Posts Tagged ‘controversy’

american_sniperOver the last couple of weeks a number of people have been pushing us to go and see American Sniper and then to tell everyone what we think.

The film – which enjoyed the largest-grossing weekend for a movie ever when it launched in the USA – has divided opinion. Basically the left intelligentsia and many of those watching the film overseas have condemned it as at best simplistic and at worst American triumphalism, while some on the right have trumpeted it as a return to good ol’ USA values in movie making and a celebration of a folk hero.

We suspect the assumption is that, given our well-understood political preferences, we will immediately lapse into an anti-American rant full of left-wing certainty that the project is little more than an exercise in gung ho Tea Party patriotism and yet another example of director Clint Eastwood’s rightwards drift in his old age, epitomised by his dreadful Republican Convention discussion with an empty chair.

Actually, our reaction was much different.

As both its Oscar-nominated maker and Bradley Cooper have argued, the piece is above all a closely observed discussion of the effect of war on an individual who measures his life by some fairly simple yardsticks – love of country, love of family, and distaste for bullies. Some will be put off from seeing the film because of its subject matter. That would be a mistake.

Chris Kyle and his wife

Chris Kyle and his wife

Christopher Scott “Chris” Kyle was a United States Navy SEAL and the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history with 160 confirmed kills. Kyle served four tours in the Iraq War and was awarded several commendations for acts of heroism and meritorious service in combat.

Iraqi insurgents dubbed him the “Devil of Ramadi” and placed a series of ever increasing bounties on his head, purported to have eventually reached the low six figures.

Kyle was honourably discharged from the U.S. Navy in 2009 and wrote a bestselling autobiography, American Sniper, which was published in January 2012. On February 2, 2013, Kyle was shot and killed at a shooting range near Chalk Mountain, Texas, by a fellow veteran he was seeking to aid, along with friend Chad Littlefield. Their killer is awaiting trial.

We suspect that much of the criticism of the film is based on the shock that it is presented in very spare tones. It is brutal. Elemental. Nowhere to hide from the subject matter. For those who prefer their war neatly packaged on the nightly news and with the blood and guts removed, this movie will be confronting, indeed.

mother boy

There is no attempt to gloss over the utter nastiness of war for the ordinary soldier. Indeed, quite the opposite. War is not presented as a cheery exercise for America or Americans, or anyone. It is shown in all its bloody reality. When Kyle shoots a young boy carrying a grenade, and then his mother (or sister, it isn’t clear), the horrific nature of the moment is presented with stark realism. The fact that it is his first “kill”  is explored in a few simple sentences when he later returns to barracks. His regret at the incident is expressed exactly as a working soldier would express it – he hadn’t wanted his first engagement with the enemy to be like that. His colleague closes down discussion with the ultimate justification. Kyle had saved his colleagues’ lives. That was his job. Job done. Move on.

The film makes no attempt to consider why a young woman and a young boy would be running up a street holding a hand grenade to try and slaughter American soldiers. It neither justifies nor condemns their action. The reason is clear: that’s not what Eastwood is examining. On the other hand, it is also a simple and effective way to encapsulate that the war in Iraq was also about a war with the local population, not just hardened Jihadist fighters.

If this movie is about anything it is about the horror of war and the stoic determination to endure it in support of principles. One can question the principles – one can argue that America should never have been in Iraq, or even that Al-Zarquari and his hoodlum army were justified in fighting the invaders. That is to entirely miss the point. The movie is a character study, and it is engagingly effective in that study. Yes, naturally, it is viewing that study from the American perspective, but it makes no attempt to sanitise the reality of American actions, which were bloody. Because war is.

The movie also unflinchingly reveals the reality of the opposition the Americans faced – at times well organised, determined to the point of fanatical, but also frequently very cruel towards its own population. To reveal one of the film’s more gut wrenching scenes would be an unreasonable spoiler for those who have yet to see it, but it makes grim viewing. That it is likely to be entirely true is merely emphasised by the current barbarity of ISIS burning people alive, beheading, mass murder, raping and kidnapping, reducing populations to slavery and so forth.

Above all, despite lifting Chris Kyle up as a figure to be exemplified, (and the final scene sent everyone in this one Australian cinema out in to the streets in near silence), the film is an anti-war monologue. It would be hard to imagine a more immersive experience that could lead one to understand the reality of being in a fire fight in a dense urban area – in other words, what the fighters on both sides endured day after day for years.

One many occasions in the film one finds oneself gripping the arms of the cinema chair and wondering how any halfway sane person could ever return home and be able to pick up everyday life with any degree of equanimity. In that sense, Kyle’s own story is also an appeal for the United States to improve its treatment of its own vets – a disgraceful number of whom linger with untreated mental illness or languish in jails around the country.

Much has been made of the fact that it is somehow wrong to create a movie celebrating the life of a man who took 160 lives (at least 160 – that’s his “confirmed” total) in his role as a sniper. And to be sure, the publicity surrounding the movie trumpeting his role as the most lethal sniper in American history doesn’t sit at all easily with those who regret the loss of human life in conflicts.

But then again, what do people expect soldiers to do?

Apart from the very obvious fact that Kyle saved many more of his fellow soldier’s lives than he took – a point demonstrated clearly in the film – soldiers are employed to kill the enemy in combat. The operator of a drone or fighter-bomber will frequently “take out” many more people than Kyle did in four tours of duty.

american-sniper-is-not-an-army-recruitment-video

If we don’t want to deal squarely with what we ask men like Kyle to do, then we need to campaign against war, not individuals. Kyle is exemplified as a decent man who did what he felt his duty demanded of him, at great personal risk and cost to his family. He is shown warts and all – a tad simplistic, as capable of reducing the war to a slogan as anyone, an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances – which is a treatment that will be appreciated by all those who have served in a hot war zone. But throughout, his essential decency shines though, which is remarkable given that he is killing people for most of the film. His deep affection for his family is especially moving, and let it be said that Sienna Miller is excellent as his long-suffering and loyal wife.

American Sniper is anything but a recruitment video for the American armed forces, although sadly some will seek to ride its coat-tails and present it as such. In one particularly telling moment, while Stateside, Kyle is called a hero by a younger man. “That’s not a title anyone would want” he mutters in embarrassment, almost inaudibly.

And that, surely, is the real point of this remarkable film.

Other critical reaction

Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter wrote: “A taut, vivid and sad account of the brief life of the most accomplished marksman in American military annals, American Sniper feels very much like a companion piece — in subject, theme and quality — to The Hurt Locker.” Justin Chang of Variety gave the film a positive review, saying “Hard-wiring the viewer into Kyle’s battle-scarred psyche thanks to an excellent performance from a bulked-up Bradley Cooper, this harrowing and intimate character study offers fairly blunt insights into the physical and psychological toll exacted on the front lines, yet strikes even its familiar notes with a sobering clarity that finds the 84-year-old filmmaker in very fine form.” David Denby of The New Yorker gave the film a positive review, saying “Both a devastating war movie and a devastating antiwar movie, a subdued celebration of a warrior’s skill and a sorrowful lament over his alienation and misery.” Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a C+, saying “The film’s just a repetition of context-free combat missions and one-dimensional targets.” Elizabeth Weitzman of New York Daily News gave the film four out of five stars, saying “The best movies are ever-shifting, intelligent and open-hearted enough to expand alongside an audience. American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s harrowing meditation on war, is built on this foundation of uncommon compassion.” Amy Nicholson of LA Weekly gave the film a C-, saying “Cautiously, Eastwood has chosen to omit Kyle’s self-mythologizing altogether, which is itself a distortion of his character. We’re not watching a biopic.” Kyle Smith of the New York Post gave the film four out of five stars, saying “After 40 years of Hollywood counter-propaganda telling us war is necessarily corrupting and malign, its ablest practitioners thugs, loons or victims,American Sniper nobly presents the case for the other side.”

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film three and a half stars out of four, saying “Bradley Cooper, as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, and director Eastwood salute Kyle’s patriotism best by not denying its toll. Their targets are clearly in sight, and their aim is true.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of The A.V. Club gave the film a B, saying “American Sniper is imperfect and at times a little corny, but also ambivalent and complicated in ways that are uniquely Eastwoodian.” James Berardinelli of ReelViews gave the film three and a half stars out of four, saying “American Sniper lifts director Clint Eastwood out of the doldrums that have plagued his last few films.” Rafer Guzman of Newsday gave the film three out of four stars, saying “Cooper nails the role of an American killing machine in Clint Eastwood’s clear-eyed look at the Iraq War.” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times gave the film a positive review, saying “Eastwood’s impeccably crafted action sequences so catch us up in the chaos of combat we are almost not aware that we’re watching a film at all.” Claudia Puig of USA Today gave the film three out of four stars, saying “It’s clearly Cooper’s show. Substantially bulked up and affecting a believable Texas drawl, Cooper embodies Kyle’s confidence, intensity and vulnerability.” Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out New York gave the film four out of five stars, saying “Just as only Nixon could go to China, only Clint Eastwood could make a movie about an Iraq War veteran and infuse it with doubts, mission anxiety and ruination.” Inkoo Kang of The Wrap gave the film a negative review, saying “Director Clint Eastwood‘s focus on Kyle is so tight that no other character, including wife Taya (Sienna Miller), comes through as a person, and the scope so narrow that the film engages only superficially with the many moral issues surrounding the Iraq War.”

Eastwood himself has commented that the movie is intended to be anti-war. 

Responding to critics that considered the film as excessively violent, as celebrating war, killing, and as jingoistic, Eastwood said that it is a stupid analysis and that the film has nothing to do with political parties. He stated: “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.” Eastwood called American Sniper “the biggest anti-war statement any film can make,” and said that “the fact of what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did” and “what it (war) does to the people left behind.” 

 

A little while back, a big brouhaha broke in the States over a chicken fast food chain called Chick-fil-A.

The business, hitherto best known for its amusing billboard advertising, became the centre of a storm when key personnel spoke out against gay marriage, prompting calls for a boycott of the business.

Perhaps Chick-fil-A should have stuck to their knitting.

Their cause was taken up by right wing conservative commentator Mike Huckabee resulting in a highly successful protest in favour of the company’s position, when sales in one day went up 29%. However quite recently opinion polling revealed that some 13% of people were still considering or actively boycotting the business.

As recently as two days ago, the controversy continues to rumble. The long term effect on the brand is, as yet, unclear.

Now, a similar controversy has broken over another fast food company. And calls for a boycott are growing fast.

Pizza maker Papa John’s chief executive John Schnatter has criticized President Obama’s health-care law and said it will raise costs by 15 to 20 cents a pizza.

The blow-back has been fierce:

Papa John’s pizza extortion,” ran the headline for a story Wednesday from Salon, an American news website.

Vote for Romney or we’ll raise our prices” was how Daily Kos, a liberal news site, topped its story , which went on to illustrate Mr. Schnatter’s links to the GOP presidential candidate..

Some Twitter and Facebook users are now actively urging a boycott of the Kentucky-based pizza chain.

This is not what you want to see on your Facebook page when you check it over breakfast.

Nor this. See the ease with which the graphic encourages people to hit the Share button on Facebook? Be afraid. Be very afraid. You do not want this on a couple of million customer’s FB pages overnight.

But the Christian Science Monitor, for one, argues that such reactions may be overdone. They ask: was Mr. Schnatter making a political threat – or simply explaining the economics of the pizza business? Well, you be the judge.

In the middle of an Aug. 1 conference call with reporters and analysts to discuss the chain’s second-quarter results, Schnatter was asked about the impact of the new health-care law on Papa John’s. Here’s what he said, according to a recording of that call on the company’s website:

“Our best estimate is that the Obamacare [law] will cost about 11 to 14 cents per pizza – or 15 or 20 cents per order from a corporate basis. To put that in perspective, our average delivery charge is $1.75 to $2.50 – or about 10-fold our estimated cost of the Obamacare [law] to Papa John’s.

We’re not supportive of Obamacare, like most businesses in our industry. But our business model and unit economics [are] about as ideal as you can get for a food company to absorb Obamacare. We have a high ticket average with extremely high frequency of order counts – millions of pizzas per year. To give you an example … let’s say fuel goes up, which it does from time to time, and we have to raise delivery charges. We don’t like raising delivery charges. But the price of fuel is out of our control, as is Obamacare.

So if Obamacare is, in fact, not repealed, we will find tactics to shallow out any Obamacare costs and core strategies to pass that cost onto the consumer in order to protect our shareholders’ best interest.”

CSM believe several points stand out: The 15 to 20 cents he’s talking about are costs, not prices. If he was making a political statement, would he really make the point that delivery charges, based at least in part on fuel costs, are 10 times the size of the hit from Obamacare? And he is promising to cut or “shallow out” the costs of healthcare before passing any price increase to the consumer.

Is that a threat? Really? I guess it depends on what “shallowing out” costs actually means.

Schnatter is certainly no fan of the president or the health-care law. Who knows? Perhaps he will cut health-care costs by laying off or shafting his employees. But, the CSM argues, he deserves to have his words quoted in context, before another battle of the culture war is fought over fast food.

Fair enough. What is certain is that the row over his words is likely to grow. Like a brushfire. And it highlights dramatically the care that business owners and managers must take when commenting, in whatever medium, on controversial political issues.

At Wellthisiswhatithink we believe that it would not be a good thing for business to be prevented from expressing its point of view through fear of igniting controversy – it is, when all’s said and done, a key segment of society and we need to know the perspectives it holds, and why it holds them, given that “business” is somewhat opaque to the non business community.

But look out: the swamp is full of alligators, and treading warily would seem to be in order.

What a smart thing it might be, for example, for Boards of Directors to deliberately seek out and include ex-officio Directors with different points of view to their own, who might be closer to the general public, and with a better than passing knowledge of the likely public effect of policy decisions. The same could be said of a Board’s approach to environmental issues, risk management issues, (hello, BP, we’re talking to you), personnel issues generally, and many more.

“What’s on for the weekend, Bill, taking the boat out?” “Hell no, Ted, I’m heading for the mosh pit at the Midwinter Rave. Just love that feeling of mud on my jeans and getting off my face.” Yeah, right.

When companies are basically run by a group of accountants, lawyers and entrepreneurs, they can get a very narrow view of the society in which they do business. And when those same people leave work for the day, they often – not always, but often – circulate in a social milieu that usually does very little to broaden their horizons. It’s called “living in the bubble”. When a storm breaks, they are generally shocked and scramble to play catch up, often ineffectively.

As an adviser to business, I have sometimes found the upper echelons of management to be staggering insular, tone deaf to the likely public impact of their activities or statements, and completely lacking understanding of how social media has fundamentally altered the rules of the game, and as a result – essentially – they are riding for a fall.

It will be interesting to watch how Papa John’s deal with the crisis. The cost of getting it wrong will be a hell of a lot more than 14 cents a pizza, that’s for sure.

Some more examples that we have covered of how NOT to embrace social media can be found here, concerning recent industrial disputation and management actions at Australia’s national airline: http://wp.me/p1LY0z-cb and here: http://wp.me/p1LY0z-cu. A very funny and cautionary tale.

Anyhow, as we all sit mesmerised with horror at the new power of social media, my final word to managers and Directors is very simple.

For more than 2,000 years, Christian society has been based on what is known as the Golden Rule. To wit:  “Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.”

Why not try applying that rule to your next major decision? Forget what you think is your responsibility to your shareholders, just momentarily, and imagine you are your customer. You will soon find, I assure you, that building shareholder value isn’t actually about pinching pennies here and there, it’s about providing world class products and services. World class.

Because in an internet world, world class is the new basic standard. Think about it.

More interesting coverage is here: http://www.mediaite.com/tv/papa-johns-pizza-ceo-john-schnatter-owes-president-obama-two-words-thank-you/  I note his share price is now down more than 4%. Bet his shareholders are delighted.