REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
What does it take to be a real-life battlefield hero in the 21st century?
The documentary, “Point and Shoot,” raises this question. Alas, its choice of a protagonist is problematic.
The film offers 29-year old Matthew VanDyke as its subject. He’s a stringy-haired guy with a frail physique and a meek, anxiety-ridden persona. VanDyke still lives at home with his doting mother and grandmother. They do his laundry and shopping for him. He is the only child of an only child of an only child. To suggest that VanDyke is a pampered, psychologically arrested man-child would understate his inadequacies. He is certainly an unlikely candidate to be any sort of male role model.
We see footage of VanDyke as a young boy. Feigning a macho swagger, he flexes his puny arms, proclaiming, “I’m the new Indiana Jones.” Alas, it is a portent of the self-deluding adult version of VanDyke.
The film fast forwards to VanDyke marching in an academic procession, receiving his masters diploma from Georgetown University. VanDyke was enrolled in the school’s Security Studies program with a Middle East regional concentration. As the school’s website proclaims, “The program’s overarching mission is to produce a new generation of analysts, policymakers, and scholars fully knowledgeable about the range of international and national security problems and foreign policy issues of the 21st Century.” So, it’s not exactly designed as a boot camp for mercenary soldiers.
We see VanDyke taking stock of his life following the academic procession. He bemoans how pathetic it is. So, VanDyke decided to take what he describes as, “a crash course in manhood.” Beginning in 2007, he rode a Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycle on a solo 35,000-mile trip through North Africa and the Middle East. The journey traversed Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. VanDyke equipped his helmet with a video cam to document his Walter Mittyesque adventure.
In 2010, he returned to make a six-month motorcycle trek. At its terminus, he became an embedded journalist with U.S troops, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. VanDyke’s footage captures his hapless efforts as a war correspondent, a role for which he was utterly unqualified.
VanDyke decided to abandon his neutral status and join the rebel army in the Libyan Civil War. He fought by their side in their efforts to oust President Muammar el-Qaddafi. Eventually, VanDyke was captured and sent to prison, where he spent 166 days in solitary confinement.
Several NGOs, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, misperceived that VanDyke was a freelance correspondent, rather than an armed combatant. They successfully campaigned for his release. The text of the film does not clarify the circumstances.
Upon his return to the U.S., VanDyke recruited documentarian, Marshall Curry, to collaborate on a film, touting his exploits. The resulting film, “Point and Shoot,” cobbles together the crudely shot footage of VanDyke’s adventures with an animated depiction of his prison confinement in Libya and an extended interview session, conducted by Curry.
How transformed is VanDyke by his immersive battlefield experiences? He emerges as a preening perversion of machismo. His interview is interrupted by an eruption of his obsessive-compulsive disorder. He has an uncontrollable urge to adjourn to the bathroom and repeatedly wash his hands. The timorous VanDyke also confesses his deep-seated fear of sugar touching him and of trash cans. It hardly constitutes a convincing testament to his being a paragon of masculinity.
Curry was previously nominated twice for Academy Awards in the best documentary feature category. In 2006, he made “Street Fight” about Cory Booker’s fledgling effort to unseat the longtime Newark Mayor, Sharpe James. His subsequent 2011 doc, “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” focused on the anarchic ecology group. Curry’s work on this film suggests that his career is moving in the wrong direction.
Beyond the curious decision to use VanDyke as the subject of a feature length documentary, his methodology here is quite sloppy. The timeline of the film’s various events is poorly explicated. It is unclear from “Point and Shoot” whether VanDyke ever held a paying job or ever had any American friends. At several junctures, his girlfriend appears on screen to offer her perspective on things. However, the film provides no context on the woman or clarifies the parameters of her relationship with the globe-trotting protagonist.
“Point and Shoot” allows VanDyke to characterize himself as an unpaid war correspondent for the “Baltimore Examiner.” It fails to disclose that the free newspaper folded shortly after VanDyke had posted his first and only dispatch. The film fails to address the fact that VanDyke seemingly made no effort to learn Arabic. To what extent was VanDyke ideologically committed to the goals of the Arab Spring? The film fails to explore whether VanDyke joined the rebels for any reason other than the fact that he knew one of them and desperately craved camaraderie.
Curry never bothers to challenge any of VanDyke’s pathetically grandiose pontifications. Instead, it brazenly inserts footage from David Lean’s classic 1962 film, “Lawrence of Arabia.” This epitomizes the film’s inherent absurdity. VanDyke was a common soldier, plagued with profound psychopathology. Does it really make sense to compare him to someone, who organized a guerrilla Arab army, which played a pivotal role in the British defeat of the Ottoman empire in World War I?
Incredibly, the press has succumbed to VanDyke’s self-aggrandizing claims and elevated him to being a poster boy for machismo. Somehow, “Point and Shoot” won the best documentary feature award at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.
“Point and Shoot” aims at some intriguing issues. Unfortunately, it totally misses the mark.
** No MPAA rating 83 minutes
Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.