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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 22, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Sniper, Lame Tech, Cool Words

I had no interest in American Sniper. The title made it sound too violent. I've read too much about war to want to see it close up.

Also, I assumed that any Hollywood treatment of American soldiers would be hostile to the task they were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to do.

After all, by definition, a sniper's job is killing people who can't see him. He's not operating a drone from a faraway station -- he's within the battle zone. But from an isolated perch, he watches for threats to American soldiers or Marines moving forward into perilous urban combat zones.

When he identifies a threat, he shoots -- and because only the best marksmen are assigned as snipers, chances are his target falls. It's very personal. Every shot is designed to stop a beating heart.

Every shot is also designed to save the lives of American soldiers -- but that's the sort of thing that Hollywood "intellectuals" usually overlook. Besides, if the American soldiers shouldn't be there in the first place (as they usually believe), then protecting them isn't necessarily a Good Thing.

So I had decided not to watch the screener I was given. Until ...

I came out of a recorded program I was watching, and the live show that happened to be on was Fox News showing Sean Hannity.

I usually flip away from Sean Hannity, unless I'm drawn into watching the way you can't look away from a traffic accident. However, Hannity was talking with enthusiasm -- no, with almost religious fervor -- about a movie.

And the movie was American Sniper.

What -- a recent Hollywood movie about American soldiers that Sean Hannity could love?

For a moment, I flashed on John Wayne's gung-ho war movies. While I don't love war movies that hate America, I also don't like war movies that glamorize war.

But then Hannity said the golden words: Clint Eastwood.

I hadn't known that Eastwood was involved with American Sniper. It wasn't a secret -- I just avoided hearing anything about it beyond its title.

But Eastwood changes the equation completely. He is not the slave of Hollywood's childish "intellectual" community -- otherwise he could never have interviewed an empty chair at the Republican National Convention.

At the same time, he has never been a director to gloss over ugly truths. Mystic River, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, A Perfect World, Pale Rider -- this is a director/producer who pulls no punches when he's making a truthful movie.

This doesn't mean that Eastwood doesn't do lighter films -- but evenTrouble with the Curve and Jersey Boys did not gloss over bitter truths about characters' decisions. Eastwood, unlike Spielberg, doesn't seem to feel a need to candy-coat his stories in order to appeal to the audience.

The trouble with American Sniper is that the hero, Navy Seal Chris Kyle, really was bigger than life. The film's writer, Jason Hall, talked about meeting him (see the interview at http://sn.im/jasonhallchriskyle ). Kyle had not yet written his memoir, so when Jason Hall went to see him, it was because "Somehow his name sort of rose above the rest, as the war progressed and he went back four times.

"This name of Chris Kyle, the legend, and then the enemy named him 'The Devil of Ramadi.' And then his name became known on the lips of much of the Coalition forces, so when we came back, guys knew who Chris Kyle was."

What makes American Sniper work is that Jason Hall wrote a script that is respectful but not adulatory. Chris Kyle is the most effective sniper in the history of the U.S. military. He has killed a lot. Even though he says -- in his memoir and in the movie -- that he will stand by every shot he took, that doesn't mean that they were easy.

Good men are not unaffected by the brutal things they do in war. But one thing that helped him was the realization that the people he was fighting -- not all Iraqis, but the bloody thugs who were trying to force their brand of Islam on the whole world -- were savages.

Some have criticized Kyle and the movie for accurately portraying the attitude of many or most Coalition soldiers toward the casual cruelty of the enemy. But these are the kind of critic that thinks that only politically correct people should be portrayed as decent human beings.

Besides, as Jason Hall says, Kyle's memoir was "very gruff." He hadn't been back from the war for a year when he wrote it, so he "has his armor on, he's unrepentant and unapologetic about what he did. He takes great joy in it, and what you're seeing is the mask of this man; he had to create this persona to go to war."

But in conversations with Chris Kyle, Hall saw a deeper truth. And it's that deeper truth -- along with the hard-bitten exterior -- that we see in the movie.

Hall had endless conversations with Kyle -- lots of back and forth by phone and text. On a Thursday, Hall told Kyle that the script was done. He was turning it in. Kyle congratulated him. And then, "On Saturday I got a call that he had just been murdered."

That's right -- Chris Kyle lived through four tours in Iraq, in which his life was constantly in danger and the enemy targeted him with a huge reward on his head. Kyle was working with injured veterans, to help rehabilitate them; but one of those soldiers had serious mental problems and Kyle wasn't warned about him. That returned soldier took Kyle's life.

Hall actually wrote the scene in which Kyle is murdered by this fellow veteran, but he and director Eastwood decided not to include that scene in the film. "We didn't want to glorify [the murderer's] actions and encourage someone else to do it, thinking they'll be put in a motion picture."

When we watched the movie, we didn't want to see that scene. It's far more powerful just to have words appear on the screen, telling us he was killed by a soldier he was trying to help.

And then we see the funeral. I think there must have been a lot of real footage mixed in with the scenes made for the movie.

This film was so powerful and real, so honest and painful, that we wept for this man as we watched fellow soldiers and citizens line the route of his funeral procession. Whatever you might think of this or any war, this is a man who took the skills he had and offered them to his country, and served faithfully.

As Jason Hall says, "to judge or glorify [the military] was not my intent. My intent was to put down this story and tell the story of this man, because this man's story is important to every soldier out there.

"Every soldier sacrifices in equal measure. They write a blank check, up to and equal to the amount of their lives. Chris wrote that check, and so did every guy that went over there.

"There's a sacrifice that they make and my intent was to let everybody know that, so we can understand that sacrifice a little bit better, and maybe we can embrace these guys when they come home in a different way."

Chris Kyle's father "reportedly told Clint Eastwood before production, 'Disrespect my son and I'll unleash hell on you.'"

At no point in American Sniper did the film disrespect Chris Kyle. Not by disparaging his service in the military -- and not be sugar-coating it, either.

I must also say that besides being an unforgettable, powerful story -- one of the best war movies ever made -- American Sniper is also an innovative work of art.

Eastwood's directorial choices (and, of course, Jason Hall's writing) show respect for the audience by not belaboring any point. Chris Kyle comes home from one tour. There's a scene with his kids. With his wife. And then ... boom, we're back in Iraq with a caption saying, "Second Tour."

The sheer scope of the story required a compressed style of storytelling. But this was so deftly written and directed that even though we're being yanked through the story at a speed rarely used in movies, it's not a distraction (like the long takes in Birdman), it's part of the experience.

Soldiers expect to have tours of duty in war zones, but that doesn't change the fact that they're ripped out of their lives; one day home with the kids, a day or two later getting shot at and having to kill in order to survive.

The most powerful thing in this movie is its depiction of the reality of modern war. There he is with a satellite phone, talking to his wife, flirting with her -- but he is on the top of a building in a contested Iraqi city, and the whole time he's talking to her he's also taking aim at potential targets.

He has children of his own. He loves them. And then he has to aim his rifle at a child who is carrying a weapon, preparing to use it against U.S. troops. "Put it down," he says to the child, who can't hear him. It's more like a prayer. Don't make me kill you.

It does not destroy your humanity to do the things that Chris Kyle did. In fact, there are few activities more human -- or at least, because chimps also do it, more primate -- than war. You only lose your humanity if you come to like doing it. If you enjoy inflicting pain or death.

At no moment in American Sniper do we see Chris Kyle that way. He did his job and he did it superbly. As his father told him when he was a child, There are three types of people. Sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs. The wolves are out to devour the sheep. The sheep dogs are every bit as violent as the wolves -- but they use their violence to protect the sheep, who can't protect themselves.

The most bitter moment in American Sniper is not the death of Chris Kyle, because he died being a noble soul. The most bitter moment is when he is prevented from protecting a man and boy whom he had promised to protect. That's what Chris Kyle took to heart -- the people that he could not protect.

Because once you have taken that responsibility on yourself, to look out for other people and protect them, it's hard to draw a boundary line. You can't be like the waiter who says, "Sorry, not my table." You need to protect everyone, and anyone you lose -- soldier or civilian -- is your personal failure, even though you had no chance to save them.

There are people who will hate this movie. For instance, the kind of people who don't know any actual soldiers and who are so naive as to think that anyone who fights in a war is evil.

Pay no attention to those people. This is a powerful work of art, and, more important, it is a truthful story. This is the finest acting work Bradley Cooper has ever done, and he's done good work. This may end up being the monument of his career -- and if so, it's a finer monument than all but a bare handful of other actors have.

Sienna Miller as Chris's wife Taya is superb -- emotional but never over-the-top. Cole Konis as Young Chris Kyle is very good, and though we only see Ben Reed for a few minutes as Chris's dad, he makes the part believable and memorable.

The actors playing the various soldiers were all excellent; it is impossible to single out individual performances. But that's the thing about Clint Eastwood as a director: Actors tend to give their very best performances for him. Maybe it's because he infects them with his own minimalist style as an actor. Maybe it's because he only directs scripts that invite great performances. Maybe he's very, very careful with the casting.

Some people may be troubled by the fact Chris Kyle is listed as a producer on the movie even though he died before a single frame was shot. First, I'm sure that having a producer credit was part of his deal -- his death does not negate that.

But it's more than that. Part of what a producer does is work with the writer in helping create a good script. And nobody worked harder in support of Jason Hall's writing than Chris Kyle. His contribution as producer absolutely showed up on that screen.

Some people might be skeptical about the whole project -- about Chris Kyle himself -- because most soldiers don't come home and write books about their great accomplishments in war.

But Kyle didn't go to war in order to write a book. Nor did he plan to become a hero. He just did his job -- but was so good at it, so relentless, that he became famous. He didn't self-promote; he just did so well that other people talked about him.

Then when he came home he found that many people -- no, most people -- didn't understand the war or the soldiers who fought in it. It wasn't his job to defend the war, but it was his job to help people understand the good soldiers he protected and supported.

Because he was the most effective sniper in U.S. military history, he had a chance to write a book that would be published and read. And even before he wrote the book, he was being pursued for the right to make a movie about him. He didn't approach Hollywood -- Hollywood went to him.

So he had a degree of fame, which he did not seek. Having it, he chose to use it to accomplish good things. Only fools and bad economists assume that everyone does what they do for money.

I don't care whether American Sniper wins any awards. The artistry is subtle enough that most Academy voters will be oblivious to it; the subject matter is politically incorrect because it doesn't hate America. (I can't imagine, for instance, our President enjoying a movie about an American who "turns to guns and religion.")

You should see American Sniper because no movie I've seen has come closer to depicting war as soldiers describe it in moments of candor. (Most soldiers prefer not to talk about war at all -- at least, the soldiers who actually fought rarely want to talk about what they did and what they saw.)

This movie is what Saving Private Ryan was touted as: An honest attempt to bring home the reality of what it means to be a soldier in a bitter and bloody war. We whose peace and prosperity rest on the backs of these armed Americans in uniform owe it to them, and to ourselves, to experience what it means to make their sacrifice.

It's just a bonus that it also happens to be a moving, beautiful, artistically brilliant movie.

*

I subscribe to ZDNet's weekly computer-industry newsletter, if only so I can drool over technology I don't need and can't afford.

In a recent Zach Whittaker piece about absurd new technology from CES (Consumer Electronics Show), one of the items he made fun of was a smartwatch app from Hyundai, that essentially turns your watch into your car keys.

Whittaker said that Hyundai created this app "for no other reason than because it can." But I must beg to differ.

My Hyundai Santa Fe is controlled by an electronic key that I carry around on my key ring. No part of it is inserted into the car, either to open doors or start the engine. It just has to be near or inside the car.

The electronic key takes up space in my pocket and from time to time, when it's jostled by other keys, it accidentally sets off the car alarm.

Also, the electronic key portion can become separated from the part that attaches to the key ring. So far, both parts have always remained in my pocket, but I could easily imagine the electronic key slipping out of my pocket while I'm sitting down ... leaving me with no way to operate my car.

So the smartwatch app sounds great. My only regret is that there is no smartwatch I can wear. I can't have the metal back of any watch against my wrist. For years I used pocket watches until I found a bunch of Fossil brand watches with a continuous leather band that protects my skin from the watch.

I haven't seen any smartwatch like that, so I won't be wearing one.

But I'm bummed, because having my watch serve as my car keys sounds like an excellent plan. Since the "key" no longer serves as an actual physical key, there's no reason to keep it on the key ring. And if I can install the app on multiple watches, so much the better.

The other computer items he points out really are absurd -- or so they seem to me. A Lamborghini smart phone that does only the things that every other smart phone does -- while costing thousands of dollars more ... what a great idea, something that will really hurt when I lose it!

The computer-controlled, extraordinarily bulky and ugly belt that automatically senses when I've eaten so much that it needs to expand -- that's only going to be useful if it can also unfasten the top of my pants.

Then there's the awkward motion-sensing ring that would really interfere with touch typing -- but which you can train to tell your computer to perform various operations depending on the gestures you make.

Which makes me wonder if it matters which finger you're wearing it on. Because I can think of one finger gesture that is often used in our society; I just can't think what I would want my computer to do when I made that gesture.

Then there's Petcube, a pet monitor that allows you to talk to your pet. This is because your lonely dog probably won't poop in your shoe if you talk to him now and then during the day.

As Whittaker points out, cats are going to be so unimpressed. They already don't listen to you. Giving them more opportunities to ignore you during the day seems redundant.

And the selfie-stick really does sound stupid. Unless you already carry a cane (quick, blind people -- do you take a lot of selfies?), you're going to hate having to deal with your selfie-stick when you're not actually taking pictures.

And isn't the whole point of selfies that they're really awful -- way too close so they show every flaw in your face? Getting a little more distance by putting your camera phone on a selfie-stick might make you look better visually, but it will also prove that you're such a vain dork that you carry around a selfie-stick. That makes you seem even worse.

*

Anjana Iyer is a graphic designer and illustrator in Auckland, New Zealand, who has been creating illustrations for cool words she found in Adam Jacot de Boinod's various collections of "Extraordinary Words from Around the World."

I've ordered his books because they sound cool. In the meantime, Iyer's illustrations cleverly visualize several of her favorites. Check out her website: https://www.behance.net/gallery/9633585/Found-In-Translation

Meanwhile, without the illustrations, here are some of my favorites from her list of illustrated words, along with my guesses about pronunciation:

Backpfeifengesicht: A face badly in need of a fist [back-FIE-fun-guh-SICT].

Waldeinsamkeit: The feeling of being alone in the woods [VALL-dine-SAM-kite].

Pochemuchka: A person who asks too many questions [PO-che-MOOCH-ka]. (I have spent my life as a pochemuchka without knowing it.)

Komorebi: Scattered, dappled light effect that happens when sunlight shines through trees [KO-mo-RAY-be].

Iktsuarpok: The frustration of waiting for someone to turn up [Inuit: IK-tsu-AR-poke].

Fernweh: Feeling homesick for a place you have never been to [FAIRN-way].

For even more of her words and illustrations -- which can be ordered as framable prints -- check out http://society6.com/anjanaiyer.

*

After I reviewed The Imitation Game, the film about Alan Turing and the development of his machine for decoding the Nazi Enigma device, a friend of mine recommended David Leavitt's book The Man Who Knew Too Much as a good source on Turing.

It's a fairly short biography, yet it does an excellent job of putting Turing into the context of the world he lived in -- a world of mathematical logic, where, working mostly in isolation, he made great strides in the then non-existent field of computers.

One of the book's great strengths is the way Leavitt shows what Turing's "machines" really were. Before he ever worked on Enigma, Turing tackled several solution-resistant mathematical problems by use of an imaginary machine, which would automatically follow instructions to yield various results.

In contemporary terms, each Turing Machine functioned like a subroutine to which a program supplies an item of data. The subroutine performs an operation on that datum and returns a result which will then be used in further operations.

Even though Turing's "machines" were imaginary, he envisioned the possibility of a "universal machine" to which you would give long instruction sequences -- what we now call "programs" -- so that the same machine could carry out many different functions.

However, that is not what he built for the Enigma project. His machine at Bletchley Park -- the one so visually interesting in the movie -- was a one-purpose machine. It amounted to a super-Enigma machine, and it was hardwired to perform one task -- to match the settings used on the German Enigma machine to encode a given message.

Any change of program required rewiring the machine -- or changing its mechanical parts. We'd call this "screwdriver programming" today. But Turing knew its limitations. When he saw the first Eniac computer, he immediately recognized this flaw: It pretended to be a computer, but it could only be programmed by rewiring it.

Turing understood that his Enigma decoding machine only showed "intelligence" by the fact that it was able to make rudimentary choices: If one setting failed to decode the message, then it would "realize" this and, instead of stopping, it would reset itself and try again. Thus the machine would never stop until it found what might be a workable setting.

One thing that Leavitt's book makes clear is that there was far more nonsense and flat-out lying in The Imitation Game than I had guessed. At no time were the team at Bletchley Park involved in deciding which decoded messages would be acted on. Those decisions were made by government and military leaders way above Turing's pay grade.

The only things that are true in the movie are the matters relating to Turing's homosexuality, his brief engagement to the only female mathematician on the team, and his vision of the possibility of genuine machine intelligence farther down the line.

I recommend the book highly -- but not as an audiobook. That's how I listened to it, but it was a horrible mistake. The reader, Paul Michael Garcia, bravely makes the attempt (though he really should have learned how to pronounce oft-repeated foreign words, like Principia Mathematica), but because the book lays out the encoding of Turing's virtual machines, Garcia is required to read long strings of letters and numbers that have no meaning.

When you see them on the page, then you can grasp how the Turing machine works; but just hearing a lot of letters does not help at all. Not Leavitt's fault -- the audiobook should come with a warning, or these sections should have been rewritten into descriptions instead of iterations for the audiobook.

One of the real pleasures of the book is to read about Turing's encounter with the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in a very small seminar, where the transcripts show that many times it could have been called "The Wittgenstein-Turing Conversation."

Turing kept insisting on a real-world standard -- that mathematical contradictions mattered because, as he often said, a bridge built using contradictory mathematics may fall down. But despite the ongoing disagreement, the two philosophers were really on the same side of a much larger divide in the mathematical world.

It's really kind of thrilling to realize that Turing and Wittgenstein spent hours together discussing the philosophy of mathematics at the highest level. No, I don't wish I could have been there -- I would not have understood anything that was going on.

But in his life, Turing spent time in the company of some of the greatest minds of the day; when he was at Princeton to do his dissertation, Einstein was also there, and during those days before World War II, so many exiles from Germany were in and out of Princeton that it was a virtual Who's Who of twentieth century science, philosophy, and mathematics.

Is the book The Man Who Knew Too Much better than the movie The Imitation Game? It certainly is not more entertaining -- but such entertainment as there is in the book is earned by the real life of a real man. Whereas the movie builds most of its entertainment on completely false, made-up events created to fit film-school formulas. You decide which has more value.

Reading this book has left me with contempt for the script of the film -- but great respect for the performances of the actors. Benedict Cumberbatch seemed to perform as if he had read books like The Man Who Knew Too Much and understood Turing much better than the script writer.


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