Monday, March 02, 2015

American Sniper (2014)

7/10 - There's a lot one could write about in discussing American Sniper. It's a much more interesting and complex film than many have made it out to be. First of all, I would say that it’s not really about the war in Iraq or sniper Chris Kyle, on whose autobiography the story is based. Yes, Clint Eastwood uses those specific elements to tell his tale, but it’s clear that his real objective is tackling much broader themes, such as the nature of violence and the effects of war on those who wage it. Richard Brody, from The New Yorker, says the film is “political in the highest sense of the word. [Eastwood] dramatizes the use and abuse of state power in the light of great philosophical ideas.” I think that’s what led to Bradley Cooper’s clumsy statement that the film “wasn’t political.” It’s actually a very political film, and an intriguing one, but it’s not specifically about the political aspects of the invasion of Iraq or the cultural politics surrounding the figure of Chris Kyle. It’s a film that should probably leave people on either side of the liberal-conservative spectrum somewhat uneasy in the end. If someone believes it’s just a patriotic movie about Kyle and our invasion of Iraq, then I think they are only seeing what they want to see.

Alex Trimble Young, in an interesting analysis in Salon, calls American Sniper a “revisionist western,” and it’s clear that Eastwood structured the film along these lines. Kyle was a modern-day cowboy (rodeo rider) from Texas who goes off to “the Wild West in the Old Middle East” to fight the “savages.” He sees himself as a gun-slinging lawman out to protect his men (and women) and his ideal of civilization. He faces another “bad” gunslinger (a sniper from Syria fighting for Al-Qaeda), and the climax of the movie comes in the form of a long-distance showdown between the two. Eastwood even references a famous shot from The Searchers early on in the movie to let us know what he’s doing. Young writes, “In the tradition of the greatest westerns… ‘American Sniper’ offers up its familiar western narrative not as a triumphalist myth but as a disturbing object for contemplation and critique. The film’s point of view cleaves to Kyle’s in such a way that it both immerses its viewers in his Manichaean worldview and, at crucial moments, alienates us from it. From the violence that is visually foregrounded in the now infamous ‘sheepdog’ scene until the shot that foreshadows Kyle’s murder, ‘American Sniper’ tells a story of a man who is unable to insulate his family or his homeland from the violence of the war he is fighting. Like John Wayne’s character, Ethan, in ‘The Searchers,’ his own character is under threat of being overtaken by the very savage violence he set out to quell.”

Some have complained that Kyle was a more problematic figure than how he's portrayed, but I think that’s missing the entire point of the film. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall have obviously created a character based on Kyle that is purposefully seen as a kind of perfect soldier who sees everything in black and white, believes fervently in his mission, strives to protects his buddies and his homeland and does an excellent job with his ability as a marksman. Yet, in the end, what happens to this person? He has becomes something less than human, as his wife struggles to make him realize thoughout the film, and despite all of his valiant efforts, his fellow soldiers are killed or return home disfigured, maimed and/or totally disturbed. Even the most fervent believer, Eastwood shows us, is ultimately destroyed by the war and undone by violence. In one of the most powerfully symbolic scenes in the film, U.S. forces are literally constructing a wall to try and “contain the violence” in Sadr City, but their engineers keep getting picked off by the Syrian sniper. Kyle finally kills the bad guy responsible, but just as soon as he does, he and his men have to abandon their position as they are swarmed by many other “savages” and overcome by the natural environment of the land they have invaded in the form of a giant sandstorm. Kyle’s most cherished personal belongings, those items which most give him his identity, his rifle and his pocket Bible, end up buried under the sand. In the end, Kyle can’t even prevent the violence against himself, as he is killed not by the enemy abroad but by a fellow solider, a U.S. Marine, also from Texas, suffering from PTSD.

American Sniper is expertly filmed and well-directed. Bradley Cooper gives a great performance as Kyle, much of it silently and through body language, transforming from easy-going cowboy to a man intensely hunkered down in himself and trying to remain human. In one of the best scenes of the movie, he’s approached in an auto repair shop by a Marine whose life he saved earlier, but he’s so uncomfortable that he can’t even look the man in the eye or deal with the man’s gratitude. I thought about Cooper’s performance here in comparison to his role as the coiffure-obsessed man living with his mother in American Hustle, and I have a greater appreciation for his range as an actor.
Despite its grand ambitions and high level of craftsmanship, though, American Sniper never becomes the kind of great film it could have been. There’s a hesitation at the heart of the film that keeps Eastwood from pursuing some of the harder themes to their full conclusion. He lets up at the end just enough to keep the film from reaching another level. That same hesitation may also be responsible for opening the door to various kinds of cultural criticism. And maybe it’s just too soon to create a larger, more mythic story from what has happened to us and to the Iraqis because of our misguided invasion. The horrors have been great and continue even now. But American Sniper is not just some jingoistic exercise. As Brody concludes his own article, “Far from patriotic pomp, it’s a vision that sees past the still eye of the American self-image to the whirlwind.”

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