The problem with The Kite Runner isn’t that it doesn’t have a story to tell, it’s that the story is so spread out its difficult to put an emotional bead on any one thing. Since the impact is lessened what the writers (David Benioff) and director (Marc Forster) try to do is to give us connections that are too contrived and so false that they bleed into the ridiculous.
The first third of the story focuses on two childhood friends in Afghanistan. Amir belongs to the dominant ethnic group Pashtun, who also belongs to the dominant Sunni religion. His Father, Baba, is a wealthy man who sympathizes with the lower-caste ethnicity known as Hazara. Amir’s best friend Hassan is not only a Hazara but belongs to the minority of Shi’ite religious followers and is the son of Baba’s servant, making Hassan a servant as well. Growing up one can imagine that this was never a problem for Amir and Hassan – this separation of class and religion, though they share some dialogue about trust and friendship early on. It’s a problem that the neighborhood boys don’t appreciate his differences and ridicule Hassan. Hassan is the type of strong boy who stands up for himself. Baba respects that about him and he’s afraid that Amir won’t live up to those expectations. When Amir overhears his Father’s love for Hassan, he becomes jealous. But there’s no time for that as the kite flying contest approaches.
The Kite Flying contest Gudiparan Bazi was a yearly contest in which two boys wield a kite in the air as if it were a weapon to cut the strings of the other boys’ kites. It’s a thrilling spectacle to watch play out on film, one that in recent years the Taliban has not allowed. Shot from the point of view of the kites it’s almost as if it were a dog fight between pilots. This is the most thrilling and exciting part of the film. It’s unfortunate that this moment should come a half hour in. It leaves little that can compare through the rest of the film.
A terrible thing happens shortly after this, that drives the friends apart. And Amir reacts in such a way that puts his character under a bad light for pretty much the rest of the film. It’s one thing for a character to be a coward, it’s another for the main character to be a bastard.
Then the Russians invade driving Baba, a hater of communism, and Amir from the country, where they end up in California. The second part of the film follows Amir as a young twenty year old just out of college and borders on drudgery. He seems to have forgotten about that horrible event and Hassan completely and focuses on becoming a novelist and taking care of his ailing Father. A bunch of good things happen to him. And just when his life is about to unfold before him in a road of gold bricks, he receives a phone call from Baba’s best friend, and Amir’s mentor as a child. Amir goes to Pakistan to see his old mentor, where’s he told he can still do the right thing in helping Hassan’s son flee back to the United States. Flee from what? Well, the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. The Taliban.
The third part of our story involves secrets coming to light and Amir making up for his past transgression against his friend Hassan. This is when the story becomes ridiculous. At this point we’ve spent most of the film following an older Amir, who doesn’t seem to be at all haunted by the terrible decisions that he made as a child. We ask ourselves “What right thing?” When his mentor tells Amir that’s what he can do. The mentor has no idea Amir had done something wrong in the first place. Silly contrivances are set before us to bring Amir’s redemption full circle so that what he deals with ties so directly to his childhood you roll your eyes more so than cheer him on. For a film that could have dealt with some hot button issues and could really have taken us into the world of the Taliban, the characters are such card board cutout bad guys from any 80’s film with Middle Eastern terrorists and the climax plays out like one of those bad 80’s films that it’s difficult to care what happens to anyone at that point.
The problem with this film is that it can’t focus down on one part of the story and it doesn’t have the dexterity to deal with every part of Amir’s life like it tries to. As a coming of age story between two boys, it would have been exceptional. Or to have left out most of the boys’ story and focused on Amir as a young man would have lent the focus to the film that it so desperately needed. Instead we’re left with a middle section that is emotionally irrelevant to the important events that transpire at the beginning and a shallow ending that doesn’t dig deep enough into the new mentality of what used to be Amir’s home.
Another thing they might have done is to use some of the elements in the film, like the kites, to add a level of symbolism or metaphor to their lives. To give us an emotional crux. You could argue that they do, but nothing much is made of it, and most of the elements in the movie remain surface level. Even the parable aspect of it, that Afghanis should remember their history and do what, return to help? doesn’t work. That there’s hope for their youth beyond the opressive rule of a militaristic terrorist religion if the now American Afghani’s bring them to America? Maybe it’s that the Phashtun shouldn’t have just sat back and allowed their brothers the Hazara to be treated as they did, if that’s the case then why bring the Taliban into the mix? Especially since we don’t know just how badly the Phashtun actually treated the Hazara outside of a couple bullies that go after Hassar. Is it that a hateful caste system like this leads leads to the Taliban? Then why not stay in Afghanistan and show us that? Why show our heroes becoming Americanized, we all know that story. So, I’m not exactly sure what the film is trying to say as a whole about the world these boys grew up in. Even as an enlightening history lesson it does little but skirt over the issues.
None of this is to say that the film isn’t watchable, though it doesn’t quite live up to the “It’s the best movie you’ll see this year” status it lavishes upon itself in the trailer. The performances are strong enough and characterizations familiar enough without being too Americanized that you don’t leave hating the state of film today. One of the only reviews I glanced at before writing this was Lisa Schwarzbaum’s in Entertainment Weekly and she made a comment that reflected one of my first thoughts while watching the movie. My thought was, if this story wasn’t taking place in another culture and in a foreign language I would have hated the film completely. But sometimes something about a film and it’s “foreignness” as Schwarzbaum labels it makes movies more watchable than they probably deserve to be. Whether that’s enough for anyone to get up off there sofas and lay down 13 bucks to see it, well I don’t care. Just make sure you catch the kite flying sequence at some point in your life. It’s really worth the few minutes to speed through the rest of the film.