The Nose Remembers Broadcasting From the Alamo
Our plan, from the beginning, for today’s episode of The Nose had been to ask the panelists to see “American Sniper” and then discuss this unusual movie – unusual because director Clint Eastwood’s intention was to make an anti-war statement but the movie has been embraced far more ardently by boosters of the Iraq conflict.
By the numbers, it’s a surprising story. “American Sniper” grossed a quarter of a billion dollars in the month of January. Released on December 25, it’s capable of becoming 2014’s highest grossing film, although it would have to catch the latest “Hunger Games” iteration.
Much of the debate about “American Sniper” has to do with the way Eastwood frames the story of his real-life protagonist, the late Chris Kyle, who is frequently accused of falsifying his own stories. Eastwood has also been criticizing for failing to frame the Iraq invasion at all. What were we doing there? Did it make any sense, as response to 9/11? And “American Sniper” seems to lack any sympathy at all for the Iraqi civilian population. There isn’t the equivalent of the kid with the soccer ball in “The Hurt Locker.” In fact, kids are shown as especially menacing, almost demonic.
You could make the case that “American Sniper” is the first real mass market cultural gut check about Iraq, which makes it so odd that, this week, Brian Williams engaged the nation in a second one.
This hour, we combine those two stories into one topic.
One thing we have to say is that the clockworks of memory itself are unreliable. This may or may not help excuse Williams, but I was impressed by (and somehow ale to remember) a study from 2012 which demonstrated that remembering something essentially entails looking at a snapshot of the last time you remembered it. So your memories are like a video that has been “stepped on” (copied and recopied) a bunch of times.
There’s no way the conversation stops there, right? Eastwood and Williams are eerily similar in the way their essentially personal missions kick a whole bunch of broad-spectrum tripwires having to do with Iraq.
Williams stands accused of polishing up a war story to make himself look more dashing, but behind that lies a bigger question about the “embedding” of journalists with the military forces and – as you hear the panelists say -- what happened to objective reporting once everybody bedded down together.
In a way, history is like that above-cited model of memory. We keep taking it out of the drawer, re-photographing it, and marveling at its new look. Iraq is so new that 2015 may actually be is first major re-appraisal.
But I’m also getting a little tired of the way movies mine history in order to tell intensely personal stories and then don’t do a very good job of either. I feel about “American Sniper” a little the way I felt about “Imitation Game” which wound up being a very false and ricked-up version of both its little corner of the World War II story and Alan Turing’s personal drama. It didn’t sacrifice history to give the persona drama more power. It didn’t do the reverse either. It just screwed up both of them. “Sniper” didn’t feel to me like a very affecting personal story and God knows, it has very little to say about Iraq as modern history.
This seems so at odds with Eastwood’s attitudes, expressed here:
I was a child growing up during World War II. That was supposed to be the one to end all wars. And four years later, I was standing at the draft board being drafted during the Korean conflict, and then after that there was Vietnam, and it goes on and on forever . . . I just wonder . . . does this ever stop? And no, it doesn’t. So each time we get in these conflicts, it deserves a lot of thought before we go wading in or wading out. Going in or coming out. It needs a better thought process, I think.
All of that was smushed up in the movie against this:
This picture was interesting, because I’m seeing it from the point of a person who was sort of an American hero, as far as his ability to be this ultra-sniper. And his family and his beliefs were very strong about defending the country and defending the guys who are defending the country, as a sort of an oversight warrior. It was an important story, but you have to embrace his philosophy if you’re going to tell a story about him.
I feel like the movie failed on both scores, but I do want to add that, when you add in the Iwo Jima movies, Eastwood shoots war like almost no other director I can think of. He really has incredible eyes for this stuff.
“The version I was told was that the book was in either a safe deposit box or a bank vault, and it was wrapped in a manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird and nobody noticed it for all these years. I don’t know this for a fact, but one must imagine that Harper Lee — we call her Nelle — just never told anybody about the book and then forgot it existed. “
Is this exploitation and opportunism, with vultures swooping in after the death of Lee’s protective sister?
To me, the most poignant aspect of the story is the reminder of what “To Kill a Mockingbird” means to millions of people. It really might be the book – more than any imaginable rival – that “every” American has read. And loved. It’s like stepping to the plate exactly once and hitting a tape measure home run off Sandy Koufax. And then retiring. I do agree that publishing it should be done – if at all -- with great care and thought and communication.
- James Hanley is the co-founder of Cinestudio at Trinity College
- Tracy Wu-Fastenberg is the Director of Development at the Mark Twain House & Museum
- Rand Cooper is an author, essayist, and restaurant critic for the New York Times