Friday, January 16, 2015

New movie review: American Sniper

Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle in Clint Eastwood's new film American Sniper.

Without fail, the best war films are made after the war being depicted has ended – usually well after. All Quiet on the Western Front (World War I); Saving Private Ryan and Letters from Iwo Jima (World War II); M*A*S*H (Korean War); Apocalypse Now and Platoon (Vietnam War) – the reasons are pretty clear. Time lends clarity, and distance lends perspective. Removed from the jingoism stirred by the presence of an immediate threat, we are free to think critically about our past and to explore the gray area between good and bad, right and wrong, and nationalism and imperialism. Enter the Iraq War.

History will remember Iraq as a quagmire, an unnecessary jump into the politics of the Middle East that has marred two presidencies and will likely define a third, but we are not there yet. Because the war in Iraq has been deemed the War on Terror, there are no easy victories or clear ends in sight. So, when we see images of the recent attacks in Paris or of any violence in the Middle East, we are subject to swells of patriotic pride and a sense of duty to kill the terrorists. This is true today, and it will be true tomorrow and for the foreseeable future. So, how to address this on film without time, clarity, or perspective?

Clint Eastwood’s newly Best Picture-nominated American Sniper disregards clarity or perspective by tackling the war from the point of view of one man, Chris Kyle. Based on a true story, Kyle is considered the deadliest sniper in American history, credited with more than 160 confirmed kills. Throughout four tours in Iraq, he will gain the nickname “Legend,” and his fellow soldiers will call him a hero and thank him for saving their lives.

That he saved many American lives is indisputable, and his legend among U.S. troops and enemy combatants is incontrovertible. His status as a hero, however, is murkier, and until its disastrously contrived final minutes, Eastwood seems to be willing to ask tough questions about heroism, machismo, and misplaced male aggression in our society. Though told entirely from Kyle’s perspective, the film is not lacking in characters who question his desire to kill or his need to participate in war.

Common among films addressing the War on Terror such as The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, part of the message seems to be that war simply gets in the blood and becomes an addiction. Played with energy and commitment to spare by Bradley Cooper, Kyle is a rootin’, tootin’ all-American cowboy from the start. We see glimpses of his youth spent hunting, fighting, and receiving chest-thumping pep talks from an aggressive, authoritarian father. This is a man born in blood and raised on violence. His attraction to war is not surprising.

One place where Eastwood’s film steps wrong, then, is in its action sequences, which are too exciting, if you will allow me to explain. People such as Kyle and many other soldiers sign up to kill bad guys. Yes, there is patriotism and protecting the American way of life and freedom and all that, but make no mistake, they want to kill some bad guys, too. Here, they are provided ample opportunity. With one exception, the violence plays out like a video game as soldiers march through crumbling towns, clearing room after room in home after home. It all looks like so much fun.

The exception comes during Kyle’s final tour of duty, when a sandstorm hits amid a raging firefight. It is like a descent into hell and the first time in the film the war seems to take on any metaphysical meaning. His obsession, his selfishness, his lust for war, his need to win – it all comes crashing down at once on one Iraqi rooftop. It is a bravura sequence, displaying the kind of technical mastery we have come to expect from an Eastwood film, as well as from his collaborators, editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach and cinematographer Tom Stern.

This dichotomy plays out on every level of the film – one step forward, two steps back. The problem exists at the script level. Every time Jason Hall’s screenplay, based on the book by Kyle, Scott McEwen, and James DeFelice, digs at the myth of military heroism, it pulls back and reaffirms Kyle’s personal heroism. Hall seems afraid to out Kyle as a complex individual who saved a lot of American lives but who killed a lot people and neglected his family for years out of a misplaced sense of pride and duty.

Here is the thing: Nobody wants another situation such as after the Vietnam War, when returning soldiers were spat upon and abandoned by the country that sent them to fight. Respect is certainly due to the men and women in uniform regardless of the justness of the war being fought. However, no one is automatically a hero for signing up to kill another person. As with anyone else, soldiers are flawed, complicated people with conflicting emotions and contradictory motivations. At every turn, American Sniper avoids confronting this reality head on.

When Kyle is stateside with his family – wife Taya, played by Sienna Miller, and two small children – we finally get a glimpse at the depths of feeling and emotion churning in Kyle. Cooper is excellent at portraying the unease Kyle feels with the stillness of life outside of war. Each shrill sound or sudden movement is cause for alarm. It is clear he is not a healthy man, either physically or mentally.

Amid the blood and guts of the battlefield, the movie’s most chilling moment comes when Kyle is simply watching television at home during a birthday party. We see him staring at the screen, and we hear the sounds of battle. Then, it is revealed the television is off, and the war is playing only his mind but constantly. He is not necessarily excited anymore by the fighting, but he cannot turn it off. It is a part of him.

At its close, American Sniper makes overtures to the need for increased veterans care, a position it would be difficult to argue against, though history proves prevention trumps treatment every time. Veterans deserve respect, and they certainly deserve better care when they return from war than they are often afforded. They deserve these things not because they are heroes but because they are human. American Sniper is a good film, but one wishes it had been more interested in telling the story of a man rather than that of a legend.

See it? Yes.

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