Wednesday, July 8, 2015

American Sniper Movie Review

A Navy SEAL sniper sits on the roof of a building in Iraq. In the street below is an American military convoy. His job is to shepherd those soldiers to safety by keeping a lookout for potential threats. In the city war zone that has been evacuated, any military-age male must be regarded as a threat. First he scopes a man talking on a cell phone. The man steps inside, not knowing how close he came to losing his life. Next a woman and a boy, not more than eleven or twelve years old, arrive on the street. She hands the boy a rocket-propelled grenade. The voice on the other end of the soldier’s com can’t confirm visually. The call is entirely his. Men who engage in war are fair targets. What do you do about a child who is about to kill your comrades?

That opening scene of the Clint Eastwood-directed American Sniper, about the marriage and military career of Chris “Legend” Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history, cuts away to Chris’s childhood hunting with his father and then fills in the details of this past that brought him to that fateful moment on a rooftop in Fallujah and the moment he would, for the first time, stop a human heart. That scene is as well-directed as anything Eastwood has done since Unforgiven, and that includes some great scenes in films like A Perfect World and Mystic River. But he never fulfills the promise of those opening minutes as the movie becomes a segmented narrative of Chris’s three tours of duty interrupted by brief returns home to a life of normalcy that he can’t comprehend.

The three scenes of Chris’s childhood are presented as Early Defining Moments. They feature a tough father who tells a parable about sheep, wolves, and the sheepdog that is obviously supposed to explain Chris’s driving need to enlist and keep returning to Iraq despite the needs of his family. These scenes are not only simplistic thematically, but crafted with dialogue that would hardly pass muster in middle school. It’s the weakest section in Jason Hall’s screenplay (based on the autobiography by Chris Kyle, Scott McKewen, and Jim DeFelice) and it injures the film right out of the gate in its first ten minutes. Other Defining Moments shortly thereafter don’t improve much in terms of dialogue, development, subtlety, or understanding of how motivation comes from a long series of events, circumstances, and in influence. So when Chris (played by Bradley Cooper) and his brother catch on the news that our U.S. embassy in Kenya had been bombed, Chris mutters, “Look what they did to us” and the next scene he’s at an enlistment office. Later, after some painfully executed courtship and wedding scenes, he hears his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) cry out, “Chris! Oh my god!” He runs to the living room to witness the World Trade Center aflame and collapsing. These would have been better presented through asides in the writing rather than try to make it seem as if in the early minutes of 9/11 anyone experienced anything other than abject confusion and fear.

I understand these are shorthand ways of establishing progression, motivations, and character, but I also fear that the simplistic representation is one symptom in a list that also led to the war sequences being reduced to a lone gunman revenge plot. There are as many ways of representing war as there are soldiers who fight in them. Of all the Vietnam films, each one tackles the war from a different angle. Some deal with post-war effects on the veteran and difficulties with re-assimilation into society. Some just put us right in the thick of battle and say, “Here it is. Now deal with it.” American Sniper boils the Iraq war down to the need of one man to find and eliminate an enemy sniper who is equally as good as he is. This plot was executed before and with much better tension and attention to detail in Enemy at the Gates in which Jude Law and Ed Harris squared off as, respectively, a Russian and a Nazi sniper in Stalingrad during WWII. Chris Kyle’s foil in Eastwood’s film is a ridiculous cartoon. We see him occasionally, but never hear him speak. He gets a phone call. He answers. He ties a bandana around his head. He grabs his rifle (I guess they cut out the shots of his strapping bullet belts to his chest, sliding a knife into a holster, and tying up his boot laces) and bolts out the door. He traverses rooftops and lies in wait, wondering how his heavy eyeliner (making him look more ethnic?) doesn’t blind him. For Chris Kyle the movie superhero – I mean character – the enemy sniper is the be all end all of the war. And then, in the most stunning turn of absurd events, immediately after firing the kill shot on this mythical figure, still amid enemy fire and a sandstorm, eh phones Taya to inform her he’s “ready to come home.”

It’s truly no wonder this was such a box office behemoth. It’s simplistic jingoism mashed with the veil of social importance. Eastwood, one of Hollywood’s few public conservatives, doesn’t line the film with the politics of the Iraq war. It doesn’t even really dare to depict the horrors of war. So it’s not an especially challenging film. It touches just enough on the problem of PTSD that we can watch it and feel good about recognizing the psychological effects of war. The truth is, some moments are well-handled in terms of subtlety. It’s the way Cooper raises his head and focuses his eyes just so at the sound of a lawnmower starting, or a car racing up alongside him on the streets of American suburbia that tell us more about what happens to these soldiers than any dialogue could.

All the misgivings I have about the movie pale in comparison to the way Eastwood handles the ending. After Chris is on the road to recovery, he opens on an idyllic afternoon in the Kyle family home. He’s playing cowboys with his kids (really the whole film is a cowboy fantasy set in Iraq with al-Qaeda substituting for the Indians). A date comes on the screen – February 2, 2014. If you were like me and didn’t know Chris Kyle’s fate, then that date simply telegraphs that something awful or at least fateful is about to happen. The way the camera focuses on the cowboy revolver, the happy family, and Chris’s apparent self-recovery though aiding other vets, my thought was that he had actually gone off the deep end and was about to murder his wife. Granted, the majority of viewers would know beforehand what’s going to happen, but there are only two kinds of people: those who know that Chris was murdered by a fellow vet he was trying to help and those who don’t. So you have to ask yourself, who is this final scene for? for me, it unnecessarily created a false tension. I don’t think that was Eastwood’s intent, but he certainly didn’t consider how the ignorant would interpret it. Then when Chris leaves the house and we glimpse a wiry, nervous-looking man he’s about to go to a shooting range with, we know this guy is no good. So in that moment I knew what was coming. The ending just feels bungled and the rest of the movie doesn’t earn it.

Chris Kyle’s story is heroic, brave, sad, tragic, and uplifting all at the same time. There’s no question about the tremendous good he did for his comrades under fire and for veterans who’d suffered as much or more than he did. I just think he deserves better than this film.

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