Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day Post 2015

Two years ago I posted after reading Chris Kyle's American Sniper. Today I finished watching the Clint Eastwood-directed movie. Today I'll share a few thoughts.

First, there's no way a two hour movie can fully capture the thoughts in the book. And it's rare when a movie captures well the spirit of the source material. The movie here is a heavily abbreviated version of the book's story. It also takes the usual artistic license to embellish the drama, or outright create it where there might not have been any.

Still, Eastwood made this movie knowing things Kyle could not have at the time Kyle wrote his book. The most important one being that Kyle's life would end in early 2013. And this is a powerful tool in story telling. Some writers will tell you that the hardest things to write are the beginnings and endings of a story; with the death of Kyle, Eastwood got built-in ending, and I think he uses it to good effect. Where the book was a slice of Kyle's life, describing some of his youth and life in the military, Eastwood's movie seems more a cautionary tale about war and the different ways it can effect people.

The combat scenes are good, except that I don't remember them being described in much detail in Kyle's book. But it's when Eastwood moves away from the book as scaffolding and fills in the blanks where it picks up it's best points. The movie does a good job replicating the eerie intimacy a sniper has with his targets, being farther away from them yet able to see more through scopes than the troops that are closer.

And when the actors are showing Kyle's estrangement from civilian life when he returns home, they're giving us something Kyle, who rarely comes across in his book as anything other than calm and in control, could probably not share as well as his wife could.

There's also something clever done as each of Kyle's tours is introduced. The equipment shown evolves with the passage of time. Early on we see Hummers, by the end, we see MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush protected) trucks and drones.

Unfortunately, it's when the movie casually tries to keep itself tied to the book that it falls. Kyle wrote with conviction about his friendships and his love for his fellow soldiers. The movie doesn't really bring into focus any of the peripheral characters. Even if they weren't made of cardboard we see so little of them that we don't really develop any affinity. Some film critics felt this same way about Kyle's wife, Taya, but I thought the actress did pretty well here with the moments she was given.

Aside from the biographical value of the film, I think the best message to be taken from the film is that war affects people in many ways. Sebastian Junger's book, War, also talks about this. Although PTSD is a more common term now, we're still learning a lot about it and how to deal with it.

One of the reviews I read said that although the film, like Kyle's book, is wrapped largely in jingoistic gloss, it is slyly also a an anti-war movie. "Slyly"? If you need a movie to convince you war is a terrible thing, you're an idiot. But aside from that, there are indeed a couple moments where I thought Eastwood challenged some of Kyle's beliefs. In his book, Kyle is proud to be a redneck of the "god, country, and family" philosophy, and this is mentioned too in the movie. But there is a quick scene where a more pensive teammate questions the US efforts. And I like the way it was portrayed; the actor doesn't spout off some speech written by some liberal ivory tower resident. Instead, when Kyle tells him the enemy is savage and evil, he simply responds with a non-committal, "Ok." And the delivery of his response was perfect, seeing it in print can't do it justice. It was said in a resigned tone, as if he knew he wasn't going to change Kyle's mind but also that while some of what Kyle said was true he had doubts about the US approach.

The movie finishes on the note that it should. In the same way that Unforgiven refused to revel in the act of killing, American Sniper ends quietly, with images that are respectful and yet deeply somber.

Friday, May 08, 2015

A TrueCar Experience

I'm deviating from my normal subjects to share an experience that might be useful for some people. I purchased a car through TrueCar and this is my review of the experience. When discussing the auto industry, I don't know how you can fully relate the experience without some profanity, so if you can't hack some colorful language, please don't read this.


Let me start first by saying I don't expect a business to run at a loss. But don't take advantage of my decency, and also don't blame me for the car buying model which has been around since before I was born and has a history of controversy. The salespeople that complain about consumer attitudes are sort of like the shyster lawyers that complain about the way they're treated...you guys are sleeping in the beds you made.

The Old Way

Buying my first car, back in 1990, was a grueling experience. Visiting dealership after dealership I endured a litany of lies and deceit. The process was almost the same at all of them. I would go in, get a test drive, then get pounded on sometimes for hours while we talked about a price. Then I would get frustrated and leave, without a car.

Then I would later see the same car I wanted advertised in a dealership newspaper ad for the same price I originally said I could pay.

In other words, car sales folk are right up there with lawyers when it comes to being lying sacks of shit (not all of them, but a high percentage of the ones I dealt with...maybe I just got unlucky and didn't get to work with all you angelic sales people out there). I'm sure most of us have heard these great lines:
  • We really want to see you in that car
  • I really want to be your salesman
  • That car won't be here next week, you have to buy it today
  • I can't sell it for that, but we're not far from a deal
  • Boy, this is your lucky day
  • I'll run it by my manager
  • Have you heard of rust proofing?
  • I'm losing money on this deal

 

The Three Battles

When you buy a car, you are potentially engaging in a three stage war, where some or all of the following apply:
  • The price of the vehicle being purchased
  • The value of the trade-in
  • Financing/warranties

The New Way

Thanks to the Internet, the average consumer can go into battle better prepared. There are many resources to help you not only find a good vehicle but that can provide information on pricing of both new and used vehicles and the current interest rates. But it doesn't solve everything; not until you can configure and buy off the internet and get a fair value on trade-in all via the online shopping basket will it ever fully remove the dirty human element.

But even though my recent experiences with buying a car are still disappointing in ways, I think it is an improvement. And TrueCar is a big part of that, essentially taking the pain out of the first battle. You identify and configure the car you are interested in at the TrueCar site, then get to decide which dealers you will send your data to (my favorite part, because you can pre-screen out dealerships that are too far away or that aren't in your price range), and then engage those dealers.

TrueCar wasn't the first to recognize that people didn't enjoy the hours-long pounding they were taking in car salesmen's offices. GM's Saturn line sold cars with a firm sticker price. And dealerships like Texas Direct Auto and CarMax work with no-haggle pricing you can see over the Internet.

The Verdict

TrueCar did its part well for me in my last purchasing experience. I got a quote in advance from a participating dealership that was honored without argument. Note that the initial quote you get from TrueCar may not be fully accurate, and TrueCar also puts language on your quote saying it is an estimate. If the dealership doesn't have an exact match for your configuration, you may get an alternative of the same trim that has some different options, and you will pay for those options, but your sales person should be able to send you that updated TrueCar quote via email before you even visit the dealership.

So if TrueCar's goal was to save me the headache of the first battle, it succeeded. If its goal was to bring more transparency into the auto buying process...well, that's debatable. Car dealerships are still sleazy and still try to go cheap on your trade-in and still try to push an extended warranty at an inflated price until you say you're not interested and then they'll cut the price on it so deeply it's practically an insult.

There's also the whole debate over what a dealer's cost really is. Between discounts for volume buyers, dealer holdbacks, and other corporate incentives, there are still many unknowns in the car sales game...well, unknowns to you, that is. In fact, TrueCar has evolved over time and is different today than it was a couple years ago when it used to list the dealer cost in its quotes. There are some great articles online about the trouble this caused it with dealerships (at Forbes.com, Inc.com, and Slate.com) and how the company has since modified how it operates.

My salesman actually showed me a dealer invoice slip that indicated my TrueCar price was several hundred dollars below dealer invoice, but you know, with PowerPoint I can balance the US budget too, so I'm not putting much stock in that. The finance guy said the dealership was losing $3000 on my purchase, but the TrueCar price was $3000 below the MSRP, not the dealer invoice, so one or both of them are likely, ahem, exaggerating. If they were indeed losing money on the deal, the only logical reasons for it I could think of were 1) they weren't losing much and 2) I bought a 2015 model not long before the 2016 models would show up, so they wanted to move inventory or 3) they really weren't losing money (the Inc.com link in the last paragraph notes that after TrueCar changed its approach, dealership gains on a vehicle sale increased). Either way, I had nothing to do with that price, it was determined by TrueCar (or TrueCar and the dealership together), so the dealership complaining to me about the price is silly.

Ultimately, while I'm no fan of lying salesmen, I do not think anyone should work for free, so I'm ok with TrueCar trying to quote a price that's fair to both parties. And again, it really did save me the hassles normally associated with the first battle.

Other Voices

If you do a little looking around on the Internet you'll find other testimonials and opinions of TrueCar (tons actually and mostly negative, at ReviewOpedia.com, hackingthebank.com, highya.com, and carbuying.jalopnik.com [very useful review] among others).
 
One bit of feedback that made sense to me was from a guy that said you can get a better price than the TrueCar quote if you're willing to fight. In this way I suspect TrueCar prices are like CarMax prices: you could do better, but then, you'd have to wear body armor and bring brass knuckles to the dealership. I don't have time for that, but it's interesting to note that essentially what's happening is you're paying a TrueCar fee for the convenience of not getting kicked in the balls all afternoon long. Whether that's worth it to you or not is really up to you.

I also don't have time for haggling over the trade-in. Every dealership I've ever been to except CarMax will always lowball you. You have to fight them though. At least get their second or third offer. You might ask, "Why don't you just sell your car to CarMax?" Because if I can get a decent offer on the trade-in, I like the tax savings it gives on the new car by essentially lowering the sales price, and the dealership will handle the necessary paperwork. And although I could work around it, I also like the convenience of driving myself over in the old car and swapping it for the new one and not having to drive down in two cars or have a friend drive you or whatever you end up doing. Of course, if you can sell your old car for thousands more somewhere else, then go for it because that should be better than the tax savings.

Another concern voiced about TrueCar is that there may be collusion with some dealerships. I don't know if this is true but since there are some veils up in the background that I can't see past, there could be something to it. My salesman mentioned that his dealership has a good relationship with TrueCar and they sell a lot of cars through TrueCar. That doesn't mean there's anything illegal going on, but take that as you will.

Some testimonials also claim that not all dealerships will honor the TrueCar quote as well as mine did. In the end all you as the consumer can do is recognize that knowledge is power and use every tool you can to be educated about purchasing. For me, it worked well enough that TrueCar will remain in my toolbox.