American Sniper (2014)

American-Sniper

Clint Eastwood’s latest movie American Sniper  is based on the true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle who was called “the most lethal sniper in the U.S.”.

Every time I watch a movie based on a true story I find it difficult to write about because ultimately I have to write about two things: the movie as such and the story it’s based on. Very often I like the movie a great deal but I’m highly critical of the story. Like in this case. I admire Eastwood for the way he tells Chris Kyle’s story but I’m not sure I can admire someone who killed so many people, although I admire his skills.

The movie starts in Iraq. We get to witness two of Kyle’s most problematic kills. A boy and a woman. There is never a doubt— they are not collateral damage. Kyle takes them out on purpose. With good reason as they were about to blow up a tank. Nonetheless these two kills are problematic for him as we can easily deduce.

After these initial scenes, the movie switches back and we see a few scenes from Kyle’s childhood. How he was a great shot as a small boy already, taking out a deer. This seems to be a typical sniper movie feature. I can’t remember one in which we don’t see a small boy killing an animal, which already shows he’ll be a gifted sniper.

Kyle first works as a cowboy but it doesn’t work out for him and, being a patriot, he finally joins the Navy SEALs and becomes a sniper. One evening he meets his future wife Taya; shortly after their marriage, right after 9/11, he’s sent on his first tour to Iraq.

The movie then tells us chronologically all the important things that happened during the tours and the growing unease when he’s back home. Kyle is quickly turning into a legend. The most deadly sniper the US ever had and he’s also a wanted man. The Iraqis will pay a great deal of money to the person who can kill him.

Back home, Kyle tries to “return” but he fails. He never seems to leave the war zone. He keeps on hearing gunfire; he almost kills his own dog, thinking he’s attacking his kid; he’s withdrawn and distracted. His wife suffers but stands by him. In the movie we’re led to belive she has no idea her husband has taken so many lives. There’s even a scene in which she asks him if he’s ever killed someone.

The parts in Iraq are gripping. Especially since we have a “Enemy at the Gates”-situation. There’s an Iraqi sniper who is almost as good as Chris Kyle and the two try to take each other out. I’m not sure whether it’s based on a true story as well or whether this was added/embellished for dramatic purposes. In any case, it works because it gives the movie a plotline that is suspenseful.

As I said, I admire Eastwood for the way he told this story because it never felt manipulative. I didn’t think he was glorifying Chris Kyle or condemning him and whoever watches this will be able to make up his/her own mind.

Since I’m not American I wasn’t all that familiar with his story. I knew the name and that he wrote an autobiography called “American Sniper”. While watching the movie I had no idea how it would end, that’s why I’m not mentioning it here. If you don’t know yet, let me just tell you that it’s a pretty ironic and surprising ending.

One aspect that I found extremely interesting is what the film says about killing. Or rather – how we get to experience different ways of killing. If you shoot randomly in a battle and kill people, it’s clearly not the same as when you aim carefully and see them fall. A sniper’s kills are much more personal. I could image they weigh more heavily on the conscience than when you’re not exactly sure whether or not you killed someone. In a war like the war in Iraq there’s also the huge problem of civilians taking part. No matter how hardened a sniper is, it will be difficult for him to shoot a kid.

While I find that Chris Kyle is a highly problematic figure – his patriotism is more than a little annoying – and I really can’t glorify or applaud someone who shot so many people (160 confirmed kills, 250 probable kills) – I thought this was a terrific movie. Well done, thought-provoking and the acting is surprisingly good. I’m not exactly a Bradley Cooper fan so I was wondering whether he was a good choice, but I have to admit, he did a great job. And Sienna Miller works extremely well as his wife. I highly recommend the movie. 4.5/5

 

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Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Flags of Our Fathers

 “The right picture can win or lose a war.”

I remember watching Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers shortly after it was in the cinemas and feeling less than enthusiastic about it. I’d been watching my way through the best infantry combat movies at the time, so, obviously, Flags of Our Fathers fell short. After re-watching it yesterday I must say, it’s not bad at all. Quite the contrary. Sure, it has some corny Hollywood moments, but overall it’s a very interesting movie about topics that are still relevant today: the power of images and the making of heroes.

Flags of our Fathers tells the story of the iconic picture that rekindled the American war effort. Looking at the photo below I would say it’s extremely powerful. I’m not surprised it had such an effect.

APTOPIX OBIT ROSENTHAL

The movie starts with two elderly men reminiscing and telling their story to the son of one of them. The son knows his father took part in the battle of Iwo Jima and that he’s on the famous picture but he doesn’t know much more. His father never spoke about the war. From this initial moment the movie is composed mostly of flash back sections, some of which showing what happened on Iwo Jima, some telling about what came after the picture was shot.

Iwo Jima – or Sulfur Island – was a strategic point. Taking the hill meant that the US might after all have a chance to win the war. When the troops land, the island looks bleak, dark, forlorn and empty. It’s quite a creepy moment, which is enhanced through a change in point of view. We first see the troops land and slowly walk towards the hill, scanning the landscape and then we get the point of view of the hidden Japanese who observe the troops from their fox holes. Needless to say that this first wave of US soldiers is quickly heavily decimated. Still, many make it to the top and that’s when they plant the flag. A senior officer later demands this flag and the commanding officer decides to exchange it and to let him have another one. Both flag raisings are photographed but it’s the second, which is the better picture, that makes it into the newspapers.

Three of the men who raise the flag survive. However, inadvertently, one of the first six is named as the sixth of the second group, which will cause a lot of heartbreak.

The three survivors are sent back to the States where they are touring the country and trying to convince people to help the war effort and buy bonds.

The three men who haven’t done anything more heroic than holding a heavy pole, feel uncomfortable about being called heroes. One of them, an American Indian, is especially uncomfortable. He feels like a cheat. Not only because he doesn’t feel heroic but because they were not even part of the initial flag raising. It feels like he’s deceiving people. The mix up of the sixth soldier makes it even worse.

The movie is sleek and visually compelling. The combat scenes on the island are shot in gritty almost black and white pictures, which form a contrast to the colorful home front scenes.

The actors, notably Adam Beach and Ryan Philippe, are very good. The score is discreet and well-chosen. It stays mostly in the background.

I thought Flags of Our Fathers was really watchable. More than that actually. It’s very good. It shouldn’t be seen as a combat movie but more as a movie about the impact of pictures, an exploration of the true nature of heroism and the way society treats heroes when they aren’t needed anymore. It was sobering to see their treatment. At no point were they seen as soldiers and men but merely as a possibility for propaganda. This became even clearer after the war when people lost all interest in them.

Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

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I wanted to finish the year in style and a review of the black and white movie Twelve O’Clock High seemed fitting. This is one of the most highly acclaimed war movies and while I wouldn’t exactly give it a five-star rating, like so many critics did, I still think it’s a very important movie and the acting is superb.

Most air combat movies I have seen so far, with very few exceptions, showed the point of view of the British or the Germans. This is one of the rare depicting the American side.

In 1942 the US Air Force conducted daylight bombing raids. They thought that the precision of daylight bombing would speed up things and end the war earlier. However this put the pilots under a lot of additional pressure. 918th Bombardment Group was one that took much higher casualties than others. Their morale was pretty low, their squadron leader on the brink of a breakdown. Their explanation for their losses was “bad luck”.

Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) doesn’t want to hear any of this. He believes that leadership or rather the lack thereof is the main reason. The squadron leader is too attached to his men, identifies with them which clouds his judgement.

When Savage takes over the command he faces open resistance. The men don’t want such a hard and seemingly unfeeling leader and want to be transferred. Savage won’t let go. He works on their morale, assigns new leaders, regroups the men, even has the change their sleeping quarters. While they are hostile in the beginning, the first raids show, what he teaches makes sense as there are fewer casualties. On top of that he flies every mission with them.

Outstanding leadership, unflinching command, show results and soon the morale is high again and the men start to admire and even like Savage. Unfortunately the intensity of his assignment comes at a high cost.

While the beginning of the movie is extremely wordy, the second half is perfect. A lot of original footage heightens the authenticity and Savage’s character is one of the most interesting in any war movie. As said before, I wouldn’t exactly give this 5 stars (I found the beginning too slow) but it’s certainly a very good movie and Gregory Peck’s acting is outstanding.

Don’t let the poster fool you, by the way, Twelve O’Clock High is a black and white movie.

Senso (1954) – A Guest Post by nem baj

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Let’s face it, my self-imposed “One Month of Watching German War Movies” was a bit of a failure. The problem was, I wasn’t in the mood for the movies I had here. Instead of watching other war movies I stayed clear of the genre altogether and that’s why – once again – I’m grateful that nem baj stepped in with a review of a Visconti movie. I’ve seen a lot of Visconti’s movies, he used to be one of my favourite directors. However I haven’t seen Senso yet but I think I should watch it. I have a feeling I would like ti very much. 

In a nutshell: on the eve of the third Italian war of independence, in the Austrian-occupied city of Venice, the Contessa Serpieri (Alida Valli), a married Italian aristocrat, falls hopelessely in love with a younger Austrian lieutenant (Farley Granger), a notorious seducer. For him, she will betray both her social position and her beliefs in Italian independence, while he will exploit her love, and in turn betray his own career and country, up to a tragic ending.

Had it not been for the censorship, Luchino Visconti’s movie would have been called Custoza, after the second battle of Custoza, near Verona, where the Italian independence army was defeated by the Austro-Hungarian forces in 1866. Fortunately for the Italians, their opponent’s defeat at Königgrätz against Prussia prevented them for pushing their advantage and keep the Venetia region. However, in spite of its name reverting to that of its (loosely adpted) source short story, Senso certainly remains a war movie.

Of course, it is also a melodrama, an operatic portrait of the desperate, nefarious, masochistic love of an educated woman for an adventurer. I will not insist upon this aspect here. Yet, although there isn’t much combat to be seen, in part due to the censors, war is everywhere. War, in Senso, is at the same time the driving force of its protagonists’ lives, and the telltale device which reveals their character. And on a historical level, war is at the same time the developing bath and the accelerator of global changes.

As Renoir’s Grand Illusion demonstrated, a war movie isn’t always about those who fight. In this case, it’s about those who choose not to – those who, confronted with a crisis which reveals that their world is crumbling down (a theme dear to Visconti), choose not to join either side, and instead pursue their self-centered interests, their passions. Here, the battle of Custoza is a defeat for both sides. For Italy, it is the defeat of idealists betrayed by the aristocracy. For Austria, it is the beginning of the end of a decaying empire.

Visconti’s images of the battle of Custoza remind me a lot of the way many cinematographers chose to render the American Civil War. There’s a strongly suggested state of confusion, which brings the idea that the opponents belong to the same culture. It’s not so much a war beetween foreign and domestic as it is a conflict beetween the old and the new. Here, the new is a nation-state in the making, forged by ideals: Italy. While the old is a multi-cultural empire held by social allegiances, bent for dissolve: Austria-Hungary.

Senso might not be as achieved as The Leopard, as it is sometimes difficult for the viewer not to give priority to one of its two main streams (the love story and the historical statement) over the other. However, the narrative use of tracking shots is wellesian. The settings, composition and costumes are magnificent, well in line with what we know of the director’s personal background, knowledge, and career in the opera and theatre. Yet the camera never indulges in sheer production show-off: these elements constantly add meaning to what’s going on – and in the interior scenes, the games with the mirrors, paintings and doors are quite devilish. Last but not least for European music lovers, the double use of Verdi (for politics) and Brückner (for love) should make for an unforgettable experience.

PS: Blu-Ray restored edition recommended. You may have a peek at the results here

Klemperer – Ein Leben in Deutschland – A Life in Germany (1999) German TV Mini-Series

When Klemperer was first aired on German TV, I watched the first episodes but because I was moving I had to stop after the fourth. I always meant to re-watch the beginning and finally finish the whole series which consists of 12 episodes.

I had really liked the beginning at the time and now that I have finally re-watched those first four episodes I’m glad I still like it, maybe even more and I’m keen on watching the rest. However it’s very depressing. I didn’t remember it to be this upsetting but maybe it’s just me and I’m in a funny mood.

The series is based on Viktor Klemperer’s war diaries, 8 volumes of several thousand pages (here in English Viktor Klemperer’s diaries and in German here). The diaries are a fascinating document. I’ve read the first and it’s breathtaking. Klemperer was a professor of French literature, highly intelligent and with an amazing knowledge which all goes into the diary. He was also Jewish. The amazing thing in the series and the diary is the fact that it shows a man who is incapable of seeing what is going on and that we witness an amazingly intelligent person’s blindness. I find it must have taken a lot of guts to publish this diary because while it is very human it is still such an incredible flaw to be this blind.

To watch the series is eerie. It starts in 1933, just after Hitler was elected. At first there are just a few warning signals. Klemperer isn’t allowed to test non-Jewish students anymore, later he will not be able to publish anymore, they will remove him from certain classes and finally he will be fired. While many of his friends leave Germany very early, he doesn’t want to leave, he always thinks that maybe he will be exempt from the next measures only to find out that he wasn’t. His wife is not Jewish and since he himself isn’t religious, he always thinks they will make an exception for him. They even start to build a house.

Klemperer’s wife is an amazing character as well as she is so flawed and naive. She still moans about not being able to go on holidays when he has already been fired because he is Jewish.

As I already mentioned, the series is quite long. There are 12 parts of 45 minutes each, which means they have taken a lot of time to show the whole story and include a lot of details. I already know that the Klemperers will end up being sent to a camp but survive. Because it spans such a long time, 1933 – 1945, it really feels at times like having been there, having experienced some of it.  It is one of the best TV series I’ve ever seen. It has been very carefully executed and with Matthias Habich and Dagmar Wenzel, they have chosen two of the best German actors. Habich is one of my favourites, and one of the rare I like almost as much as Bruno Ganz.

A far as I know, there is no version with English subtitles available which is a pity. At least the diary is available in English too.

Die Flucht – March of Millions (2007) German TV production about the Flight from East Prussia

This is one of those stories that needed telling. East Prussia, this vast and beautiful region in Germany, was quite peaceful during the war until the Eastern Front collapsed and the Russians started invading Prussia and moved towards Berlin. The people living there had but two choices. Stay and face the Russians who were not exactly going to handle them with care. Or  to flee and leave all their possessions behind. East Prussia was the home of many aristocratic families who lived at ease on huge estates. Theirs was a life of wealth and tradition. Leaving was extremely hard on them and for many it took a long time until they made up their minds. Too long in some cases. For those who had less, it wasn’t any easier. Not only did they have to leave everything behind, they didn’t know where they were going or if they were not going to be outrun by the Russians.

You see, a lot of potential for a great story and all of the above is shown in Die Flucht – March of Millions. Unfortunately even historical events like this need good storytelling and that’s where I’m not happy with this two-part German TV production. While it’s not bad, I would have preferred if they hadn’t decided to turn the second half into a love story.

Lena, countess von Mahlenberg (Maria Furtwängler), leaves Berlin and returns to her family’s estate in East Prussia. Things still look pretty much the same as they did before the war with the exception of French POWs – led by cranky François (Jean-Yves Berteloot) – working on the estate. And there is also a  panicky feeling underneath the surface. Things do not look good for Germany. That they will win the war is not very likely anymore and what this could mean for them, this close to the Eastern front, starts to dawn on a few people.

The von Mahlenberg’s are friends with another aristocratic family, the von Gernstorffs. Lena is going to get married to their older son although she doesn’t really love him. The younger son who is in love with her as well, is one of the only ones to clearly say that Germany will lose the war. He is fighting on the Russian front and scared of dying. When he deserts, the family breaks apart.

Meanwhile Lena wants to flee together with the POWs who have been working for her and with all of the people who live on the estate.

The first part of the movie is dedicated to the time before they flee, the second focusses entirely on that long march.

Many of the elements are interesting and dramatic. The tensions among the Germans, the justified fear of the Russians, the tragedy to lose your home and to be unwelcome wherever you go, is shown quite well.

What I liked too were the pictures. I have never been in East Prussia but those vast landscapes seem very beautiful and they were beautifully filmed. What did not work is the love story. I think this movie could have been dramatic without a love story but on top of that it didn’t seem very realistic.

In any case, a watchable movie but not as good as I had hoped for. I think however this would be successful in the US or the UK as, like Dresden or Anonyma, it shows aspects of German history and suffering we sometimes tend to forget. Of the three movies I liked Anonyma best but I’m fond of Dresden as well, although it has corny elements.

I’m not sure Die Flucht is available in English. I attached the German trailer and for those interested in the history of East Prussia during WWII, a documentary in English which looks quite good.

The Odd Angry Shot (1979) Australian SAS in Vietnam

A comment on my post Australian War Movies: A List put me in the mood to watch the Australian film  The Odd Angry Shot. The topic is quite unique as for once it doesn’t show Australians during WWI or WWII but Australians in Vietnam. The movie came with such high praise that I was really looking forward to it. However, before watching it, I had a look at Gary Freitas book on war movies and the movie had a rating of 1.5/5. I cannot remember having ever seen such a discrepancy between someone’s recommendation and Freitas’ assessment and was a bit puzzled and keen to find out for myself. The solution to the riddle is, in my opinion, that if you have the wrong expectations you might not like it but if you know what to expect chances are high you will.

The Odd Angry Shot tells the story of a group of Australian SAS soldiers who do a 12 month tour in Vietnam. Long stretches of boredom are broken up by recon and other missions during which there are casualties, some men are severely, others fatally wounded. During the periods in which there isn’t a lot to do, the men drink A LOT of beer, play games, tease each other. It’s an atmosphere of mateship and camaraderie and to watch them is nothing if not funny. Story-wise that’s it.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a war movie done like this and I can understand that if you think you are going to watch an intense war movie like Hamburger Hill or Platoon you will be very disappointed but that’s because you’re watching it with the wrong expectations. For me this is a war comedy, a movie that wants to show the spirit and the mateship in the Australian troops but still tries to show their sacrifice and achievements just without being graphic or gory. Judging from the reviews of a lot of Australian vets who commented on this movie, this is exactly how the Australians experienced Vietnam. They emphasized that most of the time, they were sitting around, waiting, being debriefed but that intense combat was pretty rare. Most of the time they were sent to capture the one or the other informant. In order to keep their spirits high, they did drink a lot, and try to have fun. A way to cope with the horrors of war.

The only real problem I had was that I still have no clue why the Australians felt they had to be in Vietnam. We hear absolutely nothing about the war as such, only that the majority of the people “back home” were not keen on it.

If you want to watch a gritty and graphic war movie in the vein of Platoon, don’t watch it. If you are interested in Australia and Australian movies, why not? If you look for an enjoyable and entertaining movie, it’s a great choice too. It’s very funny, the characters are extremely likable and Graham Kennedy does a great job. 

Here’s a short scene that captures the spirit very well.