Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Aptly Titled American Sniper

I'm still working on my year's best list, but in the meantime I thought I would reflect a bit on Clint Eastwood's new film, which I saw last weekend.

American Sniper has most of the elements that would ordinarily make it an excellent film: strong writing, directing, editing, and acting. The last several films I have seen with Bradley Cooper (Limitless, The Place Beyond the Pines, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Guardians of the Galaxy) have demonstrated that he is one of the finest working American actors today, and he is extraordinary in Eastwood's film. It's a raw, emotional and believable performance. Cooper plays an all-American cowboy sharpshooter, a protector of innocence, a war hero, a man who never quits and loves his country possibly more than his family. I've heard that the actual Chris Kyle was even more unambiguously patriotic, that Cooper toned down his character a bit. If what I hear is correct, Cooper made the right decision. He has some stiff competition in the Oscars this year--I think Michael Keaton should win but it will probably go to Eddie Redmayne for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking. Cooper is just as deserving as anyone else in the best-actor category. Also, in terms of quality film making, this is Eastwood's strongest in a few years. It's well paced and the performances hit the right notes. Aside from all of the strengths of the film, though, its moral absolutist message undermines all of its superlative qualities.

There's an old axiom I heard once that all war films are anti-war films, but this over-simplified truism does not apply to American Sniper. It's not that the film romanticizes or glorifies war exactly, but it clearly and categorically approves of the war in Iraq and suggests that the only problem soldiers have are dealing with amputated limbs and feeling guilty that they didn't kill bad guys before they killed their friends. These are not soldiers traumatized by war, and this is not a film that questions why we were in Iraq in the first place. The film's depiction of the insurgent Iraqis as "savages"--a words that is used several times in the film--is particularly problematic. The depiction of the enemy serves to draw a black and white line between the "good" guys and "bad" guys. While all of the Americans from the grunts to the officers are good: read honest, patriotic, noble, brave, kind, and think of others before themselves, all of the Iraqis are bad: read dishonest, cowardly, and think only of themselves. Compared to something like The Thin Red Line or even Band of Brothers, American Sniper seems pretty backwards in its depiction of the enemy. It's almost as if the film were made in the 1940s.

Another problem lies in Kyle's characterization. The preview for the film implies that the film will grapple with the difficult decisions soldiers have to make on a daily basis. Should a sniper kill a woman and a child--who might be enemy combatants? Are they actually carrying weapons? Is a man simply using his cell phone or is he alerting the enemy of American troop positions? Soldiers surely make mistakes and unintentionally kill innocent people. So, I was surprised when I watched the film that Kyle never struggles with making decisions--everything is simply right or wrong; people are either good or bad. He's never tortured by decisions because he never makes mistakes and his decisions are always right. Even in the scene where the soldiers are in the midst of a sandstorm--where the sand could have been a perfect metaphor for the ambiguities of war, the difficulty to see what is true, Eastwood fails to exploit this moment and simply utilizes the sand for what it is--an obstacle that has to be overcome before the bad guys come.

It is for these, I suppose you could say political, reasons that the film is problematic. It's disappointing because it has so much going for it, but it ultimately proves to be a two-hour long commercial for the military.

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