Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review: American Sniper (2014)

American Sniper (2014)

Rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references

Walking out of American Sniper, I was not at all thinking about the controversy surrounding just how much of the film was changed from Chris Kyle's autobiography, or whether or not Kyle himself had spun a few tall tales in said book. All I cared about was the fact that this movie just wasn't very good. American Sniper was my first great disappointment of 2015 (yes, it came out last year, but it's only getting a wide release now), a failure of a war movie that just could not seem to find a point and stick with it for more than ten minutes. It felt like three different movies haphazardly bolted together, none of them impressing me in any way, the end result being a dull, manipulative film that never earns the emotion it tries to get out of me. The worst part is, this is the sort of film whose subject matter makes it very difficult to openly criticize. It's practically tailor-made for a certain subset of the American audience, the flag-waving patriots who packed the theater I saw this film at and gave it a standing ovation at the end. I waited until long after I left the theater before I told my dad and his girlfriend (who I saw this film with) that I didn't like it, lest I get an earful from somebody who did. So at the risk of sounding unpatriotic, let me just say this: for me at least, it doesn't even work on the level. I couldn't even enjoy it as a film about "what we're fighting for", mainly because it went to every length to go out of its way to avoid having any message at all, at the cost of my investment in the material. As much as I love my country, it still wasn't nearly enough to see past this film's large and glaring faults.

You see, this film, based on the autobiography of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played here by Bradley Cooper), the most lethal sniper in US history, is less a solid narrative and more a series of vignettes loosely connected by chronology and Kyle's presence. The first of its stories concerns his relationship with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), from when they first met through their marriage, their kids, and the growing strain placed on their relationship by and Kyle's emotional health by his four deployments to Iraq. The second story is about those four deployments, in which Kyle shoots insurgents, battles a rival Iraqi sniper known only as The Butcher, and grows more deeply committed to his mission. All of it is drawn from Kyle's own account of his experience, albeit with some of his rougher edges removed.

And herein lies the source of many of the film's problems. To put it as neutrally as possible, Kyle was very enthusiastic about fighting in Iraq. In his autobiography, he stated bluntly that he loved his job, calling it the time of his life and saying that, when he was home with his wife and kids, he wanted to be back in Iraq. He described some of his shots with all the glee of a little boy setting an anthill on fire with a magnifying glass. He was not at all morally conflicted about having 160 confirmed kills to his name -- he was an unapologetic, stone-cold killer. A portrait of this man taken at his word, a figure who could test any audience's sympathy, would've been a challenging thing to make without descending into a cold-blooded, unintentional self-parody of jingoistic war movies, but if anybody could've done it, it would be Clint Eastwood, the man whose films about the Battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, serve as excellent deconstructions of wartime mythmaking.

Unfortunately, the Clint Eastwood we got to direct American Sniper took the easy way out. Kyle is made substantially more sympathetic, with more of a focus on his family, his sense of duty, and his post-service work with veterans and less of a focus on his anti-Muslim sentiments and his admitted enjoyment of the war in Iraq. He's an idealized, agreeably conservative Sergeant York figure here, a man who signed up for the SEALs after the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam out of a belief that his country had come under attack and he needed to help protect it, and whose return to the battlefield for four tours of duty was depicted as motivated by his desire to bring a particularly noxious al-Qaeda operative to justice. It does a disservice to a man who was, in real life, far more morally complicated than this film's whitewashed, heroic narrative would suggest.

But even leaving aside the comparisons between the real Kyle and the film's version of him (which I only really learned about after I got home from the theater), it doesn't change the fact that this film is broken on a fundamental level. Put simply, it seems that Eastwood didn't quite know what kind of film he wanted to make here, and so we got three separate films all competing for attention. The first and most straightforward of these films takes place in Iraq, where Kyle battles The Butcher in a conventional, well-shot war thriller. The second of these films takes place back home, when Kyle is dealing with a disappointed Kaya and the toll that the war has been taking on his life, causing him to grow paranoid and see threats that aren't there all around him. Finally, we get a patriotic film about the call of duty, as Kyle fights to defend and help his fellow servicemen both in Iraq and when they return home.

It's the last two stories in particular that kill the film, pulling it in two very opposed directions with little to connect them. A better film would've focused on either one of those stories -- an anti-war story for the former, a pro-military story for the latter -- or, better yet, tried to find some theme in both of them that could create a complete narrative. A pro-military take on the above story would've taken Kyle's struggles at home, which bear many of the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, as part of the sacrifice that he made for his country, not so different from the missing limbs and other crippling injuries of many of his fellow servicemen (if less visually obvious). He may have lost something of himself, but in the end, it was all worth it in the name of defending the people and flag that he loves. The anti-war story, on the other hand, would've portrayed Kyle as someone who, fully buying into the mythology about the war, sees his life go to shit as a result, his brother coming home wounded and many of his friends coming home in pine boxes while his family life fades away, only coming back after he's hung up his fatigues and come home for good -- yet he remains too blinded by patriotism to question what he's fighting for. Either one of these would have been an intriguing story, but at the same time, either one would've alienated a large section of the populace that either supports or opposes the war in Iraq.

This film, unfortunately, tries to have its cake and eat it too. The end result is that it winds up trying to tell both stories, which cut against each other and undermine the point that each is trying to make. Just when I thought that this film had finally started to hammer some coherence into its message in the third act, it goes back to waffling on it. I disagree with Seth Rogen's assessment that this film is jingoistic propaganda, but for the opposite reason that many others disagree -- at the very least, an American version of Stolz der Nation, the fake German war film that we saw at the end of Inglourious Basterds, actually would've stood for something and been an entertaining, shut-off-your-brain war movie, not the dull, pointless slog we got here. And that's before getting into how this film treats Kyle's untimely death in 2013 -- as almost an afterthought, never shown on camera or even really built up to, and used to score cheap emotional points (including footage of his actual funeral over the credits) for a film that had done nothing to earn them. I get that they couldn't really depict it due to the fact that Kyle's murder is still an open legal case, but even then, they should've waited until after it was settled to make this film rather than leave such an unsatisfying ending.

If I had to find something to like about this film, it would be on a technical level. Eastwood's direction may have done the story a great disservice, but he shines in the action scenes, making the battles in Iraq look intense without much in the way of artifice or distracting camera tricks. Bradley Cooper does what he can to make an interesting character out of Kyle, even when the writing is pulling that character in two different directions, and he comes out of this with, at the very least, his pride intact. And while the film as a whole falls apart with a single breeze, many individual scenes, when taken on their own, are quite good, some of them even marvelous, making me wish that much more that the film had found a better way to tie them together into something that actually meant a damn.

Score: 2 out of 5

American Sniper is apolitical to a fault, trying so hard to avoid injecting any political slant into its material that it winds up stripping it of all depth and nuance. Chris Kyle deserved a better movie, no matter what that movie might have been.

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