Monday, January 26, 2015

American Sniper

It's a familiar story, when a biography is about to be realized.  One of the first things I read about AMERICAN SNIPER was Chris Kyle's father's warning to Clint Eastwood - if the director dishonored his son's memory, he would kill Eastwood himself.  Did Janis Joplin's family, who cooperated with a documentary of the late singer, offer similiar threats?  Any father would elicit concern over how their child would be portrayed in a Hollywood feature, especially when the subject is a deceased Navy SEAL who is considered to be the most lethal sniper in its history. And is an author of a very controversial book recounting experiences fighting on four separate tours in Iraq. And especially when that son has been quoted (perhaps out of context) as saying that after a while he enjoyed war and the act of killing:

You do it until there’s no one left to kill. That’s what war is. I loved what I did… I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun.

I wondered, how would I feel about killing someone? Now I know. It’s no big deal.

I have a strong sense of justice. It’s pretty much black-and-white. I don’t see too much gray.

For those who've read that book (I'm not among them) and have now seen the film many would find that American Psychopath would be a far more appropriate title. There are multiple reports of the author's fictionalization of events and even the creation of fictional figures.   Is this merely bleeding heart posturing? Are Bill Maher's and others' remarks knee jerk liberalism, a readiness to politicize Mr. Eastwood's latest examination of the corrosiveness of violence? Maybe critics would not agree that this new film takes that view, that killing only further dehumanizes the killer.

Dehumanization.  The military creates soldiers after they thoroughly destroy the undisciplined human beings who enlist (or were drafted in earlier days).   Many will remember the harrowing basic training scenes in FULL METAL JACKET.  I've met several veterans and had conversations about this process.  Some were very open about it, others evasive. A few spoke of the deprogramming that was necessary when they were discharged from service.  But can that really, fully occur? Once your humanity has been stripped away does a frozen core of singlemindedness remain? Kill the enemy. In the name of serving your country. "Would you want (the Iraqi terrorists) to come to San Diego or New York?", Chris asks a fellow soldier who despairs at their involvement in a questionable war.

But for all of the accurate claims one can make that AMERICAN SNIPER is a calculated flag waver, there are moments that harken back to earlier Eastwood dramas, films like UNFORGIVEN and GRAN TORINO, which dared to consider how the idea of an eye for an eye, its very methodology, only serves to erode one's soul. Not justice.  Kyle is shown behind his rifle with a cocky, sometimes weary confidence, yes, but also moments of enormous conflict.  Like when a child finds a rocket launcher on the ground and appears about to pick up where a dead Iraqi left off.  Did the real Chris Kyle have a moment like this? Or was it just a video game to him?

I criticize this movie for showing the Iraqis as simplistic "bad guys", much like the banditos Eastwood's characters used to gun down in his old spaghetti Westerns. For example, why didn't we get more character analysis on the man who invites the Marines into his home, only to be shown later that he (unsuccessfully) planned an ambush on the Americans?  Or the Iraqi sniper, very much Kyle's equivalent, with his Dragunov rifle? Does he have a family? Like Kyle, who marries a woman he meets in a bar (Sienna Miller) and with whom he has two children? Is AMERICAN SNIPER such a runaway success because the film agrees with Kyle that there's no "gray" in the scenario? There are only the bad guys?  Most folks don't like the possibility that their "hero" is awesomely flawed, that he and the entire machine behind him may be "wrong". Ambiguity is not prized among most American viewers, and at the risk of sounding like a geo-snob, most of such viewers live in the South and Midwest, in red states.  Just look at the box office receipts by region.

I criticize the movie, but my frustration is mainly with the discourse I've witnessed.  I read in disbelief how Evangelicals love this movie because it portrays a tract for "Biblical manhood".  That's some scary shit, pardon my French.  Perhaps Old Testament warriors are being used as role models here.  This mindset is the sort that has hijacked Scripture and fashioned it into a subculture with which I feel increasingly alienated, but that's another soapbox.  Eastwood includes a few insert shots of Kyle's Bible as he's on tour.  But we also have a scene where someone points out to the American sniper that he's never once seen him crack it open... This and a few other moments hint at the great film AMERICAN SNIPER could've been.  I would've preferred to see Kyle shown in a less heroic light, more like a Jake LaMotta.  A far more complex individual could've made this film a really incisive character study. Maybe closer to the truth.  But I'm in the minority there. 

Bradley Cooper, despite being given to portray what I suspect is a whitewashed version of Chris Kyle, is terrific.  His embodiment of a Texan who clutches the flag and what he believes America should stand for is so spot on, it's hard to believe the same actor played that weasely FBI agent last year in AMERICAN HUSTLE. He shines even in the distressingly bland domestic scenes, when he fails to reconnect with his wife and domestic life in general.  Some of these scenes reminded me of the mediocrity of Eastwood's entertaining but goofy 1986 military drama HEARTBREAK RIDGE (not a favorable comparison).  These moments are paper thin and overly familiar - for a much more insightful treatment of this subject, watch THE HURT LOCKER, to me a far better movie. SNIPER also really disappoints in the later scenes, when Kyle begins visiting the VA to try to regain his humanity, to help others.  Too pedestrian, and Chris's healing seems to happen too quickly, but the movie doesn't give us a timeline as to how long this took to happen.

But AMERICAN SNIPER works extremely well during its scenes in Iraq.  Eastwood has staged some of the most intense battle sequences in recent memory. These skillful, highly technical scenes work on a gut level, an involvement in the excitement of a firefight, of near misses.  They are maybe even "fun", as Kyle stated.  And what did Francois Truffaut say, that he didn't much like these sorts of films because they make war look like fun? But there is always a backdrop of fear, there is always chaos, especially in a brilliantly rendered sandstorm battle, one of the best of Eastwood's career.  Cooper registers a tumult of emotions behind that rifle, perhaps more than the real Chris Kyle did?

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