Saturday, January 10, 2015

"American Sniper"

 3 / 5 

There is an Iraqi sniper, a lethal one, in American Sniper, but little more than a passing mention that he was once an Olympian.  There is also Iraqi militant known as "The Butcher," who uses power drills to mutilate his victims.  They are not presented as men.

American Sniper sees them as little more than targets; they are humanized only to the extent that they are seen doing evil, terrible things.  They are to be killed.  They are to be destroyed.  They are threats to the American way of life, so they must be eradicated.  The movie is a true story about a man named Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), who was the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history.  The lives he takes are numbered in the hundreds, but he goes back to Iraq four different times because despite all the other humans he has killed, he has not achieved his goal of eliminating the other sniper and The Butcher.

In other words, it often seems in American Sniper, he needs to finish playing the video game because he hasn't beaten it yet.  His need to destroy these other people becomes an obsession, and he sees things in Iraq that no human should ever see; the bloodshed, the violence, the destruction and the mayhem take their toll, and he becomes worn down.  When he returns home, he cannot focus on his wife and his growing family, he can only think about how his job is not yet finished and he has to go back.

Early on, before the Twin Towers fall on 9/11 and before he has been deployed to Iraq to ensure the safety and protection of all American men and women, Taya, the woman who will become his wife (played by Sienna Miller), asks him about his considerable expertise at target practice. How is Chris going to feel, she wonders, when there's a living person at the other end of his gun?  Chris shrugs off the moral question.

There is no moral question at the heart of American Sniper.  The Americans are good.  The Iraqis, those "savages" (as the movie calls them over and over) are bad.  The film is mind-bogglingly simplistic.  With Cooper in the lead role and direction by Clint Eastwood, whose examinations of morality have often been striking, I waited for the moment when the question of people killing people, of the mindlessness and impossibility of wartime slaughter, would be raised.  I waited, and waited, and it never happened.

Was I expecting a different movie?  Maybe so.  Because American Sniper flirts again and again with deeply troubling questions, but never actually asks them.  This is a movie in which a man goes to war, kills a lot of people, goes back to war, kills even more people, then goes back two more times until he finally gets it right and kills the people he really wants to kill -- and the primary motivation it gives him is nothing more or less than patriotism.  He was enraged by the bombings of U.S. embassies, he was shaken to the core by the fall of the Twin Towers, and he's going to get those bastards.

We are meant to cheer him when he does.  American Sniper makes no judgment about the need for war, does not question (though it shows with almost fetishistic admiration) the trillions of dollars spent to outfit our men and women in uniform, and presents them as the finest the world has to offer.  There are no soldiers from other countries, the war in American Sniper is between America and the infidels.

In one of the film's quieter moments, openly gay actor Jonathan Groff (and I note that he is openly gay because he plays a character whose sexuality would have been forbidden in the U.S. military at the time) plays a wounded veteran who professes nothing but admiration for Chris Kyle, adding that his missing leg does not bother him because there are so many who came back wounded not just in body but in spirit and soul.

It is deeply troubling to American Sniper that so many U.S. veterans were emotionally ravaged by the war in Iraq.  It is not at all troubling that they were, likewise, the cause of destruction and death.  The Iraqis deserved everything they got; we, conversely, did not.  Chris Kyle targeted and destroyed individual lives, but only because it was his job, and his job wouldn't have been necessary if the savages hadn't tried to destroy liberty.  What an unfair world.

American Sniper is an assiduously apolitical film, presenting the war not as a battle over ideologies but as extended action sequences, and on that level, it's an undeniably well-made movie -- it's impeccably crafted, actually, hardly a surprise given Eastwood's extraordinary skills as a director.

Consider, though, that Eastwood made the memorably disturbing anti-war film Letters from Iwo Jima, which took remarkable care to show World War II from the point of view of Japanese soldiers and, coupled with Flags of Our Fathers, offered a nuanced, thoughtful exploration of heroes and enemies. There is no such nuance in American Sniper.

That makes Cooper's genuinely extraordinary and sympathetic performance feel empty, it makes the film feel less than whole.  American Sniper goads half of the audience into cheering and applauding when Cooper kills the bad guys, but doesn't address the discomfort the other half of the audience feels to hear those whoops and hollers.  True, it doesn't have to be responsible for the way the other half of the audience feels, but there's at least a hint that part of Chris Kyle felt that way, too.

American Sniper is a masterful, viscerally jarring movie, there's no getting around that.  The way the Iraqis swarm and attack, dodge and hide, like faceless nameless monsters -- which is exactly what the movie presents them as being -- makes it a gripping experience.  But American Sniper is about as emotionally nuanced and thematically balanced as an action-thriller.  Judging by this film, Clint Eastwood would make a heck of an Alien sequel.

Viewed Jan. 9, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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