February 2015

American Sniper

Like many, I have read about the effect American Sniper has had on people – on one side, the “right-wing”, “U-S-A!!! U-S-A!!!” mob, who I have no doubt felt their juices flowing throughout as the Arabs were pounded into oblivion (it’s that kind of film); on the other side, the “left wing” contingent who thinks it’s irresponsible to provoke more backlash against Arabs by portraying them as “evil” and absent of any humanity and complexity in a movie about, of all things, the complex effects of war.

I wondered if, maybe, it was just that Clint Eastwood had inadvertently given the haters material to work with. After all, he can’t be responsible for how people perceive his work. Years ago, a film called The Siege caused uproar and was riddled with accusations of racism. While I don’t think the movie does much to dispel the “Arabs must be feared” trope we so often see, it tries to. It actually does have a point (even though by the time the film gets to it, you probably don’t care).

And this is the thing about American Sniper – by the end of the film, you are asked to feel very deeply about the loss of every American life, but you are not given any reason to care about the people on the other end of the conflict.

It’s completely one-sided. There is a total absence of humanity on the part of the Iraqis. There are glimpses – very brief moments – where Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle is clearly torn, feeling remorse or something, because he frowns and looks sad. He’s got feelings, at least. But you can’t actually watch this movie and care about the Iraqis, so it seems a flimsy attempt to suggest war has a cost on the mind and soul.

Seriously. It was like a video game. Pew! Pew! Killing the dirty, dark, sinister Arabs.

They were constantly referred to as savages, motherf***ers, and evil, and very little was done to address this hatred, this easy dismissal of anyone who wasn’t an American. There was zero insight into who the Iraqis were, and how they perceived the invasion by American soldiers. The Iraqi sniper whom Chris is determined to snuff out doesn’t even speak. He is portrayed simply and purely as a dark shadow of evil. Not even his personal history as an Olympic champion works in his favour. It seems almost like a nod to “what might have been”. Eastwood is saying, “See? This guy should have stuck to sports.”

However, we are offered the soldiers’ perspectives. The movie is drenched in the sadness and fear and the momentary gungho “f**k yeahs!” you often see in military movies.

Bradley Cooper says that it was meant to be a study of the soldier and the cost of war on them and their families. You certainly get that, and you’re allowed to feel for these angry, aggressive, hate-filled men hating their time in the Middle East where “the dirt tastes like dog s**t”.

Yep. Even the Middle Eastern dirt tastes bad.

Notes on storytelling

More specifically, this is a summary of the advice two This American Life (TAL) producers – Brian Reed and Miki Meek – provided in a keynote. I wish I could share notes from the much-touted Masterclass at Pause Fest, but it was in the keynote that the most important lessons were imparted.

I’m a fan of TAL, introduced to it in my screenwriting course at AFTRS a while back. It has helped me re-orient my viewpoints on storytelling, and has gently nudged me towards thinking bigger and more creatively about how to capture the audience’s interest and hold their attention. In other words, you don’t need print or visual mediums to keep people interested in the story. Audio can be an extremely powerful way of telling a tale.

TAL is a well-oiled machine, with 13 staffers, and as I discovered in the keynote, a very long-term approach to stories because it’s considered long-form storytelling. They will do lengthy interviews (up to seven hours if necessary); they chase a lot of stories that are abandoned when they’re not “enough”; and they have some key points that have to be ticked off to make a story viable.

  • Characters – a likeable character who has had something interesting happen to him/her
  • Action & surprise – the good character isn’t enough
  • Move it beyond an anecdote by making it reflective – it’s as simple as asking the interviewee how a formative event made them feel
  • Stakes – this is a big one, and the point I felt I needed to reinforce in my own mind. I love interviewing interesting people and hearing their stories. But it’s not enough to make compelling storytelling. What is at stake for this person? What do they want? Will they get it? Just like the classic hero’s journey, you want the audience to invest in the person’s outcome, regardless of whether or not they agree with it. Basically, raise a question.
  • Make sure you’re not getting caught up in the personality of the interviewee without imparting information
  • Go in with a strategy and plan ahead – but leave room for moments of surprise
  • Apparently, Ira Glass’ advice to his staff is – and I’m paraphrasing here – every interview has to be like a party for the interviewee. In other words, depending on the subject matter, it’s probably not much fun unpacking events to a reporter, so make it worthwhile