By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

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Is road cycling dangerous? What are the chances of being hit by a car while riding on the road? Can cyclists manage risk while riding in a shared bicycle/car environment?

The perception is that road cycling is more dangerous today than a decade ago. And, that driver distraction and higher traffic volume have increased the risk and frequency of car/bike accidents.

There is one problem with this perception: The data does not support it. In fact, there is data to suggest that road cycling is statistically safer today per rider than ten years ago if you compare the frequency of reported accidents to the rate of growth in road and triathlon cycling.

Gina Kolata is a writer for The New York Times. In an October 2013 article published by the Times she wrote, “What remain [in cycling safety studies] are often counterintuitive statistics on the waxing and waning of cycling in the United States, along with some injury studies that could give cyclists pause.” By contrast, in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) 2004-2012 Final File, 2013 Annual Report File (ARF) published by the U.S. Department of Transportation we actually discover only a 2.8% increase in reported cycling fatalities, from 727 in 2004 to 743 in 2013. This statistic is particularly relevant since cycling fatalities must be reported by law, whereas non-fatal accidents have no formal reporting requirement even if the victim receives medical treatment.

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Compare this change in cycling fatalities with the growth in the cycling sports: The Outdoor Foundation.org reports a significant “174% growth in Traditional Road Triathlon Participation in the last five years”. The foundation went on to report that, “Activities with high percentages of first-time participants in 2012 included stand up paddling, boardsailing/windsurfing and non-traditional and traditional triathlons.”

Even if you discount the statistics for cycling fatalities and triathlon growth each by 50%, the trend remains clear: Serious road cycling/car accidents are becoming less common per rider.

Why has the perception of road cycling evolved into a belief that riding on the roads in more dangerous than ever? There are likely several reasons.

When you conduct a survey of the literature on cycling accidents you discover that cycling safety statistics are pretty dry, while Facebook and social media posts about accidents are pretty sensational. This proliferation of social media posts about cycling accidents contrasted with boring accident analysis likely contributes to the misconception that cycling is more dangerous than ever.

This last decade has produced a new culture of sport cyclists, many of them attracted to cycling by triathlons. Triathlon is fed by several demographics; participants completely new to endurance sports, participants coming into triathlon from distance running, participants coming from a collegiate sports background. None of these three backgrounds emphasize technical bike handling skills. Few triathlon clubs conduct bike handling and group ride skills clinics. As a result this new culture of performance cyclists are racing their bikes on the roads in triathlons but may not be practicing bike handling and real-world road riding skills.

Road cyclists often default to anecdote when discussing cycling safety in traffic: “Yeah, but my friend knows a girl who was hit by a car and…”

As it happens, I am fluent in the language of cycling accident anecdote. I have been hit three times by cars while riding my bike. My lifelong best friend was killed by a car while riding his bike. I’ve had broken bones, torn skin, destroyed bikes and lost my best friend. A cursory examination of my first person experiences might point to a knee-jerk analysis like this: “See… the sport is dangerous, and your experiences prove it.”

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But there is more to each of my experiences. In each instance when a car hit me I contributed, partially or entirely, to the accident. In one I was riding in adverse weather, another I rolled a stop sign on a residential street and the third was just after dark when I was caught without lights. In short, I was at least partially responsible for the accidents. In the instance when my best friend was killed, he was riding in the dark on a busy road with a high speed limit by a drunk driver with an obscured windshield. It was the culmination of the most dangerous factors; the perfect storm.

Therein lies a lesson: Risk can be managed and moderated, but that management must be willful and methodical.

Perhaps the best practitioner of risk management is the military. The military’s model for risk management is simple: Meticulous preparation. Training, learning techniques, drilling key skills again and again. Crawl, walk, run. As a result, soldier preparation and survival on the modern battlefield, the deadliest in history, is better than ever. On both the road and in the water, multisport athletes could take a lesson from military training doctrines in risk management and training for riding in a real world environment.

Cyclists have taken an opposite approach: Avoidance. New cyclists tend to seek ride environments they perceive as less risky rather than work on skills for riding in the real world. New cyclists gravitate toward perceived cycling preserves like Metroparks and bike trails.

There are three problems with the risk avoidance approach; it does not teach necessary cycling skills, it does not reflect the broader cycling environment and it creates a false sense of security at the possible cost of taking time to learn good bike handling and road cycling skills. In fact, in a strange flip-flop of statistical trends, it appears as though areas around Metroparks in Michigan tend to have a higher frequency of accidents than do remote, rural and even low traffic density urban roads like streets in Downtown Detroit and the Michigan Downriver area.

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Perhaps the most significant contributor to the cycling-risk dogma is social media. I’ve been a victim, and a villain, of social media misreporting on cycling accidents myself. Several weeks ago a multiple-fatality car accident at a local Metropark was initially reported on social media as a cycling accident. It wasn’t a cycling accident. I shared the reports that the accident was a multiple fatality bike accident. When I learned the accident didn’t involve any cyclists at all, I deleted it from my Facebook page. But the story had already been widely seen and shared. The damage was done. What I should have done is checked the facts before I posted about the accident.

What is the truth about road cycling safety? I interviewed the executive director of the National Bicycle Dealer Association (NBDA), Fred Clements, about trends in road cycling safety. Clements, an experienced industry observer and critic, characterized it well:

“I would consider road cycling to be reasonably safe, though it has much to do with your skills, where you are, and what routes you choose. With reasonable care, the risk can be minimized. The risk is not as great as some people may believe.”

While some may suggest Clements’ perspective is skewed by his position in the industry- that this is the fox watching the hen house- the statistics support his suggestion that road cycling is not as risky as the social media dogma has scared us into believing.

A key reality is that cyclists must assume responsibility for their own safety. Until they do through improved skill training, selecting better routes and being pragmatic instead of sensational then the inaccurate perception that cycling is increasingly dangerous will continue to proliferate.

 

 

 

 

 

BY TOM DEMERLY.

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A Victoria’s Secret ad run on Facebook after I used Photoshop to retouch back to what I thought were normal looking, physically fit females.

 

Top fashion brands like Victoria’s Secret have taken heat from consumers and media for manipulating the appearance of their models through both real diet and exercise regimes and also by using photo retouching techniques to make the models appear thinner, taller, and without skin blemishes.

I wondered what would happen if I used Adobe Photoshop to retouch a Victoria’s Secret ad seen on Facebook in the other direction. I wanted to make the models look more “average”, more like my impression of what physically fit females actually look like. Here are the results seen side by side.

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The original ad on the left, my retouched version on the right. It took a lot of work to get rid of all that “thigh gap”.

 

The project took about 20 minutes in Photoshop, and I am not a skilled user. I used the “liquify” tool, the rubber stamp tool and the masking tool. For an expert in Photoshop the results would be better and quicker.

When I put the two photos next to each other I was struck by how truly bizarre the actual Victoria’s Secret ad looks. The two girls in the center with bare midriffs look truly weird in the real ad, and look a lot more realistic in my Photoshopped version.

The thing that struck me the most was that the ad I Photoshopped now looked pretty reasonable. The actual ad, before my Photoshop, looked freakish.

I don’t know how much (if any) Photoshop is done in an ad like this one for Victoria’s Secret. I do know it took 20 minutes of work to restore the image to my perception of a more normal, fit looking bunch of girls on the beach.

 

By Tom Demerly.

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The heart and reality of modern triathlon is the everyday hero, not the thigh-gap supermodel.

Who does triathlons in the United States today? What does the “average” triathlete look like?

Industry dogma suggests all triathletes are high wage earners between 30 and 45 who aspire to race Ironman (or already have). They own a $10K bike, race wheels and a power meter. Their household income is above $120K and they have a graduate level degree. They are the marketer’s dream come true: Young, affluent, fit and shopping.

There are two problems with that “demographic”: it’s outdated and likely wrong. Why?

Set the way-back machine to December 2007. Economists agree this is when the Great Recession started in the United States. It ravaged personal discretionary income and decimated those just hanging on to upper middle class. Many haven’t recovered to pre-recession income and savings levels even though the recovery has thundered ahead, dropping them from the pack like a newbie on their first group ride. Those that have recovered or never suffered an economic loss may be reluctant to part with cash earned during the stock market gains of the past seven years. Americans seem less eager to carry debt, despite an ominous recent spike in credit card debt. Discretionary spending decisions have tightened in the post-recession era.

Many of the tired marketing statistics rehashed about triathlon were collected prior to the 2007 recession– and haven’t been updated since. The post-recession demographics for triathlon have changed.

Americans have also changed physically. We’re heavier- all of us. The number of svelte, uber-athletes is smaller now than it was 20 years ago relative to the general populace, who apparently has been spending what’s left of their shrinking discretionary incomes on Krispy-Kremes, not qualifying for Kona.

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Americans, including triathletes, have gotten heavier and may continue to as a population. Triathlon has failed to market effectively to that reality.

As a result of this economic and health demographic shift triathlon has filled from the bottom. The sport is growing from an increasing number of new athletes who are more average, heavier, less athletic but still inspired to participate– if not necessarily compete.

This is good news for the triathlon industry if they become more pragmatic about who is really doing triathlons. History suggests the triathlon industry isn’t very realistic about its own consumership. It continues to (try to) market to the svelte, Kona demographic in print and internet media- even though the inspirational stories that bring people into the sport are usually the saga of the everyman participant who had to overcome to participate, and doesn’t really compete.

This fundamental misunderstanding of the distinction between Participation and Competition is what continues to hold the triathlon industry back. It is also why retailers have a hard time earning consistent profits from a market they are increasingly out of touch with.

There has never been an ad campaign in triathlon featuring realistically sized, average age group triathletes. In fact, the same rebellion that has happened in women’s apparel marketing with consumers raging against brands like Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch is ready to happen in triathlon. The middle 90% wants triathlon to “get real” about who is actually participating, and they don’t care about who’s racing in Kona.

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Triathlete Niecia Staggs and his Ocean Swim Club at Torrance Beach, California represent the athlete constituency that truly pushes triathlon forward.

 

A gold standard metric for triathlon marketers and product managers has been the “Kona Bike Count”, a census of brands and models seen in the transition area of the Ironman World Triathlon Championships in Kona, Hawaii each year. This increasingly irrelevant set of metrics is still used to (try to) sell everything from race wheels to bikes to power meters. There is one problem though- as the sport fills from the bottom the assumption that every participant aspires to emulate the couple thousand athletes in Kona is statistically flawed.

A bike company may devote six figures and more to developing the next triathlon “super bike” costing over $5000 (and even $10K) but they have failed to develop inspiring new designs in entry-level triathlon bikes. If a bike company introduced a comfortable, high head-tube bike with aerobars and a comfortable saddle with an aero appearance at the $1500-$2200 price point it would be an easy decision for new triathletes. New triathletes aren’t interested in the tired marketing paradigm of wind-tunnel white paper dogma that is debated ad nauseam among a shrinking number of triathlon Internet forum mavens. They just want to sit upright on their bikes, be comfortable, look presentable and have a good experience at their triathlon.

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Apparel and personal care brands have begun to leverage an inclusive, realistic approach to expand brand awareness and foster broader-appeal sales. Numbers say the approach is working.

Apparel manufacturers have missed the mark too, alienating prospective customers with images of sponsored pros with little or no recognition among average triathletes and building clothing that is too tight, too short and in size runs that are humiliating to try on. If a forward thinking triathlon apparel brand introduced a tactfully marketed apparel line called “PR” with upward-adjusted size runs, modest cuts and middle-road visual appeal they would outsell too-tight, mis-sized brands designed to fit anorexic Kona winners.

The idea of every triathlete being the “alpha consumer” isn’t accurate anymore. Triathlon has changed. The sport is filling from the bottom. It has become an “everyman and everywoman” sport. The vision of the triathlete as a super fit, alpha-consumer threatens the sport by becoming increasingly exclusionary. It fails to welcome new athletes and creates barriers to entry like body image and entry price.

There will be big and quick rewards for the first triathlon brands who acknowledge this in their product mix and marketing message. The money is there to make, but it must be earned through pragmatic product design and judicious, ego-free marketing. The first brands to reach the finish line of the new, realistic paradigm in triathlon marketing will be the new podium finishers on the top of the sales charts long after the “winners” of the Kona Bike Count are forgotten.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly.

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If you made it to this review, you’re somehow curious. And that is the premise that Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey works on: curiosity.

If you want me to tell you that Fifty Shades of Grey was a bad movie, then leave now.

Fifty Shades of Grey is every guilty dessert you’ve ever had, and crave again. A sticky, corny, breathless mix of horny inference and naughty voyeurism combined with a visual and aural experience that is incredibly satisfying for those open to admit it. For everyone else, Disney is releasing a new version of Cinderella on March 13.

But Fifty Shades hits all the grown-up hot buttons of Cinderella, Titanic, The Beach, Dracula and every other cliché’ romantic theme, and it spins these clichés freshly enough for two very rapt hours. On a cold winter’s night, that is pretty damn hot.

Firstly, Fifty Shades of Gray is a visual treat. With beautiful, escapist sets, wardrobes and music this is the 120+ minute escape from reality we buy a movie a ticket for. Every detail is at least well done, some so well done they are breathless. And while the bondage and dominance themes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, everyone but the most severely repressed will find naughty, voyeuristic fun in this corny fantasy. Even Anastasia’s Steele’s lilting and gentle voice is a method of seduction that punctuates the movie. The scene where Christian straps Anastasia into the helicopter is absolutely incendiary.

Casting is also superb, with Dakota Johnson interpreting Anastasia with incredible accuracy and function and Jamie Dornan as a perfect mix of hot, demented, tormented and tender as Christian Grey. 

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This is a movie of gems, from a beautiful scene where Christian Grey takes Anastasia for a ride in a glider to a lilting dance scene where wardrobe, music (Frank Sinatra, of course), set and characters make movie history. All of these scenes are stolen clichés, and all of them are done brilliantly. Interestingly enough, the bondage sex scenes really don’t push limits or get very racy, they just have a breathy inference that does the trick.

The mastery in this film includes a use of silence that is captivating, using it as an awkward negative space that anyone who has ever suffered obsession has felt.

A packed theater for a 10 PM showing contained only about 10 men- in the entire movie theater. The assembled hen party alternately giggled during the sex scenes and was in rapt silence during the heavy parts when the audience hung on the dialogue in virtual bondage- with no safe word. It’s pretty safe to assume that PTA meetings and knitting circles were poorly attended the night Fifty Shades opened

There is one disturbing sequence in the movie, when boundaries are bent just a little too far, and the movie isn’t fun there. But even this heavy moment can be forgiven- only in artistic context- as an appliance of punctuation in the story line.

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For those who are wary of the movie and fear it crosses lines that advocate abuse, I can respect and identify with that perspective. The movie is about power trips and control, and those are things easily demented. But this movie is also about tender themes of communication and honesty, and to lose those against the sultry and pornographic backdrop is to not get everything you paid for in the story. That said, for victims of abuse, this is not the right movie and should be avoided. The story itself does not endorse non-consensual abuse, and makes repeated and clear statements to that effect. And recall that there are more than a few epic and noteworthy romances that challenge boundaries and cross lines, from Gone With The Wind to Casablanca.

The movie does exploit gender role stereotypes, and there are victims on both sides; the innocent simple girl and the tormented powerful man. If you are offended by stereotypes then take equal offense at each. Both are exploited here. That is a function of great fiction. Remember- this is fiction. The fact is people control or attempt to control each other in many ways in relationships; this story expands on those themes. Its over-emphasized delivery of these themes is what gives it such unusual candor, and make it such a spectacle.

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The inspiration of this story includes themes from the life of Howard Hughes and borrows snippets from little known cult classics like the much more disturbing Boxing Helena from 1993. This is simply an updated compendium of all these themes. It’s been a while since we had something like this, so audiences are ripe for Fifty Shades.

What is so well done about Fifty Shades of Grey is its wide band of erotic frequencies. The hottest scenes have neither nudity or sex, although there is plenty of that too, and it is pretty darn good. Perhaps some of the most powerful scenes include a brand of honesty and openness almost never seen in real life relationships, and seeing that is incredibly hot. The “contract negotiation” scene is a fantasy I wager everyone has wished for. There is also the dramatic back-and-forth of control, and the concession that having it is usually an illusion, and always ephemeral. In that regard, Fifty Shades of Grey is a documentary.

Ultimately you are either a fan of this romantic theme or you aren’t. For fence sitters I wager Fifty Shades of Grey will win some people over to the dark side and sell a lot of bondage gear. If it’s not your thing, avoid it. But if you are curious, then submit to the cliché and caricature of Fifty Shades of Grey and get ready to be strapped down for two hours with a racing heart on a wild, romantic and naughty ride.

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly

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I stepped out the door on the way to work two weeks ago. It had snowed. Nothing remarkable about that. It’s Michigan, it’s January.

What was remarkable is that my sidewalks, walkway and driveway were cleared of snow. I did not do it, it was done for me.

I live in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. Three blocks north of me is Dearborn. Dearborn Heights is considered less affluent than Dearborn. It’s like “Dearborn on a budget”. We have lower home values- by a lot. There is less government, fewer services, fewer building codes, fewer police and emergency services. A girl I dated a long time ago is on city council and has run for Mayor a few times. She hasn’t won yet, but I’d vote for her. She’s a smart politician and good administrator.

I can look three blocks north into Dearborn from my house in Dearborn Heights. I live in Dearborn Heights now because it is cheaper. A three-bedroom house on a big lot in Dearborn Heights is about $800 a month. Same house in Dearborn; maybe $1200, on a smaller lot.

Part of the reason Dearborn is more expensive is city services and government.

And that brings us back to the snow.

Like I said, my snow was cleared completely. Quite nicely too. Since I had allowed an extra 15 minutes to shovel my own snow I now had 15 extra minutes of discretionary time before I left for work.

Discretionary time: think about that. It is our most precious non-renewable resource.

So I had a choice about what to do with this valuable 15 minutes.

I was in the Army. And the National Guard. A key thing we learned was to be a team player, act without direction congruent with a key set of values. Work together selflessly. Strive to do more than is expected and never settle.

So I picked up my snow shovel and shoveled the snow of the neighbor one house down from me. Mine was done. His was not.

Meanwhile, three blocks north in Dearborn the city plows had been out (higher taxes there, more expensive housing) but the sidewalks were still snow covered. It takes a while for the sidewalk plows to come after the streets have been cleared. The city can only afford so many sidewalk plows and people to drive them, and sometimes they have damaged people’s private walkways to their house creating lawsuits to get the city to repair them. So it takes extra time for the sidewalks to get cleared in Dearborn. It’s also expensive. The sidewalk sweepers have to be bid on and bought, someone is paid to administer that project, and they must have a college degree in a related field since they are controlling a lot of public money. Then they have to hire people to drive the plows, and the process of hiring those people must be administered fairly and without discrimination or nepotism, so there needs to be some oversight there as well. The sidewalk sweepers also need gas and maintenance and storage during the summer, and that costs money too.

In Dearborn Heights, we just use snow shovels. A guy down the street has a snowblower, so he clears the sidewalks and walkways of his house and the neighbor on each side. Then the guy three doors down, also with a snowblower, does the same. I shovel the rest to the corner. I don’t have a snowblower.

Another guy, one block over, owns a snow removal service. He runs his plow up and down the street. Then we’re done.

Three blocks north in Dearborn, the sidewalk sweeper still hasn’t come.

 

 

By Tom Demerly.

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I view Facebook as a place to socialize, connect, share similarities and expand understanding. Not a place to draw lines or open wounds.

It’s rare for me to “unfriend” someone, but last week I did that and it made me sad.

I was sad because I sense that I actually like the person, even though there are some things I disagree with them about. That is fine.

But at which point a person begins to use a public and social platform to spread more than just their beliefs- to spread hurt and ridicule and even hate, then I must exclude them from the stream of consciousness that is my Facebook feed.

Here’s why:

Social media isn’t reality. We portray ourselves the way we want other people to see (and not see) us. We paint a picture, based more or less, on some version of who we really are. That is good because it is, well, “social” and it gives us a very controllable 600 X 800 persona. It is bad because what we envision in the virtual does have a tendency to manifest itself in reality.

I subscribe to a few axioms of life; one of them is that “We each create our own reality”. The reality I wish to create is one of friendship, unity, understanding, tolerance and kindness. I am not about drawing lines or about cruelty or ridicule.

You may disagree with me if you’d like, and I may disagree with you, but we can still find common interests on social media. And I welcome your ideas.

I am interested in making new connections, especially with people in places I either have never been or do not understand. In the words of great author Steven Covey I try, as best I can, to “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

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Over 4,000 people tolerate my incessant and tedious litany of Facebook posts about my cats, strange animals real and imagined, airplanes, triathlons, bicycles, scantily clad girls and videos of strange happenings. Every once in a while a few people get fed up with it and “unfriend” me, and every few days I pick up a few new “friends”, almost always people I have never have never met, nor will I ever meet.

A big part of my involvement in Facebook is commercial- to promote the work I do for a few different outlets in three different and unrelated industries. People get understandably bored with that too. Fair enough. There’s an “unfriend” button for that.

But the quickest and really the only way to get “unfriend-ed” by me is for someone to threaten violence, or advocate ridicule or insult in what should be a peaceful space. This is a gray area, and I support some institutions that do violence; the military is an example. But I am judicious (at least I think so) in my advocacy of these causes and interests, and I acknowledge you may have no interest in them. I respect that. You may even take exception to them. I accept that.

There are vast areas of gray in social media use; what is obscene or profane to some of my friends is acceptable, desirable even, to others. There is a point where gray becomes black and that isn’t always the same all the time, with every topic and every person, but I know when I see it. And I won’t let it in my Facebook feed.

By Tom Demerly.

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If you were waiting for the release of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper you have probably seen it by now. If you haven’t, and have no interest in movies of this genre, then you need to see it.

American Sniper is three distinct things: Firstly and most profoundly, it is an unflinching commentary on the American experience in the Global War On Terror. Secondly, it is a brilliantly crafted film in every way that uses contrast and plot to slam home a message of ongoing relevance. And lastly, it is a call to action to adapt our doctrine in the never-ending conflict with barbarism and cruelty.

Modern American Heroes are Tragic Figures.

American culture has a habit of moderating the horrors of war by deifying the sacrifice of those lost to it. We build heroes. And then we aspire to be heroes. This has a dreadful self-perpetuating tendency to use war as our primary tool in the darkest corners of international conflict. American Sniper challenges that national notion.

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Our heroes are often tragic figures, wracked with conflict and fear, who meet sad and untimely endings. The main figure in American Sniper, Naval Special Warfare Operator Chris Kyle, is just such a character. His valor, patriotism and loyalty were unswerving. This film celebrates that. But he mounted a quest to slay an un-slayable dragon, and was tragically consumed by it. This film mourns that.

This is a notice to American culture in a new age: maintain our current doctrine and continue to produce tragic heroes like Chris Kyle, or advance our thinking in conflict resolution and find a less costly method that produces more tangible results.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to the tragic theme of American Sniper is that U.S. troops still deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan will see this movie there instead of being at home. And the region is still locked in conflict.

Flawless and Authentic Filmmaking.

American Sniper is marble-hard filmmaking perfection. Director Clint Eastwood employs every trick of drama, suspense, tragedy and action with expertise. Casting is also superb down to the minor characters. There is not a single weak spot or feature to American Sniper. The film is so effective and hard-hitting that when it ends the theatre is left in stunned and exhausted silence. If you calibrate this film against the standards of Saving Private Ryan, Blackhawk Down or any other conflict film it exceeds them all. This is the new standard in conflict commentary film.

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A National Call to Action in an Unresolved War.

Finally, American Sniper holds a vivid mirror up to our military doctrine in the ongoing Global War on Terror. The inescapable verdict is that, while we have succeeded in thwarting any major terrorist actions on U.S. soil, we have fallen short of providing functional reform and security to much of the region where the GWOT is waged. The significance of both of these points is more relevant now than ever, after two weeks of new terror attacks in France and months of escalated terrorist activity by ISIL in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve kept the (Middle Eastern) terrorists off U.S. soil since 9/11, but we are far from anything resembling a “victory”.

American Sniper is made with sensitivity and care, expertise and authenticity. It is also a relevant movie for the times. Eastwood’s film rises to the very top of the GWOT film genre’ and challenges all of our thinking about the past and the direction of our future role in this seemingly never-ending conflict.

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