Tuesday, September 1, 2015

American Sniper

Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Rated R, 132 minutes.
Bradley Cooper
Sienna Miller
Max Charles
Luke Grimes
Kyle Gallner
Sam Jaeger
Jake McDorman
Sammy Sheik
Mido Hamada

When we meet Chris Kyle (Cooper), he's just a good ol' Texas boy who competes in rodeos. He sees a news report on a terrorist attack where Americans were killed and decides he wants to do his part to protect our freedom. He marches himself down to the local Navy recruiter and not only volunteers, but signs up for the Navy SEALs, arguably the most elite special forces in the world. In rather quick succession, he becomes a full-fledged SEAL, meets and falls in love with Taya (Miller), 9/11 happens, he and Taya get married, and he ships off to war. We then follow him on many military excursions and struggle to keep his marriage afloat when he's home. As you may know by now, this is based on a true story.

From a visual standpoint, the combat scenes, of which there are plenty, are magnificent. Each shot that hits its target resonates as the true ending or irrevocable altering of a life. The rest of what happens during these scenes is also gorgeously shot. The one misstep, however, is a large one. Certain tactics used by our hero and his team gives us a climactic scene we can't see. The way it plays out, this is meant to create tension. Done correctly, this could work as it does in the Spanish horror flick REC and its American remake Quarantine. Here, it's just a source of frustration as we try to make out figures in the dense orange fog. It should have that effect on the people they're fighting, not on the viewing audience. Aside from this cinematic faux pas, and the now infamous fake baby scene, it's equally beautiful and brutal to look at.

The old adage says 'beauty is only skin deep.' It certainly applies, here. The film's aesthetic charms are in service of a story that never dives beneath the surface. Neither does it give us sufficient reason to care. The culprit is a mismatch between screenplay and director. What the screenplay does is in stark contrast to the director's abilities. One of Clint Eastwood's greatest strengths as a film-maker is patient story-telling. Movies like Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, and Gran Torino unfold slowly, letting us get to know and become invested in their characters. In American Sniper, any parts of the story that don't involve combat are sprinted through or glossed over. It's lazy writing that leaves entirely too much up to how the audience feels before having seen this movie. For instance, the movie assumes the viewer is in full support of America's involvement in the Middle East. It positions this as the only stance a patriot could take. Who or what anyone is actually fighting to accomplish is completely ignored. We're merely told that the guys in fatigues are the good guys and everyone of Middle Eastern descent is a bad guy. If you ask for reasons why, the movie can only shrug its shoulders like an annoyed parent and reply "Because I said so."

This complete lack of examination is evident on a micro level, as well. The soldiers themselves are all cardboard cutouts. They exist either to be saved by not be saved by Kyle. On those few occasions when one of them makes a statement or asks a question that hints at something deeper Kyle, and the movie by extension, blows him off by reiterating that being in total and unquestionable agreement with the mission is the only right answer. Any doubt is punishable by death as these people generally don't live much past such heinous insubordination. This includes people whose reason for consternation stems from their religion. Even those that dare look forward to life away from the battlefield suffer stiff consequences. Those on the other side are a faceless and primal glob of evil. So anonymous are they, we can only identify two of them, both by their preferred method of killing and/or maiming. They are referred to as savages several times without verbal or physical rebuttal. Not one is given a redeeming quality to call their own, nor any chance to even share why they feel the way they do.

All of this feeds the beast that is the biggest problem with American Sniper. It unabashedly deifies Chris Kyle. The fact that as a sniper, he's often perched high above the fray serves to highlight this fact. He is quite literally the man upstairs doling out salvation and damnation as he sees fit. In case we aren't sure this is what's going on various things happen to reinforce the notion. For starters, there's his nickname. Shortly after he arrives in Iraq, he earns the moniker 'Legend,' and is referred to as such through much of the film. As it implies, everyone speaks to and about him in reverential terms. He takes control of every situation without any resistance, much less opposition, and always knows exactly what to do.When away from war, the film pretends to show him dealing with PTSD, It never really does. Instead, his one flaw is revealed and it's not a flaw at all. His biggest problem is that there is only one of him and he can't save everyone. The good doctor points him the direction of more people to help and suddenly he's all better. Very near the end of the movie, Taya informs him how great a husband and dad he is now that he's completely "back" and that she knows how hard he worked to get there. Unfortunately, we don't. To me, this is where the movie should have given us empathy for Chris and the entire Kyle family (Taya plus two kids we barely meet) by humanizing him. Instead, anything even remotely compelling about the man is lost in the three years the film decided to skip.

The relentless hero worship on display renders the performances of our leads hollow. Sienna Miller, as Taya, tries mightily to ground the movie in some sort of emotion and gives the film's best portrayal. Understandably, she's worried about her husband and her family. Unfortunately, neither her husband nor the movie gives her anything in return. When she asks direct questions of him, he says nothing. Granted, this is a fairly normal occurrence in households all over the world, but at some point, something has to be said. In American Sniper, it never is. Bradley Cooper's work is effected by this issue even more. It's not that he does sub-par work because that's not at all true (except for the fake baby scene). It's that he is given no help in bringing any sort of depth to his character. He is an infallible god who has come to Earth to fight evil alongside us mere mortals. Cooper is not playing Chris Kyle, the human being. He's playing Legend, the martyr.

And just so you don't think I'm joking about the fake baby...


  1. Nice write up. I have no desire to see this film at all. I never have. I'm still salty over Cooper getting nominated for an Oscar while Jake Gyllenhaal was left out. That being said, I have seen the fake baby scene, and that never stops being funny.

    1. Now having seen this, I can confidently say there is no way this performance is better than either of JG's from last year.

      My fave part of the fake baby scene is BC moving the arm with his thumb in a desperate attempt to make it look lifelike. Lmao every time I see that.

  2. I found the film a lot more complicated than most people gave it credit for. It's been a while, but as far as I recall, there isn't one single scene where Kyle actually embraces, or even really accepts, his "Legend" honorific, and Cooper plays him as a bundle of contradictions that actually makes sense: This is a man who has the capacity to understand that what he's doing is on some level "wrong", but doesn't want to, even can't do so because doing so would mean not doing his job. He's a simple man capable of complex thought, which is where his PTSD (or PTSD-like symptoms) comes from. The film does a great job of getting inside the head of the modern soldier, far more so than any other film in recent memory. Of course the Middle Easterners are a faceless mass of anonymous brown people, because that's how the soldiers see them. And then, the film goes to the extra length of giving the American soldiers (Kyle excepted) not much more characterization than that; they're just as anonymous, even if we do spend more time with them. They're just as expendable as their opposite numbers. That's a pretty radical thing for a film to do in this day and age.

    Of course, the film then ruins it with that God-awful ending, which really does place Kyle on a pedestal to an extent the rest of the film does not. It's a horribly misjudged tonal shift, taking the film from intriguing ambiguity to outright deification, and it left a really sour taste in my mouth.

    I will say this though: I was so caught up in Cooper's performance that I did not even notice the fake baby until afterwards.

    1. You lost me when you said he was "a bundle of contradictions." I just didn't see that at all. Kyle is portrayed as a guy so thoroughly convinced he is on the side of right he never questions his own actions. The lone exception being when he did not kill a child near the end. That loses power, however, because based on the fact we've seen him kill one. we already know had the kid taken another step in the wrong direction Kyle would've shot him. This is the only instance he even remotely seems to have any doubts, but since we know what his course of action would've been, it lacks impact. As far as his nickname goes, he never tells people to not call him that and never seems to bristle at the notion. He is only mildly embarrassed once. The way his PTSD plays out, it doesn't seem to stem from any complex thoughts at all. In fact, he practically shouts down the doctor for suggesting there was. His cure is simply saving more people. Other soldiers being anonymous felt like a flaw and helped keep us out of their heads. They were able to give voice to some things that hint at deeper thoughts, but nothing is ever done with these things other than using them signify that one character or another is about to die. It's just all really cold. I never saw any deep examination going on. He just felt like a savior right from the get go. So when that ending happens it didn't feel like a tonal shift to me, but logical conclusion to the life of a man presented as nearly perfect.

      For the record, I think Jarhead does a far better job of getting inside the heads of soldiers during wartime.

  3. Awesome review :) I loved this film but something felt off, and you put it into words perfectly. That fake baby though, oh my goodness...!
    - Allie

    1. Thanks. Off is a great way to describe it. The whole thing just felt that way.

  4. Beautiful review! I saw this movie last winter with my son. Oh, and guess, what -- he knows more than anyone else about snipers, too. :-P Anyway, I was especially interested in your opinion because, in addition to being a brilliant reviewer, you've actually served in the military.

    I liked this movie more than you did, but you expressed your objections beautifully. I didn't feel the movie assumed viewers agreed with the U.S. invasion of Iraq or deified Kyle. I just saw it as one of those movies that, basically, only tells one person's story, and I was O.K. with that. I know virtually nothing about the experience of soldiers, and I am not savvy about war movies, a genre I usually avoid, but the film worked for me. I rambled about that on my blog, so I won't dwell on it here. :-)

    1. Thanks for your kind words, especially since you dropped the 'b' word on me. The movie does set out to tell "one person's story." My issue is that I never got that story. I only got why people know him and deem him important. In other words, I got the persona, not the person.

      I did serve in the military, but I don't have the insight of one who served in combat since I've never done it. The entire first Gulf War happened while I was in, but I wasn't deployed. Anything I have to say about soldiers is only a tiny bit more informed than someone who hasn't served at all. While the military is an experience I had, a cherished one at that, I'm not one who absorbed it into the fiber of my being. What is more me is providing critical thought, that I hope is objective, on art. I've been doing it forever. As much as possible, I try to limit my critique of whatever I'm discussing to the confines of that particular piece. It's occasionally impossible, but a fairer way to look at things, at least in my opinion.

  5. I never quite understood the conflagration of controversy this film went though (although, I guess I can, because 'Murica, y'all) - I thought Eastwood told a terrific story, if flawed in it's depiction of Kyle as anything other than a reluctant hero (that scene where he's confronted by another veteran at the mechanics is perhaps the best "emotional" scene in the whole film), and never really goes too deep into other external motivations. I think Coooper did an excellent job (but, like so many others have said already, how he got a nod from the Academy when Gyllenhaal was overlooked is one of those shake-the-head kinda things) but Miller was wasted, and almost everyone else on screen with Cooper (especially in the Middle East sequences) became just nameless, identity vacuums with no real heft to them whatsoever.

    I think Eastwood's direction on this was superb, on-point and restrained; the hyperbolic screeching by both sides of the war debate is louder than this film ever got. Admittedly, I see this film from an outsider's perspective, and can only bring my own values towards what it depicts, but I really thought it was an excellent film indeed.

    Fake baby.

    1. To boil it down to its simplest, it's clearly a right-wing fantasy. That's fine because even though I'm not a conservative there are lots of those movies that I actually like. I just didn't think Eastwood told much of a story. It was just 'here's the great Chris Kyle. He's great at killing people for US. When he gets home, he keeps making the world a better place by helping even more of US. The End.' You're right that the debate over the war is "louder" than this film ever dared to be.

  6. Jake Gyllenhaal not being nominated was one of the big outrages of the Oscars. I would never have recognised Sienna Miller.