Film

Clint Eastwood’s War

Critics are dismissing American Sniper as a jingoistic, post-9/11 spin on John Wayne. Here’s why they’re wrong

Published on January 23, 2015
Video still from American Sniper
Warner Bros. Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper.

“So,” asks the man in the Armed Forces career centre. “You’re from Texas, you’re a patriot, and you’re pissed off? ” The answer to all three of these questions is “yessir.” And so begins the odyssey of Chris Kyle in American Sniper, an adaptation of a memoir from a late US Marine who logged over 160 confirmed kills during his time in Iraq before being murdered by a disturbed fellow veteran back on home soil.

Clint Eastwood’s film didn’t come with much advance hype. But in the early days of 2015, it has ridden a swell of online and op-ed page controversy—with points of contention ranging from its historical veracity to its celebrity detractors to its odd usage of a rubber baby prop in one scene. The rhetoric has been charged: Seth Rogen tweeted that the movie reminded him of “Nation’s Pride”—the movie-within-a-movie about a heroic Nazi sniper in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. And in a recent blog post for Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi wrote that the film is “almost too dumb to criticize” and that it “manages to sink to a new depth or two.” Box-office returns have been surprisingly impressive, however, to the point where the film has become a putative frontrunner for Best Picture.

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Books

The Coffin Load

An excerpt from the author’s debut novel, The Jaguar’s Children

Published on January 23, 2015
Book jacket of The Jaguar’s Children courtesy of Penguin Random House CanadaPenguin Random House Canada

Vámonos was the last human word we heard out there, but even with the shouting I could hear the coyotes’ feet grinding past us over the rocks and sand, heading back from where we came. Some in the tank followed the sound, calling out and chasing after it until they were on top of me and César, pounding on the back wall and screaming. I stayed in my place, my back against the wall and my legs across César with my hands up, trying to keep people from stepping on him. I couldn’t hear the coyotes anymore, only one bird outside warning the others, because the sound in here was terrible, a frenzy. I was trying to get them off, shouting, pushing and kicking them away, but we were like a bucket of crabs with the lid on and no place to go. So many trying to get out in every direction—stepping on anyone in their way, trying to open the money hole, others praying or crying or trying not to be hurt. I heard the baker from Michoacán shouting, “Don’t panic! They’ll come back. They have to come back!” Naldo and the man from Veracruz had their phones on, using them for the light, looking everywhere for some way out. Faces came and went and the walls flickered with blue fire. Never have I seen so much fear in one small place, the eyes so wide and the pupils so big they looked like from another animal. I saw the young woman from Chiapas and she was holding her ears and rocking back and forth, saying something in Maya that sounded like a man was talking. Then, somewhere in the middle of the tank, the boy Naldo was sick. It was a loud and desperate sound, crying and gagging with everything coming out of him at once. This and the high sharp smell of it filled the truck and made everyone stop like they’d been slapped. Somehow I think it helped people to understand the situation—that panic would not save them.

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Books

Crossing Borders

Bestselling non-fiction author John Vaillant debuts with a novel about immigration, archaeology, and genetically modified food

Published on January 23, 2015
Photograph of John Vaillant by John Sinal
John Sinal John Vaillant.

hello i am sorry to bother you but i need your assistance . . .

This is how The Jaguar’s Children begins: with a text, out of the ether. This is also how its author, John Vaillant, became a fiction writer: with a voice, “very courteously” interrupting him while he sat at his computer in the first months of 2010.

Vaillant was already an accomplished non-fiction writer—The Golden Spruce won the 2005 Governor General’s non-fiction prize, and his second book, Tiger, like his first, was a number-one bestseller—but those projects didn’t start like this, with a voice.

He wrote the sentence down. “It was odd enough that I thought I should take note of this and very quickly he [the voice] was inside the tank of a truck and couldn’t get out and he was texting me through the phone and he was in big trouble, on the border,” recalls Vaillant. He pauses. “I don’t get offers from the muse like that. I’m a non-fiction person, looking out there in the real world for inspiration. But it felt urgent and compelling so I followed that.”

The novel is urgent and compelling. Much of it is written in texts from the narrator, Hector, to AnniMac: the only American number he can find in his friend César’s phone. It grapples with many of the big issues a non-fiction writer might like to tackle. Hector and César are Zapotecs from Oaxaca, Mexico’s second-poorest state, trapped inside the tank of a water truck that has smuggled them across the border into the United States. César is a geneticist, on the run from a biotech company that he believes is planting GMO corn in his home state. But before the novel begins, César has hit his head on the wall of the truck and is lying unconscious at Hector’s feet. The truck breaks down and its coyote-smugglers abandon their “coffin load,” promising to return with a mechanic.

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Comics

My Husband

A graphic poem

Published on January 22, 2015
On Trial for Rape

Part 8: The Verdict

Late last year, in a Toronto courtroom, a young woman faced off against the university student whom she accused of raping her in a school parking lot. The media ignored the story. Our reporter was there for every moment

Published on January 22, 2015

This is the final instalment in a series about a criminal rape trial that took place in Toronto late last year. The trial lasted eight days; the judge announced his verdict earlier this month.

At the time of the actions that led to the criminal charges, the female accuser was seventeen years old, entering her final year of study at a Toronto high school. The male defendant was a year older, a star athlete on his way to winning a scholarship to a US college. She had substantial credibility problems on the witness stand. His testimony seemed far more convincing—at least at first. But this was more than just a “she said, he said”—or, as it turned out, “she lied, he lied”—case. There was an element of physical evidence against him: bruises on her arms and legs. The judge had to decide if the totality of the prosecutors’ case against the defendant was enough to send him to jail, brand him a sexual offender, and destroy his promising future.

Despite its sensational nature, this was a case that never made headlines. What I observed during my reporting was the farthest thing from a Jian Ghomeshi courthouse scene, with mobs of press and police. I was the sole reporter at the superior court trial and, on most days, the only observer not directly related to the case. The mother and grandmother of the accused, whom I will call Matthew in the reports that follow, attended throughout the trial. The complainant, who will be known as Ava, was supported by a representative from victim services and the detective in charge of her case.

Ava’s family and Matthew’s father were not permitted in the courtroom as they were all considered to be potential witnesses. They spent much of their time in the courthouse hallways, pacing or sitting nervously. Like everyone else, they knew that the events unfolding on the other side of the courtroom door would deeply affect the two young people involved for their entire lives.

—Ann Brocklehurst

Matthew’s family seemed anxious and rattled as they left the courtroom after closing arguments, knowing they would need to wait more than two weeks for Justice Gary Trotter to announce his verdict. Although the judge stressed on several occasions that he had not yet reached any conclusion, some of his comments during the summations were harder on the defendant than I would have expected. Matthew had “testified well,” as defence co-counsel Carolyne Kerr put it, and remained remarkably poised throughout assistant Crown attorney Sharna Reid’s cross-examination, which Trotter described as skillful. In short, he was an excellent example of when it is prudent to run the risk of putting the defendant on the stand.

This is not say that Matthew was without weakness. There were times when his account of things seemed too good to be true. Mr. Perfect on the witness stand was, after all, the same guy who had heartlessly dumped Ava and moved on to the Facebook girl’s hot tub (see Part 4 of this series, The Facebook Test). Not that there’s anything illegal about that.

Matthew’s deletion of his bizarre and confusing text messages to Ava’s mother Mary also bothered me, though I didn’t find these actions quite as “damning to (his) credibility” as Trotter. I accepted Matthew’s explanation that the texts had been sent in a blind panic and irrationally deleted.

Which brings me to Justice Trotter, LL.B., University of Toronto; LL.M., Osgoode Hall; M.Phil. and Ph.D., University of Cambridge. Former lawyer with the Toronto Crown Attorney’s office before becoming associate, and then acting, dean of the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University. He was appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice in 2005 and then to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in 2008.

Last November, his honour raised some hackles by ruling that a bank robber was not really a bank robber, just a thief, which made the man eligible for a lesser sentence. But lest you get the impression Trotter is soft on crime, last spring he sentenced a serial subway groper to two-and-a-half years in jail, and put him on the sex offender registry for life. “This might strike some as severe for a single over-the-clothing subway groping,” he said at the time. “(But) his persistent pattern of offending seems to be impervious to (short) jail sentences and court orders.”

In the Regina vs. (Matthew) ruling, which takes almost an hour to deliver, the judge spends the first half reviewing the evidence presented at trial, along with his comments on its validity. He plays up the importance of the Facebook incident, and Ava’s denial that it ever took place, along with some of the other contradictions in her testimony. The judge describes the bruises on Ava’s arms and thighs as “the most troubling aspect of this case,” and says they appear to be consistent with her version of what took place in Matthew’s car that summer night in 2012.

The bruises remain something of a mystery to me, as they were not shown on the courtroom’s big screen, and I only glimpsed them by peaking at the lawyers’ computer monitors. During the closing arguments, Trotter had noted that there was no expert evidence about the injuries and that bruising can be hard to type. Now I’m left to guess that neither the defence nor the Crown saw any benefit in pursuing an issue that would ultimately be inconclusive.

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Sponsored Content

An Interview with Thomas King

The Walrus Foundation presents a special podcast produced in partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts

Published on January 22, 2015
On Trial for Rape

Part 7: Closing Arguments

Late last year, in a Toronto courtroom, a young woman faced off against the university student whom she accused of raping her in a school parking lot. The media ignored the story. Our reporter was there for every moment

Published on January 21, 2015

This is the seventh instalment in a series about a criminal rape trial that took place in Toronto late last year. The trial lasted eight days; the judge announced his verdict earlier this month.

At the time of the actions that led to the criminal charges, the female accuser was seventeen years old, entering her final year of study at a Toronto high school. The male defendant was a year older, a star athlete on his way to winning a scholarship to a US college. She had substantial credibility problems on the witness stand. His testimony seemed far more convincing—at least at first. But this was more than just a “she said, he said”—or, as it turned out, “she lied, he lied”—case. There was an element of physical evidence against him: bruises on her arms and legs. The judge had to decide if the totality of the prosecutors’ case against the defendant was enough to send him to jail, brand him a sexual offender, and destroy his promising future.

Despite its sensational nature, this was a case that never made headlines. What I observed during my reporting was the farthest thing from a Jian Ghomeshi courthouse scene, with mobs of press and police. I was the sole reporter at the superior court trial and, on most days, the only observer not directly related to the case. The mother and grandmother of the accused, whom I will call Matthew in the reports that follow, attended throughout the trial. The complainant, who will be known as Ava, was supported by a representative from victim services and the detective in charge of her case.

Ava’s family and Matthew’s father were not permitted in the courtroom as they were all considered to be potential witnesses. They spent much of their time in the courthouse hallways, pacing or sitting nervously. Like everyone else, they knew that the events unfolding on the other side of the courtroom door would deeply affect the two young people involved for their entire lives.

—Ann Brocklehurst

On the last day of trial, lawyers for the prosecution and defence present final versions of the two competing narratives that have emerged over the past eight days in court. Both arguments are in sync with the current zeitgeist.

For the prosecution, this is a case that started out strong. Theirs was a powerful story, straight out of a date rape awareness pamphlet. The villain was a star athlete who allegedly believed he had a right to sex with his ex-girlfriend because he answered her call for a lift home. According to her, he said things like: “I know you want to. You miss me”; “If I did you a favour, I should get a favour in return”; and, “What am I? Your fucking taxi driver? ”

The complainant too was an archetype. Ava’s experience on the witness stand, where she was cornered in an exhaustive cross-examination, was perfect evidentiary fuel for the #beenrapednotreported Twitter fire that raged during the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. (Recall, the question of why none of the women whom the radio star had allegedly assaulted went to the police was raised again and again.)

Ava did everything rape victims are supposed to do. She phoned the police hours after the alleged assault, had a rape kit done, and her injuries photographed. And yet, despite having played by the rules, there she was on the witness stand: distraught, crying, weeping, angry, verging on hysteria. Who in their right mind would subject themselves to this, you can’t help but ask.

There is one problem, however, which is that Ava does not always tell the truth.

“Less than forthright” is how the assistant Crown attorney Sharna Reid describes her performance. In the words of Carolyne Kerr, one of two lawyers defending the accused, there is “a pattern of this complainant lying under oath about significant serious issues.”

“I’m troubled,” says Justice Gary Trotter as he prepares to hear the attorneys’ closing arguments, stressing that he hasn’t yet come to any conclusions.

Reid maintains that Ava’s credibility issues are not “fatal” for the prosecution’s case, because there is no reason for her to lie about the alleged assault itself.

Why would she do that, asks Reid. What would be Ava’s motive to lie?

Given the state of our cultural climate, the defence can’t just respond that it’s because Matthew dumped Ava, and she was angry enough to want revenge. Ghomeshi has made the jilted-ex argument toxic for the foreseeable future.

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On Trial for Rape

Part 6: “I’m Not a Rapist”

Late last year, in a Toronto courtroom, a young woman faced off against the university student whom she accused of raping her in a school parking lot. The media ignored the story. Our reporter was there for every moment

Published on January 20, 2015

This is the sixth instalment in a series about a criminal rape trial that took place in Toronto late last year. The trial lasted eight days; the judge announced his verdict earlier this month.

At the time of the actions that led to the criminal charges, the female accuser was seventeen years old, entering her final year of study at a Toronto high school. The male defendant was a year older, a star athlete on his way to winning a scholarship to a US college. She had substantial credibility problems on the witness stand. His testimony seemed far more convincing—at least at first. But this was more than just a “she said, he said”—or, as it turned out, “she lied, he lied”—case. There was an element of physical evidence against him: bruises on her arms and legs. The judge had to decide if the totality of the prosecutors’ case against the defendant was enough to send him to jail, brand him a sexual offender, and destroy his promising future.

Despite its sensational nature, this was a case that never made headlines. What I observed during my reporting was the farthest thing from a Jian Ghomeshi courthouse scene, with mobs of press and police. I was the sole reporter at the superior court trial and, on most days, the only observer not directly related to the case. The mother and grandmother of the accused, whom I will call Matthew in the reports that follow, attended throughout the trial. The complainant, who will be known as Ava, was supported by a representative from victim services and the detective in charge of her case.

Ava’s family and Matthew’s father were not permitted in the courtroom as they were all considered to be potential witnesses. They spent much of their time in the courthouse hallways, pacing or sitting nervously. Like everyone else, they knew that the events unfolding on the other side of the courtroom door would deeply affect the two young people involved for their entire lives.

—Ann Brocklehurst

Ava’s mother traded almost forty texts with the defendant during the early morning of August 2, 2012. Police photographed the messages; more than two thirds of which are from Mary, who initiated the contact. The Crown argued against having this exchange admitted into evidence, but Justice Gary Trotter has allowed it.

Mary’s first message to Matthew accused him of being a thief and a rapist.

“I was just shocked,” he testifies on the witness stand. “I left and I felt like we both had consensual sex and there was nothing wrong.”

Her second text read: “How sick or angry are you? I will pray for you, but trust me, the day will come when your karma will catch up with you and you won’t handle it well.”

“Did you feel you had raped someone and were a sick human being? ” asks Gary Stortini, one of Matthew’s two defence attorneys.

“No . . . from where I stood I didn’t do anything wrong. I assumed her mother wasn’t happy.”

While he was still driving home, Matthew tried to reply. But looking back, his messages don’t make much sense. He wrote things like “I get what you’re saying, but I was leaving,” and “(I was) not feeling it as much as I wanted to.”

He also lied: “We were going to have unprotected sex. As much as I wanted to have sex decided it wasn’t best idea,” Matthew texted to Mary.

This wasn’t a back-and-forth exchange. It was two people talking, or texting, past each other.

How can you have sex with a girl too intoxicated to make legal consent? Are u crazy? ” Mary wrote at one point.

“This all began just to feel surreal to me,” Matthew says in court. “It felt like a dream. The girl that I left that night wasn’t intoxicated, wasn’t raped. She was with me and had sex with me.”

“What caused you to respond? ” asks Stortini.

“I thought I was going to be able to tell her the truth. She wasn’t listening to me at all. She kept on saying I was a rapist, that I had raped and assaulted her daughter.”

I would think a guy like you would have more self respect,” read another one of Mary’s texts.

“I was panicking at this point. Me being accused of these things. It never ends well. My life is going to be done. It’s over. I didn’t know how to defend myself,” Matthew tells his attorney. “It was my word against hers, but a parent was telling me I did these things. I was scared because she was older than me.”

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Sporting Life

Canadian Monster

Crushing cars with a 10,000-pound truck sounds like it should be easy. Cam McQueen explains why it’s not

Published on January 19, 2015
Photograph by Jonathan KayJonathan Kay

When Cam McQueen was in grade ten, he was required to take “Career and Personal Planning,” one of those high school courses that encourage teenagers to think about what they’ll do with their lives after they graduate. McQueen, a gearhead from birth who’d been building off-road vehicles in his family garage for years, already had devoted much thought to the subject. In his term paper, he explained that he would become a monster-truck driver. He’d even gone out and interviewed industry veterans, educated himself about their earnings and working conditions, and made a business case to show how he could support himself on monster-truck wages.

His teacher flunked him. “Monster-truck driver”—like astronaut, pro hockey player, supermodel, video game tester, and marijuana sommelier—is exactly the kind of silly, juvenile pipe-dream employment path that students are supposed to forget about. Real life is about becoming a nurse or an oil-field worker; not screaming yee-haw as you roll 10,000 pounds of steel over the corpse of some junkyard Toyota.

Two decades later, McQueen still has that term paper tucked away in a box of high school documents. Maybe one day, he’ll find his old Career and Personal Planning teacher and show it to him. Of all the students in that 1996 high school class, McQueen might be the only one who predicted his future career path with such accuracy.

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On Trial for Rape

Part 5: He Said

Late last year, in a Toronto courtroom, a young woman faced off against the university student whom she accused of raping her in a school parking lot. The media ignored the story. Our reporter was there for every moment

Published on January 19, 2015

This is the fifth instalment in a series about a criminal rape trial that took place in Toronto late last year. The trial lasted eight days; the judge announced his verdict earlier this month.

At the time of the actions that led to the criminal charges, the female accuser was seventeen years old, entering her final year of study at a Toronto high school. The male defendant was a year older, a star athlete on his way to winning a scholarship to a US college. She had substantial credibility problems on the witness stand. His testimony seemed far more convincing—at least at first. But this was more than just a “she said, he said”—or, as it turned out, “she lied, he lied”—case. There was an element of physical evidence against him: bruises on her arms and legs. The judge had to decide if the totality of the prosecutors’ case against the defendant was enough to send him to jail, brand him a sexual offender, and destroy his promising future.

Despite its sensational nature, this was a case that never made headlines. What I observed during my reporting was the farthest thing from a Jian Ghomeshi courthouse scene, with mobs of press and police. I was the sole reporter at the superior court trial and, on most days, the only observer not directly related to the case. The mother and grandmother of the accused, whom I will call Matthew in the reports that follow, attended throughout the trial. The complainant, who will be known as Ava, was supported by a representative from victim services and the detective in charge of her case.

Ava’s family and Matthew’s father were not permitted in the courtroom as they were all considered to be potential witnesses. They spent much of their time in the courthouse hallways, pacing or sitting nervously. Like everyone else, they knew that the events unfolding on the other side of the courtroom door would deeply affect the two young people involved for their entire lives.

—Ann Brocklehurst

Until now, Matthew has been an inscrutable presence, showing little or no reaction as he’s been accused of rape by Ava and trashed by her mother. His own mother has sat through every public moment of this trial; his grandmother has attended all but one day.

On the morning of the fifth day, the defendant takes the stand to begin his testimony. One of his attorneys, Gary Stortini, starts by telling the court a bit about Matthew’s family. His mother is a civil servant; his father (who has also been present every day, but must remain outside the courtroom, as he may be called as a witness) is a blue collar worker. Matthew has an older and a younger brother, who both live at home; his full scholarship to a small US college covers his tuition and room and board.

Matthew is tense for Stortini’s first few questions, but he quickly relaxes. He is soft spoken, perhaps even sweet: not what I expected after viewing his Facebook cover shot, which shows him and three friends puffing on cigars in their prep school blazers, ties, baseball caps, and sunglasses. Stortini portrays him sympathetically—noting, for example, that Matthew has an upcoming appointment with a medical specialist for a congenital kidney ailment.

After the brief introduction, Matthew’s lawyer moves on to the history of his client’s relationship with the complainant. The he said, she said nature of this story is once again drummed home.

Matthew says he and Ava had sex on the day they met; she denies this completely. Matthew says this took place in the parking lot of a school near her house; Ava says the first time they went there together was the night of her alleged assault. He says she left her panties in his car after a consensual encounter in another parking lot; she says he took them from her bedroom.

“How did you come to have possession of her panties? ” asks Stortini, in a juxtaposition of legalese and lingerie that strikes me as absurd.

“She left them behind after the incident on the tenth, so I hid them in my sports bag.”

“Where did you find them? ”

“In back, on the floor behind the driver’s seat, when I got home and parked the car.”

“She said she gave them to you when you were in her bedroom. That didn’t happen? ”

“No, it did not.”

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