American Sniper: Print the Legend

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Movie Review:  American Sniper

This film does indeed wave the flag plenty.
This film does indeed wave the flag plenty.

It’s Oscar month again, and we’re going to give you the low down on all of the contenders for the crown (well…most of them…I can’t stand Benedict Cumberbatch, so Imitation Game is probably shit out of luck.)  We’ve covered a few of the nominees from earlier in the year, but now we’re going to cover the movie that has out-earned the rest of the field combined:  American Sniper.  This juggernaut has been plowing through cinema centers lately, making money that would cause Marvel Studios to blush.  Is it any good?

A quick Caveat:  this film has created a lot of controversy and exposed many raw nerves about American military involvement in Iraq and the War on Terror.  I have my opinions on these issues, as do many.  To do the film justice, I buried those opinions as best I could, and will try my damnedest to review the film on its merits.  That being said, I will also be strongly contrasting this movie with the book it is inspired by, the autobiography of Chris Kyle, as the differences between the two have some very big impacts upon my consideration of the film.

American Sniper (2014)

In a rare twist, Cooper actually gives Kyle more humanity after this shot than his memoir.
In a rare twist, Cooper actually gives Kyle more humanity after this shot than his memoir.

Director Clint Eastwood brings us the big screen adaptation of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s autobiography, American Sniper.  The film follows Kyle (Bradley Cooper) through four tours in Iraq, as well as showing the man’s personal journey, before, during and after the war.  We’re thrown into the action as Kyle makes his first kill of the war, shooting both a woman and child who were trying to ambush an army convoy.  This traumatic event unburies memories from Kyle of his first kill as a civilian, hunting deer with his father as a very young boy.  We see that his father is strict, morally zealous, and a touch violent.  His worldview is very black and white, with good and evil clearly laid out, and he ingrains a fervor in his sons about taking action (even violent, antisocial action) against evil as a moral imperative.  From there, we see Kyle grow into a fairly archetypical alpha male:  he is his younger brother’s hero, rides broncos at the rodeo, sleeps with the prettiest girls, and is fiercely all American.  He sees the bombing of an embassy that kills US citizens, and his decision is quick and decisive:  he’s going overseas to protect his people and kill the “savages” who threaten them.sniper woman

A bad guy too good to be true.
A bad guy too good to be true.

After leaving basic training for the Navy SEALS (after enduring a series of trials that appears more akin to a college hazing than military training) he meets, and is challenged by a beautiful young woman with a serious disdain for soldiers, SEALS in particular.  The two manage to lower each others barriers, and shortly after 9/11, they wed.  As America heads into Iraq, so does Kyle.  There, he gets caught up in the battle of Fallujah, and becomes obsessed with finding “The Butcher,” an instrumental member of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and with killing “Mustafa,” an enemy sniper who makes miraculous shots against American targets.  This drive causes him to continually return to Iraq, even against the wishes of his family.  This crusade drives the main action of the film, as a sniper’s duel emerges, with Kyle versus Mustafa.

The Crucible of Character

Chris Kyle is initially the stuff of caricature.  Tough, stoic, morally driven…but also unreflective, jingoistic, and single faceted.  His responses to most questions seem pat and reflexive, as if spitting back sentiments given to him, rather than his own truths.  War, love, and the divide between his two worlds force him to develop as a husband, father, soldier and man.  Like a stone buffeted by the wind, his rough edges are worn down by the people around him, and eventually, his character emerges.  It may be less nuanced than one would hope, but it is recognizably that of a real person, not just a walking amalgam of tropes and stereotypes.

They call him the legend, and that's just fine by Clint Eastwood's standards.
They call him the legend, and that’s just fine by Clint Eastwood’s standards.

The film does a reasonable job of presenting Kyle, rough edges and all.  The script may appear to have had its hands tied by the source material; it is hard to question the motivations and actions of a man who is writing his own story, especially when that story is so fraught with cultural baggage.  The story does alter events, however, sometimes markedly (elevating the role of Mustafa and The Butcher far beyond their actual significance, and completely leaving out much of his actual experience.)  A fictional protagonist would be expected to grow and change more markedly.  Chris Kyle has his world view thrown in his face repeatedly, but rarely reacts more meaningfully than a quick moment of confusion and silence.  We do see Kyle grow throughout the film, but Kyle the man always seems to be less in focus than Kyle the legendary soldier.

The Theater of War

Kyle’s story is ripe for cinematic treatment.  Any number of lesson can be drawn from his life story, both supporting and critiquing the current American military philosophy.  His story is not what makes this film compelling though; it is the direction and staging of this film’s depiction of combat, which could easily have fallen into easy stereotypes.  As an action movie, American Sniper is a enjoyable film, with an attention to nuts and bolts of film making that elevates it above its contemporaries like Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, and Lone Survivor.

The visuals are almost universally excellent.  The battles are filmed intelligently, and the choreography is both superb and subtle, keeping the action at the center of attention instead of calling notice to itself.  The sound work is strong, letting the action set the cadence.  The musical score was so unremarkable, that the few times music appeared, it actually detracted from the piece, such as the heavy-handed jazz drum segment as the SEALS were riding into a trap.  The dialogue was crisp, terse, though slightly overcooked, but believable.  Eastwood manages to dodge many of the stereotypes of the genre while still playing to its strengths.

Conflict

First an empty chair and now fake babies.  C'mon, Clint.
First an empty chair and now fake babies. C’mon, Clint.

Now with the praise aside, I have to take American Sniper to task for some noticeable flaws.  The musical work is a bit threadbare, to say the least.  Despite being visually engaging, the final fight scene has a sandstorm that is nauseating and blurry and completely jarring in contrast to the rest of the film.  The characters are well acted, but mostly flat, never really rising to the level of insight that we would hope for in such an important narrative.  Much has been made of Eastwood opting to use dolls instead of real babies repeatedly in the film, but some of the characters felt as unreal as the babies.  For all this, the film manages to provide above average marks on most fronts, making American Sniper one of the more engaging war films I have seen.  I was tuned in and entertained for so much of this film.  So why am I so conflicted after having watched it?

My conflict comes from what the film says, and what it fails to say.  This film attempts to be a “character study” as Bradley Cooper insists, but the film turns a blind eye to so many of its characters real issues in favor of examining the persona of a super soldier.  The film is also pathologically adverse to answering any of the  big questions that hide at the edges of the film.   Just because we see Kyle turning the conflict into a simple case of good versus evil, doesn’t mean the film gets a blank check to do so as well.   Two major examples really drive home this unwillingness to fully engage the larger issues:  Kyle’s marriage and his troubled return to civilian life.

The War at Home

"I'm ready to come home...I think...its complicated."
“I’m ready to come home…I think…its complicated.”

Chris and Taya (Sienna Miller) have repeated conflicts over his commitment to the war.  Kyle feels compelled to return, again and again, to hunt his enemies and protect his family of soldiers while his actual family suffers his absence.  At one point, this tension leads to Taya threatening to leave if he redeploys.  Nothing comes of it.  Chris goes back to war.  There is apparently no more discussion of the matter besides a quick cuddle in bed.  In the face of almost certain death, he decides he’s had enough of Iraq and says he wants to go home…but just five minutes later he tells a psychologist that he is ready, willing, and able to go right back if it weren’t for his family needing him state-side.  What?  Why is this not discussed at any length?

This feels like it would be counter-productive.
Kyle’s interaction with fellow vets is given way too little time and focus.

Likewise, we are given very little insight into Kyle’s post-war recovery.  In the final fight, he gets shot, but shrugs it off and manages to run to the safety of his troop convoy.  This seems like it would be a major issue.  Nope.  In his actual military experience, Chris Kyle was injured repeatedly, but again, this is glossed over by the film.  When he returns to the states, we see Kyle have escalating traumatic reactions to sights and sound- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It gets quite bad, and alienates him from his family.  His real life drinking problem after the war is alluded to in one measly scene where we find that he is in a bar in America when his wife thinks he is still overseas.  What?  Why is this not given more than 30 seconds of screen time?  Finally, he seeks help…but instead of meaningful insight, we get more He-Man super soldier action:  his therapy consists of “saving” the soldiers at home (once again, simplified in the film as mostly just taking them out target shooting.)  This magically cures Chris.  His family instantly goes from a fragile wreck to Norman Rockwell over the course of five more minutes of film.

Thank goodness we overcame all our problems in that last five minutes, huh dear?
Thank goodness we overcame all our problems in that last five minutes, huh dear?

Brad Cooper has stated that the festering controversy over our actions in Iraq have obscured the real issue brought up in the film:  the need to treat and embrace our returning warriors.  That is undeniably true.  But if it is so sorely lacking in modern discourse, why does it only constitute 15 fucking minutes of a 135 minute film!?  The time spent on Kyle’s issues is shorter than the goddamn credits!  And if this is all the film is willing to invest in exploring this issue, it seems like a paper-thin excuse for not addressing that larger controversy of why men like Chris Kyle were sent abroad to endure the horrors of war in the first place.

The Final Shot

No.  Not by a long shot.
No. Not by a long shot.

American Sniper succeeds at being an entertaining and well paced action movie for 120 minutes, and then fails miserably at being anything more than that.  I found myself enjoying the tense and well plotted action sequences, and being enticed by the growing tension between Chris Kyle as the stony and unflappable war hero and Chris Kyle as a vulnerable and troubled family man.  The film tells the former’s story much better than the latter’s, unfortunately.  When it comes to treating the real life issues of the soldier, the film crumbles completely.  This is certainly not the caliber of film that deserves to be nominated for Best Picture.

Instead of gazing into the middle distance, we could actually discuss these things in a meaningful way.
Instead of gazing into the middle distance, we could actually discuss these things in a meaningful way.

American Sniper‘s pretense at telling the true story of Kyle’s experience is not just regrettable, it is exploitative and disgusting.  A real person, with complex motivations, failings and triumphs gets papered over in favor of a gussied up war story that bends the facts and creates an antagonist who is almost completely fictional (Mustafa existed, but was never in direct conflict with Kyle, and was not killed by him in Iraq.)  I can’t see how this film is a tribute to the actual Chris Kyle.  It not only doesn’t allow the man’s actions to speak for themself, it baldly co-opts his life story to make a cheap action film.  The hardships he overcame after the war and the redemptive work he accomplished with other veterans is given such paltry lip service, and even his tragic death while working with other survivors of the war is shamefully relegated to a single line of text at the very end of the film.  As the credits roll, we see all of the lives touched by Chris Kyle, and the genuine outpouring of admiration and sympathy in the form of actual footage of tributes to the man.  At least at the very end the film actually allowed reality to peak out from behind the giant facade of a John Rambo clone that this film attempts to make Chris Kyle into.

 

 

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