Saturday, January 24, 2015

Movie Reviews: American Sniper

American Sniper
directed by Clint Eastwood
The late Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL from Texas. He was the deadliest sniper in American military history with 160 confirmed sniper kills. Kyle received a host of medals including Silver Stars, Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars. Kyle served four tours in Iraq. American Sniper is the story of Kyle's life based on his autobiography of the same title. This film featured such an extremely smooth fit between acting and direction that an incautious viewer could almost believe it was a documentary. The cinematography and sound were top notch. I think that a person can enjoy an artistic creation regardless of his or her thoughts about the creator's political leanings or of those who are depicted in the work. More on that later. 

American Sniper has a very simple narrative structure. Eastwood shows us the hero's early days before his destiny was revealed. The hero is challenged by forces both internal and external. He has to explain to himself and others why he feels what he does about the world and why he has the beliefs that he does. Ultimately the hero becomes the "great man" who is hailed by his peers before his betrayal and death. American Sniper opens with Kyle about to make a decision of great moral import in the middle of a street battle in wartime Iraq. But before we see what choice he makes Eastwood takes us back to Kyle's youth in Texas. Kyle's father was a disciplinarian who didn't care for bullies. As he explained to his two sons the world was divided up into wolves (who hurt, rob and murder people), sheep (passive people who were the prey for the wolves and had little if any power to resist them) and sheepdogs (active people who had the physical strength to protect the sheep from the wolves and the moral courage not to become wolves themselves). 

The elder Kyle explained that he wasn't raising any sheep in his family and he would be damned if his sons became wolves. This simplistic if effective moral message became the adult Chris Kyle's (Bradley Cooper) moral true north. He believes that it is his obligation to protect others just as he protected his younger brother from a schoolyard bully. His mantra is God, country and family. So when Kyle saw the Al-Qaeda attacks on the US embassies and later on 9-11 he took it very personally. After the embassy attacks he joined the Navy, leaving behind his previous profession of rodeo rider. He also left behind an implied lifestyle of easy women, meeting his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and impressing her with a combination of chivalry, good old boy charm, politeness, rectitude and confidence.

Although Miller's role is at first small and doesn't really have a theme of its own it's critical to the film because it's through Taya and her and Kyle's later children together that the film reveals Kyle's damaged and later salvaged humanity. So although this is a violent war movie it's also an exploration of the impact of war and the resulting PTSD on families, husbands and wives and their children. I think that might be an important consideration into why American Sniper isn't just another war movie, although some other people certainly saw it that way. Eastwood remains pretty conventional in his story line. We watch Chris win and woo Taya. 

We also watch him confront the physical challenges of SEAL training (he was older than the average SEAL prospect) and the fact that despite his familiarity with shooting and guns he wasn't exactly impressive at his initial marksman training and testing. It's shortly after Chris and Taya's wedding that the newlywed and new SEAL is sent off to war in Iraq. His job is to protect marines and soldiers as they perform missions in dense Iraqi cities. Chris is good at his job. He's so good that other armed forces members start requesting his team to watch their backs. His fellow warriors call him "Legend", somewhat sarcastically of course but never without respect.
But what apparently drives Kyle even more than the number of kills that he's made is that he's saving American lives (and incidentally some Iraqi ones as well, though the real life Kyle made it crystal clear that Iraqi lives were a minimal if not non-existent portion of his moral calculus in war) and helping Americans win over the "savages'. American Sniper takes the easy way out and doesn't display any American savagery. We don't hear epithets like dune coons or sand n*******. We don't see any carpet bombing, torture or indiscriminate shooting from gunships. We do see Al-Qaeda murder and torture. To help protect more Americans, Kyle leaves his sniper's perch to lead marines and soldiers from the front to help them safely search and clear houses. This is a very violent film but with one or two exceptions it never feels gratuitous. 

The movie has a very old school Western feel to it. We even have two mustache twirling Big Bads to act as Kyle's foils. There is The Butcher (Mido Hamada), an Al-Qaeda bigshot who is Al-Zarquawi's number two and Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), a Syrian Olympic medal winning sniper who is just about as talented as Kyle is, and who has been assigned to hunt Kyle. Kyle is not depicted as perfect. In one scene Eastwood depicts Kyle's pride interfering with good decision making with tragic results. The film leans toward hagiography but again it is based on Kyle's book. Kyle was pro-war. Eastwood shows that Kyle has no answer for his brother, a fellow veteran who now despises the war. And Kyle is shocked to be challenged in his Manichean beliefs by other sailors and soldiers who point out that evil is everywhere, not just in Iraq. The film avoids larger questions of the legality or morality of the Iraq invasion or the lies that preceded it by maintaining a very tight focus on Kyle and his struggle to survive.If the film has a weakness, and it has a few, one is that with four tours of duty some of the action is repetitive and hard to tell apart. Of course that could be the point.

In between his various tours of duty we see the increasing pressure that Chris and Taya's marriage comes under as well as the huge mental and physical stress that Chris undergoes, though he refuses to admit it to anyone. If Chris saved service members' lives overseas and back home via his work with veterans, the film gives the clear impression that Taya saved Chris' life. Say what you will about marriage but one clear benefit of a good marriage is that you have someone else looking out for your physical, mental and emotional health. The film's ending was abrupt. It was more effective because Eastwood didn't portray the final minutes of Kyle's life but rather showed him playing with his kids and flirting with his wife before leaving home with the man who would murder him. 

Eastwood used real life pictures and video of Chris Kyle's funeral and funeral procession while the credits rolled. When I saw the film's ending there was silence then applause in the theater. It's worth pointing out that I live in an area that very strongly trends Democratic and liberal. It's certainly possible that the film showing just happened to disproportionately attract Fox News viewers and/or relatives of veterans but I couldn't say. I would tend to doubt it. The theater was packed to the brim. This film is touching something among viewers of many political backgrounds..
As we noted when Kyle was murdered some people took the opportunity to say that he was a psychopathic killer or hurled even worse calumnies at him specifically and at the military in general. There's a political and cultural undercurrent. Kyle was a large southern masculine man who hunted animals and killed people in war. He apparently lacked or at least didn't publicly share any doubts about the essential rightness of his actions. He was proud of what he did. Some people can't tolerate that. Strangely enough however some of the people who eagerly hurled insults at Kyle or who saw him as a psychotic killer are also among the biggest supporters of our current President who has killed at least 2400 people in drone strikes. And unlike Kyle many of the people that President Obama killed were women, children and other non-combatants. In some cases President Obama and his team did not even deign to find out who they were bombing. They wanted to send a message and put the fear of God into people. They called such events signature strikes

The people ordering drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia from offices halfway around the world are never in any physical danger with the possible exception of carpal tunnel syndrome or running out of diet Coke. Kyle killed enemy soldiers and/or people who were trying to kill him or his fellow Americans. There's no record of him torturing people, committing war crimes or bombing wedding parties. As a sniper every bullet he fired was supposed to have a militarily justifiable target. Kyle may have occasionally felt like operating under much looser restrictions and indeed said so IRL but he didn't. He walked into physical danger and paid the price. Kyle thought he could morally justify every shot he took.

I don't see a moral calculus under which anyone can have an inchoate rage about Chris Kyle and not have worse anger towards President Obama. I think many film critics are really expressing their disdain for the symbol of Chris Kyle and not necessarily his actions. On the other hand there are many on the right who wish to wave Kyle's bloody shirt as part of their burning atavistic anger and hostility towards liberals, non-whites, people who believe in free speech, non-Christians, antiwar activists and so on. Some of the biggest loudmouths attacking anyone who disliked this movie never themselves served in the military. American Sniper, despite the cheers of some right-wingers or the jeers of some of those on the left was not the definitive story of the Iraq War. It was the adapted portrayal of one man's view of his wartime experiences. The film (and I still haven't gotten around to reading the book yet) strongly hints that Kyle's work helping vets re-integrate themselves into civilian life was as much about helping him to deal with his own PTSD as it was about helping other people. To conclude I think you can be strongly antiwar and still enjoy this film. 

You can vehemently disagree with the Iraq war without demonizing veterans. There are veterans who disagreed with the Iraq war. You can appreciate the price that Kyle and similar people paid and still remain opposed to war. You can dislike Kyle and still respect his courage. So see this movie or do not but don't fear that it will make you change your ideas about the military or the Iraq War. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum don't let this film make you start hurling invective at THEM. I liked this film. I would also still like to see Bush and Cheney in prison.

I think the over the top reactions to American Sniper show why it's a bad idea to have the South so overrepresented in the military and the Pacific Coast and Northeast so underrepresented. There is an over identification with the military in some quarters and a snooty distance from it in others. Watch for the fake babies used to portray Kyle's children at young ages. Cooper's acting is sublime. Again, this is an intense film. Like many of Eastwood's works ( Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of our Fathers, Gran Torino and especially Unforgiven) it shows that while in an imperfect world, violence may be necessary, it still has a cost.
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