper until I had seen it. However, I thought this article was too thought provoking not to share. I also think that it deals with ideas and themes outside the orbit of that single film.

American Sniper: Divide and Conquer

I want to talk one last time about the controversy surrounding the movie American Sniper, at least until I’ve seen it.  So much of history has been divide and conquer.  You saw this in the South during Reconstruction, where poor blacks and whites were pitted against each other instead of forming a union against the oppressive few.  But it seems like, concerning the movie, you have one side claiming that we shouldn’t make mythical heroes out of trained killers, and the other claiming that we should honor all of our men and women in uniform.  Both arguments can have their valid points, depending on the context and how they are made.  However, why argue over this when both sides should be arguing for peace?  Peace will prevent innocent lives being lost on either side of the divide.  Peace will ensure that our men and women don’t have to kill in our names.  It will also ensure that these men and women don’t come home maimed, psychologically damaged, or worst of all, in body bags.  Yet while our positions harden as insults from both sides reign down, over a fucking movie, the “owners” are planning the next geopolitical move that will lead to more death.

American Sniper, Groupthink, and Freedom From the Tribe

I remember when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out and there was a lot of controversy.  I felt like I had to see it, because it was a big part of the conversation of the country at the time.  I also didn’t want anyone to make up my mind for me. I wanted to be able to decide for myself if it was good or not.  When something takes off there is usually some kind of hive mind that takes over the better senses of a lot of people.  I didn’t like it.  Not because of the violence.  Mel Gibson’s equally violent Apocalypto is one of my favorite films.  I didn’t feel the film was anti-Semitic, as I felt like Gibson was using the crowd, although Jewish in the film, as a wider judgment of people in general.  I also didn’t mind seeing a religious film, even though I’m not religious.  I felt like in dwelling on the death of Jesus and how horribly he was tortured, the general message of Jesus, to love one another, was lost.  There is probably some poor soul in a third world shithole right now this minute that is being barbarized. There is nothing ennobling or unique about cruelty.

Right now American Sniper is taking off in box offices around the country.  The film could be great or it could be terrible.  I have no idea, not having seen it.  I remember there were many on the left, and my politics are left, that were up in arms about Zero Dark Thirty.  I wanted to see it to understand its place in the conversation and to see if there was validity to the claim that it was a pro-torture film.  Maybe I need to see it again, but I didn’t view that movie as pro-torture for reasons that would be too long to go into here.  (And I am one that definitely thinks that it was a disgrace that we tortured people and that torture is a warcrime.)

At some point I’ll see American Sniper and make up my own mind about it.  Even though I know Clint Eastwood is a moderate Republican, I also know that the movies he directs usually have a degree of complexity to them.  He doesn’t strike me as a propagandist.  If I have any problem with what is going on, which isn’t with the movie itself having not seen it, it is the idea that one can’t be critical of soldiers.  Soldiers are just people, same as all of us, and are capable of good and evil and everything in between.  Just because someone signs up for the armed forces doesn’t make them immune to criticism until the end of time.  This sounds like common sense to me, but reading certain comments in the press makes me think that is not so for everyone.  That being said soldiers should be judged differently.  In civilian life killing someone would be murder.  In war, it is part of the job description.  Therefore, what matters is not the act, but the manner and way in which those killings were carried out.  Were innocent people killed?  If so, was it on purpose or a legitimate accident in the fog of war?  Anyone that has read the slightest amount of history or seen any number of war movies knows this.  I would bet any amount of money that most soldiers would tell you the same thing.  So why is it that so many view a criticism of one soldier as an attack on all soldiers?  It’s a tribal thing.  And if freedom means anything it means freedom from the tribe.  Freedom from the kind of group think that is common in more primitive societies.

Thoughts On Mockingjay – Part 1

hunger_games_mocking_jay_a_p

I just saw a jet black anti-war movie that was actively trying to make the audience use their critical thinking skills.  Surprisingly it was also a tent-pole Hollywood film that was directed at “younger” viewers, even though by now most people know that the series it was from can engage people of any age.  It was the latest in the Hunger Games movies, Mockingjay – Part 1.

I think this is a movie that will have real staying power as every aspect of it is masterfully done, even if some audience members won’t know what to make of it.  (Like the book, this third entry in the series is different in feel than the first two.)  I read some of the audience reviews online and I wasn’t surprised to find many people disappointed as this movie does not jump through the hoops that most have come to expect from modern Hollywood.  This movie is extremely engaging, but it is not light entertainment.  One of my favorite movies is Apocalypto.  Even though that brilliant movie is way more explicitly violent, this movie might be darker.  (And that is saying something!) Other than a few laughs by supporting characters and one early scene of traditional action, this movie never tries to make you feel good about what you are seeing.

What you are seeing in this fully realized world is a very powerful anti-war movie.  It is also a critique of our media saturated super-capitalistic age of endless war.  Now what this movie does brilliantly is that, even though it is highly critical of the society that we see around us, it never draws conclusions for the viewer.  It is one of those rare movies that makes the viewer do the heavy lifting.

While the movie is extremely anti-war, it is not easily described as a leftwing or rightwing movie.  The hero, as anyone that has seen any of the movies or read the books will know, is a character called Katniss Everdeen that is often seen hunting and comes from a place that resembles Appalachia.  She could easily be from red-state America, except that other aspects of her personality don’t fit neatly into that or any stereotype.  The place where her arch-nemisis President Snow is from is called the Capitol.  As in the books, one could easily view it as being big-government or big-business in the way that it is represented.  But either way, the viewer or reader would be missing the point.  It is simply a place where wealth and power coalesce.  The Capitol is a place where the citizens live lives of deluded splendor that comes at the expense of the other areas that it rules.  These movies are not anti-government or anti-corporations in the modern sense, so much as they are anti abusive power and exploitive wealth.  The people that you root for most of all are ordinary individuals that are caught up in the machinations of an abusive system.  Probably the most one-dimensional character in the movie is President Snow, the leader of the Capitol.  He comes the closest to being a symbol, one that simply uses wealth and power to control others.  He is a facist, a representation of that collusion of business and government.  (So yes, the movie is anti rightwing if the kind of right you are describing is facism, but this is still simplifying things a bit.)

Although I think this movie might be too scary for young kids, I think older kids and young teens should definitely see it.  (Anything that helps kids open up to critical thinking is good.)  It constantly makes you aware of how power uses media to manipulate people.  In this movie, even when Katniss is finally in the hands of the rebels, those that are fighting the Capitol, one is made aware of how even those that are on the right side in war use propaganda to manipulate people for their cause.  Even though there is no doubt that the rebels are on the right side of events, their actions are still treated with suspicion.  You are never allowed to feel completely comfortable when Katniss has to do what the rebels want to further their cause.

The movie is constantly using images that we are all too used to now and makes you question them.  At one point the rebels blow up a damn and it is filmed in a way that could have several interpretations.  Are the rebels representing terrorists or are they patriots fighting for the good of the people?  Again, I think the point of the way scenes like this are filmed is to make YOU think.  Not so that any one conclusion is obvious, but so that you will think when you watch the news, which too often draws easy conclusions.  If modern media simplifies things, this movie creates complexity.

War is never viewed as anything other than horrific.  There is one brief scene where Katniss brings down two enemy fighter planes that are trying to bomb a hospital.  This is as closed to traditional action as the movie gets.  In the rest of the movie war is viewed as an insane force that destroys societies, nature, and human life.

While watching the movie I was reminded of this section of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals that I posted the other day. The person speaking in quotes is the Secretary of War under Lincoln, Edwin M. Stanton:

“Why is it,” he asked, that military generals “are praised and honored instead of being punished as malefactors?”  After all, the work of war is “the making of widows and orphans – the plundering of towns and villages – the exterminating & spoiling of all, making the earth a slaughterhouse.”  Though governments might argue war’s necessity to achieve certain objectives, “how much better might they accomplish their ends by some other means?

There were also scenes in this movie that paid tribute to other great moments of cinema.  There is a point in the movie when Katniss, after suffering so much from the violence around her, can no longer hunt when she comes across a Moose.  This is very much like a classic scene in the movie The Deer Hunter, one of the best anti-war movies of all time.  The final scene Mockingjay Part 1, that I don’t want to give away, reminded me in the way it was shot of a scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  (In the imagery, not necessarily in what it is trying to communicate.)  I’m not trying to say that this movie is the equal of either one of those all-time masterpieces, only that it is full of ideas and imagery that will make you think in multiple ways if you are open to it.

If you want to go to the movies to simply escape and be entertained, this movie might not be for you, although it does create a fully realized world to dive into.  (If you are a fan of the series you will want to see this regardless, even if it becomes your least favorite of the series so far, as it again does not adhere to typical Hollywood formulas.)  But if you want to see a mass-marketed movie that really does have a lot to offer in terms of imagery and ideas, than I think many of you will find it outstanding.  (And trust me, if you think I am overselling the ideas in this movie, go see it and tell me it is just escapism.  You won’t be able to whether you like it or not.)  There is so much more I could discuss about this movie, but ideas are still bouncing around my head and I’m not even sure how I will come down on certain scenes.  It is a subversive movie because it asks the viewer to question what they are seeing in their own life on a daily basis.  I don’t know if this movie is excellent or just really good, but that constant questioning is good enough for me.

The Dreamers Exhaust Us (Slight Spoiler for Movie Alexander)

The truth is never simple and yet it is. The truth is we did kill him. By silence we consented… because we couldn’t go on. But by Ares, what did we have to look forward to but to be discarded in the end like Cleitus? After all this time, to give away our wealth to Asian sycophants we despised? Mixing the races? Harmony? Oh, he talked of these things. I never believe in his dream. None of us did. That’s the truth of his life. The dreamers exhaust us. They must die before they kill us with their blasted dreams.

– The character of Ptolemy in the movie Alexander

I was reflecting on Lincoln and other great men today, like Martin Luther King, and was wondering why so many of them seem to be the ones we kill.  I remembered this quote from the movie Alexander, which is one of my favorite movies of all time.  One of the themes at the end of the movie is that we kill the dreamers.  In aiming for a better world, the dreamers ask that the rest of society give up some of the things they are accustomed to.  Even if it is for the better of all, this is rarely met with enthusiasm in some circles.  Why do we kill the dreamers?  In the end, I do not know completely, but it is worth reflecting upon.

Insane Violence and The Bible On Film

DF-04525 - Moses (Christian Bale) charges into a fierce battle.

The more I think about Ridley Scott’s Exodus:  Gods and Kings, the more I like it.  It is a ridiculously violent film, an epic spectacle, and the actors find new and entertaining ways to chew up scenery.  (It would have been an even better movie if it had been rated R.  Though to be honest, other than not showing people getting limbs hacked off in battles and nudity, the movie pushes the barriers of PG-13 to the limit.  We’re talking about a movie where scores of people get eaten by crocodiles, so many that the river runs red with blood.)  All of those things that I stated merely make the movie entertaining.  What makes it brilliant is that this is a movie that brings the insanely ridiculous violence of the Old Testament front and center.

One of my favorite quotes is the Hannah Arendt quote, “the horrible can not only be ludicrous, but outright funny.”  The Old Testament is so ingrained in our culture that even though we acknowledge the violence in it, and the fact that much of this violence comes from a wrathful God, that I don’t think it registers with most people in a visceral way how absurd it is.  Floods, plagues, mass murder, and a woman being turned into a pillar of salt are just the tip of the iceberg.  We know this stuff.  Even those like myself, that didn’t grow up going to church, know all of these stories.  But how often do we reflect upon how batshit insane they all are.  Ridley Scott did.  He made a movie out of part of the Old Testament and he put the batshit insane right up front.  No other movie that I can think of takes the violence of the Old Testament and presents it as such a ridiculously depraved spectacle.  Which, whether you believe in the Old Testament or not, is hard to deny.  Like the Hannah Arendt quote above, this movie is often so horribly violent that it becomes a comedy.  Even if Ridley Scott changes some parts of the story, he tries to find natural causes for most of the plagues for instance, he is getting the essence correct.  I mean, he didn’t make up the plague where all of the Egyptian first born children are killed.

A lot of the reviews for this movie have talked about how Scott got this or that wrong, or that he made it too much of a spectacle, or whatever.  No, Ridley Scott basically just showed what was there without all of the self seriousness of most religious films.  Again, I’m not saying that he didn’t take certain artistic liberties with the story, only that he does so in a way which actually highlights things that are already there.  He helps show us a story that we’ve heard a million times in a way that doesn’t allow us to ignore what is going on.  I would imagine that most of those that really didn’t like this movie already have preconceived notions as to what the story is about.  This movie is basically showing us that we are telling millions of children a year a story full of the most depraved violence.  And it has a good laugh at it.  The comedy of the divine.  I mean certain scenes from this could almost be in a Monty Python movie.

This movie does the opposite of what another famously violent religious movie does.  That movie  The Passion of the Christ is also insanely violent, but what it does is actually obscure what is important in the Christ story through that violence.  That movie focuses mostly on the violence that was directed at Christ leading up to his death.  But there is nothing special about his death.  I guarantee that someone is meeting just as horrible a fate as he did in some third world shithole right now.  Christ wasn’t even the only one crucified that day!  This isn’t the fantastic violence of an angry God.  This is an extreme version of the day to day violence of mankind.  In focusing on this kind of violence it actually helps one to ignore what was spectacular about the story of Christ.  The fantastic part of his story is that he rose from the dead.  But that still isn’t what I’m talking about.  Whether or not you believe Christ was the son of God, or that he rose from the dead is still, in my mind, not what is most important in his story.  Christ spent a good deal of his life teaching people what they should be doing.  They should be loving each other and not worrying about earthly possessions and treating the lesser amongst us with kindness.  That is what makes his story exceptional.  And he did that at a time when the world was even more barbaric and depraved than it is now.  Right now someone is probably being executed as we speak, in a horribly painful way, in an Arab country for drawing a comic book about Muhammad or something equally as ridiculous.  So again, dwelling on the whole crucifixion thing, longer than the love and kindness in his teachings, is kind of ass backwards the way I see it.

So you have two violent movies that tell stories from the Bible.  One highlights the absurdity of violence, while the other uses violence to distract from a message of love.  Do you have to guess which one made more money and got more critical acclaim?