War Is Hell
Why the Austin American-Stateman’s film critic is under seige.
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Which of the following generated the most newspaper-biz buzz in Texas this summer: (a) the purchase and folding of Houston’s Public News by New Times, the owners of the rival Houston Press, proving that the Arizona-based alternative weekly conglomerate is about as alternative as Microsoft; (b) the defection of Dallas Morning News columnist Randy Galloway to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for a salary of more than $300,000; or (c) Austin American-Statesman film critic Chris Garcia’s trashing of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan just three weeks after he called the big-budget schlockbuster Armageddon “the best American movie of the year”?
The answer, hands down, is (c), at least judging by the reviews of the reviewer himself. In the days following Garcia’s pan—which characterized the World War II epic as “treacly,” “mawkish,” and “an inadvertent self-parody”—angry readers returned fire by posting messages to the Statesman’s online bulletin board (“Hey, Chris,” read one, “stop smoking the ganja and tune in to some real filmmaking”). They also sent more than twenty letters to the editor, the most the paper has ever received in response to a movie review; of those, only one was pro-Garcia, complaining that the movie was “draggy” and “seemed like three hours”—not surprising, since it is 168 minutes long. Other media aired Garcia gripes as well; egged on one morning by drive-time host Kevin Connor, callers to aging-hipster-oriented radio station KGSR lobbed grenades of their own. “We mentioned that we thought he was way off base, and the phones lit up,” Connor says. How off base? A spokesman for DreamWorks, the studio that released Saving Private Ryan, says Garcia was the only critic at any of the nation’s major-market dailies to write a negative review.
Of course, it isn’t a critic’s job to be in lockstep with the conventional wisdom, which is why Garcia—who joined the Statesman’s staff in March after five years as an arts writer at a midsize California paper—is unmoved by the backlash. “People are having a purely gut-level response,” he says, “and when the gut governs, it overrides everything. Any kind of serious debate on the movie is DOA.” Other reviewers, he complains, “are overlooking the story, the writing, and the characters. They’re letting the source material blind them with emotions.” So too the Statesman’s readers. “They haven’t responded without letting their passions get in the way,” Garcia says. “They’re not using their heads. They’re using their hearts.”
Or, you might say, they’ve got stars in their eyes—two stars out of four, to be exact, since that’s the rating Garcia gave Saving Private Ryan. Historians should note, however, that his original review was slightly kinder. When he first turned in his copy, he gave the movie two and a half stars, but a long-under-discussion policy change eliminating half-stars in reviews went into effect that very week. “They’re wishy-washy,” says Melissa Segrest, an assistant managing editor at the Statesman. “We ought to have the nerve to take a stand.” So Garcia was forced to go up to three stars or down to two. “If I had to choose, I was going to choose two,” he says. “But my thing was, gosh, that half-star would have been a nice shield for me.”