Tag Archives: memoir

American Sniper: the film equivalent of Born In The USA?

31 Jan
Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, the American sniper with 160 kills to his name.

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, the American sniper with 160 kills to his name.

Critics seem bizarrely divided on American Sniper, which opened in the UK yesterday. Some think it’s the sort of simplistic right-wing fable you’d expect of an avowedly Republican director, Clint Eastwood, who famously bizarrely addressed an empty chair at the Republican Convention. (Incidentally, no one at the time pointed out that this was a common technique in Gestalt therapy – it presumably indicates Clint has been in counselling at some time.) Others think it’s been misunderstood by the American heartland who have adopted it so enthusiastically, in the same way as Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA was misguidedly adopted on the campaign trail by Republican White House contender Bob Dole.

The truth is somewhere in between. Psychologically, it is a nuanced, understated portrait of the havoc war can wreak on even the most untroubled Texas good ol’ boy psyches: the back-home drama, in between the most lethal sniper in American history’s several tours of duty, concerns the attempts of his wife (Sienna Miller, rather good in a thankless role which has only two settings, winsome at the start and whinesome for most of the rest) to get him to come home in mind, not just body.

Politically, it is dishonest in establishing an implicit connection between the Twin Towers atrocity and the Iraq War, and profoundly racist by omission. Yes, this is the soldiers’ story, but still there is not one – not one! – sympathetic Iraqi character. There is no suggestion (and this sadly may be true to life) that any US soldier is in Iraq to help free its people from tyranny; they talk only of protecting America from attack.

And of the many departures from the real-life memoir of sniper Chris Kyle that you would expect of any Hollywood blockbuster, the exaggeration right from the first scene is telling: Bradley Cooper as Kyle is, in his first assignment as a sniper, confronted with a situation where a mother hands a grenade to her little boy and sends him running towards American soldiers. Kyle must decide whether to shoot the child. “That is evil like I have never seen before,” he says after.

You’d have to agree – were it true. A similar incident does indeed open the memoir, but there is no child, only a woman. The film never once departs from this presentation of the Iraq War as a pure struggle between “good” (the guy even carries a bible wherever he goes) and “evil”.

Okay, aside from the politics, is the film “good”? It’s well acted, as I said, and the combat scenes are gritty and tense; if you like war films you’ll probably enjoy this one. But in the usual Clint style it’s directed efficiently rather than brilliantly; if you hadn’t seen the name on the credits, you would have no idea which film-maker was behind it. Actually, there is one clue. In a couple of bizarre and, frankly, risible scenes, Kyle and his wife hold a “baby” that is so obviously a doll that it shatters the suspension of disbelief. Clint is famous for his two-takes, let’s-get-this-done approach; presumably he just didn’t want a real crying baby to hold up the day’s shooting.

Which seems to be the approach overall: why let crying liberals get in the way of a story America can be proud of?

Victoria Coren’s historic double EPT win, and why gender still matters in poker

21 Apr


Victoria Coren

Victoria Coren Mitchell, with the hand that won her second EPT

So Vicky Coren (or rather Victoria Coren Mitchell, as she now is), won the European Poker Tour last night, taking home nearly £400,000. Absolutely bloody brilliant. In 2006 Coren became the first woman to win the EPT. Now she’s made history on gender-neutral terms as the first person ever to win it twice.

Gender shouldn’t matter in poker, but it still does. Play any tournament, and you’ll see an average of one woman for every table of 10. Go to a cash game in a casino outside Vegas, and you may find fewer still.

Why? Coren herself describes in her excellent memoir For Richer, For Poorer the initial fear at stepping into the all-male preserve of the Victoria Casino: “My second trip is by myself… I peep through the partition wall. There, just visible through the volcanic cloud of smoke, is the same cliquey gaggle of old men. A couple of them peer suspiciously at me. My stomach clenches with fear. I go back down the stairs, find my car, and go home.”

The smoke may have lifted, and the old men have mostly been replaced by young bucks in T-shirts and shades, but poker rooms can still be an intimidating environment for women. They are assumed to be conservative players, so more aggressive players will often re-raise them with marginal hands in the expectation of forcing a fold. The more attractive female players will get hit on mercilessly, and it’s not uncommon to hear jokes about “nice pairs” and “straddling” as soon as they step away from the table. Poker tournaments and the lesser websites (not PokerStars or Full Tilt, thankfully) are still often shamelessly promoted with bikini-clad dolly birds, as though we hadn’t left the ‘70s.

More insidiously, I have had several negative conversations about Vicky Coren at the poker table. It starts when they ask me how I got into poker. “I was taken to a home game by fellow journo Jon Ronson about ten years ago,” I explain. “I’d never played Texas Hold ‘Em, and was totally out of my depth. But as our host dispensed tips on how I should have played the hand, I realised how fascinating the game really was, how much I had to learn. The host was Vicky Coren.”

Three times this story has been met with derisory comments about Vicky’s skill, the implication being that she’s only famous because she’s a woman. This is strange, because Coren is a very good player. I’ve played against her a few times now, the last time in a media tournament at the Hippodrome Casino, with Vicky on my left and her fellow British PokerStars Pro Liz Boeree on my right. She can bluff when she has to, her reads are good, she is self-critical, and, as she said when I interviewed her for the second time last year, “As to my strategy, the old rules still apply: play aggressively at a passive table and patiently at an aggressive table.”

She is also unfailingly charming to everyone at the table. So why diss her? Everyday sexism is the only answer I can come up with.

So to all the unreconstructed Neanderthals out there, I hope Victoria Coren’s historic EPT double win sends a message: you don’t need to have a penis to play poker; but it can stop you being a dick.