“American Sniper” Hits The Mark For Melodrama, But Misses Badly For Veracity

Trash Film Guru


What is it that makes a hero?

There are probably as many different answers to that question as there are people reading this (in other words, probably a few hundred if my daily wordpress stats are to be believed), but there are some character traits that I think we would all consider to be heroic : willingness to sacrifice oneself for the well-being of others, truthfulness, bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, staying firm in one’s ideals (assuming they’re decent ideals, of course) even when it’s dangerous to do so, etc.

By those standards, then, the “most lethal sniper in U.S. history,” Chris Kyle — who is credited by the Navy with over 160 kills in Iraq, while in his  memoir, American Sniper (upon which, needless to say, Clint Eastwood’s new film is based), he himelf puts the number northwards of 250 — probably meets most people’s definition of what…

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Shattered Politics #6: The Great McGinty (dir by Preston Sturges)


 “This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic. One of them never did anything dishonest in his life except for one crazy minute. The other never did anything honest in his life except for one crazy minute. They both had to get out of the country.”

— The Great McGinty (1940)

For today’s final entry in Shattered Politics, we take a look at how elections are won north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The Great McGinty begins in a bar located in an unnamed country in South America.  Tommy Thompson (Louis John Heydt) attempts to shoot himself but is stopped by philosophical bartender Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy).  Tommy explains that he can never return to the United States because, in one moment of weakness, he stole some money.  McGinty replies that he can never return to the U.S. either.  Why?  “I was the Governor of a state, baby…” McGinty replies.

In flashback, McGinty explains how he came to power.  One day, while standing in a soup line, the homeless McGinty was approached by a local political operative (William Demarest) and offered $2.00 on the condition that he vote for a certain mayoral candidate.  McGinty agrees and then proceeds to vote 37 times.  When McGinty demands $74.00 for his efforts, he’s taken to the headquarters of the Boss (Akim Tamiroff, giving a wonderfully comedic performance).

The Boss is impressed with McGinty and, despite the fact that the two of them are constantly getting into fights with each other, he employs McGinty as a collector.  Eventually, he also arranges for McGinty to be elected alderman and then, running as a reform candidate, mayor.

Along the way, the Boss arranges for McGinty to get married.  McGinty’s wife (Muriel Angelus) originally has little respect for McGinty but, after they marry, she starts to realize that McGinty is not quite as bad as she originally assumed.  Eventually, she’s even impressed enough that she even stops seeing her boyfriend, George (Allyn Joslyn).

Meanwhile, the Boss arranges for McGinty to be elected governor.  However, once McGinty has won the election, he declares that he’s going to run an honest administration.  How does that turn out?  Well, it should be noted that the film opens with McGinty tending bar in South America…

The Great McGinty is a lot of fun and it’s interesting to think that this unapologetically sardonic look at American politics came out just a year after Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  Imagine if Mr. Smith Goes To Washington had been told from the point of view of Edward Arnold’s Boss Taylor and you can guess what The Great McGinty is like.

If nothing else, The Great McGinty serves as a great reminder that political cynicism existed long before any of us cast our first vote.

Shattered Politics #5: Young Mr. Lincoln (dir by John Ford)

YoungmrlincolnWay back in 1939, at the same time that Jimmy Stewart was conquering Washington in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the great director John Ford was making a film about another man who would eventually go to Washington.

In Young Mr. Lincoln, Henry Fonda plays the future 16th President.  Even though Fonda was probably far better looking than Abraham Lincoln ever was, he’s ideally cast in the role.  Along with being a very natural actor, Fonda personified a certain middle-of-the-country, stoic decency.  He played characters who were smart but never elitist and who were guided mostly by common decency.  In short, his screen persona was everything that people tend to think about when considering Abraham Lincoln.

As for the film itself, it begins with Lincoln as a simple storekeeper who accepts, as payment for groceries, a barrel of old books.  After reading the books and having a conversation with his doomed first love, Anne Rutledge (Pauline Moore), Lincoln decides to learn the law.

Years later, now a poor-but-honest lawyer, Abraham Lincoln arrives at Springfield, Illinois, sitting a top mule because he can’t afford a horse.  Lincoln opens a law office, awkwardly courts the rich and spoiled Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver), and eventually defends two brothers who have been accused of murder.  While the case’s prosecutor (played by Donald Meek) may have a better education, he can’t compete with Lincoln’s common sense and ability to relate to the common people.

Obviously, the whole point behind Young Mr. Lincoln is that it’s about the early life of an American hero.  You watch the entire film with the knowledge that Lincoln is going to be the man who eventually leads the U.S. during the Civil War and who frees the slaves.  The viewer knows that Lincoln is going to be a great man, even if nobody else does and a good deal of the film’s effectiveness come from the moments when Fonda will strike an iconic pose or will casually deploy a familiar phase and you’re reminded of just who exactly it is he’s playing.

But, and this is why Young Mr. Lincoln remains a great film, the important thing is that the film is just effective when viewed as being a portrait of a dedicated lawyer trying to prove the innocence of his clients.  Fonda is compelling as both a future President and as an honest man trying to do the right thing.  Ultimately, the film would be just as compelling even if it was called Young Mr. Jones and didn’t open with soaring, patriotic music and end with a shot of the Lincoln Memorial.

It’s interesting to compare Young Mr. Lincoln to some of the other films made about Abraham Lincoln.  It’s a far more assured film than D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln and, needless to say, Henry Fonda makes for a better Lincoln than Walter Huston did.  At the same time, it’s far more naturalistic and less overly manipulative film than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  In the end, it’s a good film and a great tribute to our 16th President.

And you can watch it below!

Shattered Politics #4: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (dir by Frank Capra)


So, when you read that I was going to be reviewing 94 political films here at the Shattered Lens, you probably knew that one of them would have to be the 1939 best picture nominee, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

So, we all know that story right?  The senator from an unnamed state dies.  The weak-willed Governor (Guy Kibbee) has to appoint a new senator.  Political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) demands that the governor appoint one of his cronies.  The state’s reformers demand that the Governor appoint a never-seen crusader named Henry Hill (who, whenever I hear his name, makes me think of Ray Liotta snorting cocaine in Goodfellas).  The Governor’s children demand that he appoint Jefferson Smith (James Stewart, of course!), who is the head of something called the Boy Rangers.  The Governor flips a coin.  The coin lands on its edge but it also lands next to a newspaper story about Jeff Smith.

So, of course, Mr. Smith goes to Washington.

Now, as the movie quickly makes clear, Jeff Smith is immediately out-of-place in Washington.  For one thing, he’s actually excited to be there.  He’s convinced that he’s there to make America a better place.  When a bunch of drunken reporters (led by the great Thomas Mitchell) make Smith look foolish, Smith responds by running around Washington and punching them out.  (That whole sequence probably serves as wish fulfilment for a lot of politicians.)  When his cynical legislative aide Saunders (Jean Arthur) tells him that he’s too naive to survive in Washington, he wins her over with the purity of his idealism.  When his mentor, Senator Paine (Claude Rains), is revealed to be a part of Washington’s corrupt culture, Smith is stunned.  When Taylor tries to destroy his political career, Smith responds by giving the filibuster to end all filibusters.  He’s one man standing up against a culture of corruption and…

And there’s a reason why, 76 years later, aspiring political candidates still attempt to portray themselves as being a real-life, modern Jefferson Smith.

This is one of those films that everyone seems to agree is great and, of course, there’s many reasons to love Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  There’s the lead performance of Jimmy Stewart, of course.  While this may not be his best performance (I prefer the more layered characterization that he brought to It’s A Wonderful Life and Anatomy of a Murder), it is Stewart at his most likable and, most importantly, he makes you feel Jeff Smith’s pain as he discovers that Washington is not the great place that he originally assumed it to be.  Claude Rains was always great when it came to playing good men gone wrong and he’s perfect as Sen. Paine.  Thomas Mitchell and Jean Arthur are perfectly cast and I always enjoy seeing the bemused smile on the face of Vice President Harry Carey as Smith conducts his filibuster.

But I think the best thing about Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is that it actually makes you believe that there are Jeff Smiths out there who actually could make a difference.  And, until Judd Apatow gets around to remaking the film with Adam Sandler, audiences will continue to believe.

Shattered Politics #3: Hold That Co-Ed (dir by George Marshall)


“Americans will put up with bad government but they won’t stand for bad sportsmanship!” — A political consultant in Hold That Co-Ed (1938)

Rusty Stevens (George Murphy) is the new head football coach at State University.  (Which state?  We never learn for sure, though the implication is that it’s somewhere near Louisiana.)  From the minute that he arrives, Rusty discovers why State’s football program is so unheralded.  Not only are the majority of the students lazy and unmotivated but the college can’t even afford to buy the players uniforms.  The perpetually nervous Dean Thatcher (Donald Meek) is of no help when it comes to getting the university what it needs.  Even worse, the state’s Governor, Gabby Harrigan (John Barrymore), is running for the senate and he has sworn that he’s going to solve the state’s budget crisis by cutting the football program!

(Cue dramatic music.  Actually, not really.  There’s not a single dramatic moment to be found in Hold that Co-Ed.)

Well, what can Rusty be expected to do, other than lead all the students on a march down to the capitol building where they demand to see Gov. Harrigan.  However, Harrigan is busy giving an interview and he refuses to meet with the students.  Instead, he tells a fawning reporter how he is going to introduce a bill in the U.S. Senate that will guarantee all retired people, “Not one, not two, not three, but a sum of 400 dollars every month!”

After the reporter leaves, his cynical (Is there any other type?) secretary Marjorie (Marjorie Weaver) asks Harrigan how the government will ever be able to afford his plan.  Harrigan says that the government can’t but “isn’t it nice for” retired people “to have something to look forward to?”

(Gov. Harrigan sounds like he could be elected President in 2016.)

Meanwhile, the college students get rowdy in the front office and end up picking up the Governor’s aide, Wilbur (Jack Haley, who a year later would play The Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz), and passing him around over their heads.  Naturally, this gets the attention of the press and suddenly, the fate of State’s football program is a campaign issue.

Upon discovering that most voters like football, Harrigan declares himself to be State’s biggest supporter and soon starts to play a very prominent role in the football program.  Not only does he arrange for Lizzie Olsen (Joan Davis) to become the only female to play on a college football team (When informed that Lizzie playing is against the rules, Harrigan replies, “I’ll change them!”) but he also pays players to come to State.  (When informed that paying players is against the law, Harrigan replies, “I’ll change the law!”)

It all eventually leads to Rusty romancing Marjorie and a bet between Harrigan and his opponent in the Senate race in which the outcome of the big game will determine who withdraws from the race.

Because of course it does.

First released in 1938, Hold That Co-Ed is one of those strange films that seems like it could only have come out in the 1930s.  Obviously, it’s primarily a college comedy.  Yet, at the same time, it’s also a musical which features Rusty randomly breaking out into song and dancing.  And then, on top of that, it’s a political satire.  (Reportedly, Harrigan was based on Huey Long, who also served as the basis for a far more sinister character in All The King’s Men.)

And, in its way, Hold That Co-Ed is a fun, little time capsule.  If anything, the film’s political satire feels just as relevant today as it probably did when it was first released.  As playing in grand theatrical fashion by John Barrymore, Gabby Harrigan could be any number of pompous, say-whatever-you-have-to-say demagogues.

What makes this film particularly interesting is just how much it’s on Harrigan’s side.  Whereas most political films always feel the need to at least pretend to be on the side of “good” government, Hold that Co-Ed cheerfully celebrates Harrigan’s casual corruption.  In this shrill day and age, there’s something refreshing about seeing a film that passes no judgment.

And speaking of politics, John Barrymore was never elected to political office.  However, the film’s other star, George Murphy, was.  He served in the U.S. Senate from 1965 to 1971.


Governor Gabby Harrigan (John Barrymore) in Hold That Co-Ed

Shattered Politics #2: They Won’t Forget (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


The title of the 1937 film They Won’t Forget works on many levels.

It describes the reaction of a small Southern town, following the brutal murder of teenager Mary Clay (played, in her film debut, by Lana Turner).  The town won’t forget Mary and they won’t forget the terror caused by her murder.  They also won’t forget that local teacher Robert Hale (Edward Norris) was accused of the crime.

The district attorney, Andrew Griffin (Claude Rains), hopes that the people of his state won’t forget his efforts to see Griffin convicted of that crime.  Griffin wants to be elected to the U.S. Senate and he knows that the high profile case could be just what his career needs.

The Governor (Paul Everton) knows that, if he steps into the case and acts on his suspicion that Hale is innocent, the voters of his state will never forget.  And they certainly won’t be willing to forgive.

And, on a larger level, the title lets us know that the South and the North will never forget the Civil War and the conflict between the two regions.  The film opens with three elderly veterans of the Confederate Army, preparing to march in the town’s annual Confederate Memorial Day parade and admitting to each other that, after all these years, it’s difficult to remember much about the war other than the fact that they’re proud that they fought in it.

It’s while the rest of the town is busy watching Griffin and the governor ride in the parade that Mary Clay is murdered.  It’s easy to assume that Hale was the murderer because Hale was one of the few townspeople not to go to the parade.  You see, Hale is originally from New York City.  When he’s accused of murder, it’s equally easy for Griffin and tabloid reporter William A. Brock (Allyn Joslyn) to convince the town people to blame this Northern intruder for both the murder of Mary Clay and, symbolically, for all of the post-Civil War struggles of the South itself.

Meanwhile, up North, Hale is seen as a victim of the South’s intolerance.  A high-profile lawyer (Otto Kruger) is sent down to defend Hale but, as quickly becomes clear, everyone involved in the case is more interested in refighting the Civil War than determining the guilt or innocence of Andrew Hale.

They Won’t Forget is a hard-hitting and fascinating look at politics, justice, and paranoia.  It’s all the more interesting because it’s based on a true story.  In 1913, a 13 year-old girl named Mary Phagan was murdered in Atlanta.  Leo Frank was accused and convicted of the murder.  (In Frank’s case, he was born in Texas but was also Jewish and had previously lived in New York before moving to Atlanta, all of which made him suspicious in the eyes of many.)  On the word of a night watchmen, who many believe was the actual murderer of Mary Phagan, Leo Frank was convicted and sentence to death.  After spending days reviewing all of the evidence and growing convinced that Frank had been wrongly convicted, Georgia’s governor committed an act of political suicide by commuting Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment.  Leo Frank was subsequently lynched and the man who had prosecuted the case against him was subsequently elected governor.

Well-acted and intelligently directed, They Won’t Forget is probably one of the best films of which few people have heard.  Fortunately, it shows up fairly regularly on TCM and, the next time that it does, be sure to watch.  It’s a great film that you won’t easily forget.



Shattered Politics #1: Abraham Lincoln (dir by D.W. Griffith)

Unlike just about everyone else that I know, I am about as apolitical as you can get.

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I always vote.  I believe in …. stuff.  Occasionally, I get angry about the state of the world. Why I’ll have you know that when I first registered to vote, I was really, really excited and I even sat down and researched every single person who was running for President.  (And, of course, I decided I would support John Edwards because he had good hair.  But then I changed my mind and ended up voting for Charles Jay, the candidate of the Personal Choice Party.)  But, for whatever reason, current events have never become the obsession for me that they are for some people.  You’ll never catch me posting a political meme or sagely agreeing with an activist on Facebook.  It’s just not for me.

(On the plus side, this has allowed me to have friends with many diverse viewpoints and generally lead a happy life.)

At the same time, I’m also fascinated by history and history is often the story of politics and politicians.  As a result, I’m far more interested in past affairs than I am in current affairs.  I can spend hours talking about the election of 1876 but I could hardly care less who is elected in 2016.  I know my political history well enough not to worry about the political present.

Perhaps that explains why, despite my indifference to politics, I tend to enjoy political movies.  And that leads us to my latest review series here at the Shattered Lens.  Over the next two weeks, I will be reviewing, in chronological order, 94 films about politics and politicians.  It’s a little something I call Shattered Politics.

(For some previous examples of what I mean by review series, check out Lisa’s Homestate Reviews, Lisa Goes Back To College, Netflix Noir, 44 Days of Paranoia, Embracing the MelodramaBack To School, and, of course, Lisa’s Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse and Exploitation Film Trailers!)



We start things off with a film from 1930.  One of only two sounds films to be directed by cinematic pioneer D.W. Griffith, Abraham Lincoln is — as you might guess from the title — a 90 minute biopic about the 16th President of the United States.  It tells the same basic story as Lincoln, just in a lot less time and with Walter Huston playing the title role.  The film opens in 1809 with his birth then speeds forward to detail his tragic love affair with Ann Rutledge (played by Una Merkel) and his subsequent marriage to Mary Todd (Kay Hammond).  We get a snippet of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and then, just as quickly, Abe is President, the country plunges into civil war, and an alcoholic actor named John Wilkes Booth (Ian Keith) is meeting with disreputable looking men in a shadowy bar and making shadowy plans.

Any honest review of this version of Lincoln’s life needs to deal with the obvious.  Abraham Lincoln was released 84 years ago, at a time when the film industry was still struggling to make the transition from silent to sound film.  In other words, the film is stiff, stagey, and full of actors who alternate between shouting their dialogue and delivering their lines through nervously clinched teeth.  This is essentially a silent film — complete with overdramatic title cards and heavy-handed symbolism — that just happens to feature some very awkwardly delivered dialogue.  Walter Huston is occasionally effective as Lincoln but, just as often, he’s not.

However, Abraham Lincoln is fascinating to watch from a historical point of view.  It helps if you know a little something about director D.W. Griffith.  Almost all of the narrative techniques that we now take for granted were originally introduced to cinema by D.W. Griffith and many of them were introduced in his controversial 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation.  

Of course, Griffith’s legacy is problematic precisely because of The Birth of a Nation.  An epic look at the Civil War, Birth not only featured white actors in black face menacing Lillian Gish but also ended with the Ku Klux Klan heroically riding to the rescue.  That even viewers in 1915 were critical of the film’s racism and overly pro-Confederate sentiments should tell you something about just how extreme the film truly was.

(That said, one huge fan of the film was U.S. President and aspiring dictator Woodrow Wilson.)

By most accounts, Griffith was stunned by the negative reaction to The Birth of a Nation and several of his subsequent films (most famously, Intolerance) were meant to answer his critics.

That’s what makes the opening scenes of Abraham Lincoln all the more interesting.  The film opens in 1809 with a shot of a ship on the ocean.  We catch a glimpse of the Africans chained in the lower decks.  Two white slave traders are seen carrying a dead body to the side of the ship and tossing it overboard.

We cut to Virginia, where we see a group of slave owners complaining about how the North is harming them financially by trying to end the slave trade.  One of the men says that the only man who could have kept the north and south united is dead.  The camera pans up to a picture of George Washington.

Then, the scene cuts to Boston.  A group of northerners sit around a table and talk about how slavery is harming the north economically and therefore, it has to end.  One of the northerners says that the only man who could have kept north and south united is dead.  Again, the camera pans up to a picture of George Washington.

And, it’s a wonderfully effective sequence, one that not only reveals the economic reasons behind most wars but one which also reveals the cruelty, inhumanity, and pure evil of slavery.  (That said, when the film later shows us a glimpse of life in the Confederacy, Griffith does include a couple of slaves cheerfully dancing in the background.)

And, as awkward as the scenes involving dialogue are (the less said about the scenes between Walter Huston and Una Merkel, the better), Griffith does occasionally show the visual flair that was his trademark.  One excellent sequence involves soldier after soldier lining up, one after the other and each of them staring straight into the camera as they prepare to go to war.  When the film concentrates on scenes of men marching across the countryside, it actually works.

Then again, you may just want to see the film for the chance to hear one extra, when asked the identity of a man giving a fiery speech, awkwardly explain, “That’s the actor, John Wilkes Booth.  Not much of an actor but he’s got a way with the ladies!”

It’s really up to you.

Walter Huston as Abraham Lincoln

Walter Huston as Abraham Lincoln