The Punishing War Zone
I'd wager that two thirds of the shit-shovelers criticizing American Sniper either haven't actually seen it or are predisposed to filter every scene through a grimy lens of faux-Progressive ideology. And to the patriots (armchair or otherwise) that created this January juggernaut--a seemingly endless moviegoing legion who've plopped down record-breaking amounts of cash--I hope you're sufficiently rattled and confused by Clint Eastwood's unflattering portrait of Chris Kyle, the Right Wing's Military Messiah.
If you have no idea what my political affiliation is based on that opening paragraph, I've done my job. By excoriating both sides of the "aisle", I hope to convey my absolute frustration and bewilderment at the trumped-up controversies surrounding this film. From the pre-release chatter alone, one would think that a quarter of American Sniper was literally Bradley Cooper waving a flag while working out to 9/11-jumper footage, with the balance taking place in a first-person-shooter dimension marked by high-scores, level-ups, and sand.
As with all matters political and artistic, the truth lies somewhere in between and is accessible only by those willing to tune everything else out and see for themselves.
You don't need to have read Kyle's autobiography to appreciate what Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall achieve with their movie. In fact, it's probably better that you go in cold (I did). The first half-hour of American Sniper really is as bad as everyone says: a clichéd and hagiographic depiction of the beer-swilling, punch-happy good ol' boy who loves 'Murica, women, and horses. It even shares the opening structure as another recently criticized war movie, Unbroken (complete with a tense war scene in which our hero flashes back to the church-going-childhood misadventures that started it all).
After the growing-up montage, Eastwood reveals Cooper-as-Kyle in classic Hollywood-cowboy form. The actor proudly lifts his head from beneath a downturned brim as he prepares for the rodeo. He's clean-shaven, clear-eyed, and beaming--a sharp contrast to the grizzled sharpshooter from the film's opening. Though it happens several minutes into the movie, the hat intro feels like our first moment with the protagonist, as if Eastwood and editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach gave their movie a pre-release Tarantino shuffle.
I had fun watching this Kyle on screen. In American Hustle, Cooper shed his leading-man looks to play a sleazy undercover fed. Here, he accentuates his chiseled beefiness while draining proof of higher-level functions from his eyes and mouth. That's not to say he's a dummy; rather a "man's man" who's all heart, patriotism, and survival instinct. The effect is a cheesy-as-hell opening half-hour that could have been a cut scene from Team America: World Police--headlined by an equally sawdust-filled, honor-bound hulk.
Of course, 9/11 changes everything. I must note that the film makes clear that Kyle had given up the rodeo and joined the Navy SEALs before that day (he was compelled to enlist a couple years earlier, after seeing another terrorist attack on television). He'd also settled down with Taya (Sienna Miller), and begun proving himself a fine sniper in training exercises--though he'd never had a human being in his sights.
There's been much hand-wringing over the film's apparent linking of 9/11 to our invasion of Iraq. One need only do a Google search (or simply remember) to find that the pretense for America's invasion of that country was 9/11. Eastwood has been widely criticized for not including Afghanistan, false-WMD stories, Powell's UN testimony, mass protests, or any of the other pre-war noise that would have indicated our impending quagmire. I submit that it's not Eastwood's responsibility to do so in putting together a film about a military man following the orders set by his commanding officers. If anything, the most offensive part of the 9/11 scene involves Chris and Taya watching the planes hit, and the towers falling less than a minute later; not even the slickest editing can make that plausible or historically accurate. Again, funny.
The film shifts gears when Kyle and his SEAL Team are deployed to Iraq. Kyle's first kill involves a mother-and-son suicide team whom he takes out as they approach a Marine convoy. It's a tough moment for Kyle, who doesn't regret the decision--just the fact that his target was not one he'd expected to contend with. His marksmanship earns acclaim all over the theatre of war, and we follow Kyle as he watches over house raids and street patrols, taking out insurgents with an eerie, dead-eyed precision.
We see the effects of his effectiveness almost immediately. The easy smile fades, the frustration at "the enemy" grows, and his relationship with Taya strains. Kyle returns to the Middle East for three more tours before retiring, fathering two kids in between. His compulsion to get back on the battle field comes across not as a blood-thirsty, racist rage, but as genuine concern for troops returning to that nightmare, and for newcomers who have no idea what they're about to face. Cooper conveys this duality brilliantly, through a stoic mask of manhood. Through the course of the film, we see subtle cracks in his idealism and faith in his cause. As friends die and the missions multiply, with more and more "bad guys" popping up in place of old ones, he begins to consider the possibility that something is amiss on a grander scale.
The film's climax centers on a rooftop rescue precipitated by Kyle's determination to take out a sniper (Sammy Sheik) who's dogged him for years. As hundreds of insurgents storm the building in which Kyle and company have sought refuge, a fast-approaching sandstorm kills visibility and the possibility of the rescue transport hitting its mark. Blinded and overrun by ant-like swarms of killers he'll never be able to stamp out, Kyle has a breakthrough and realizes it's time to go home and stay home. In these tense minutes, both the characters and the audience are lost in an almost literal fog of war. The fame of being "the deadliest sniper in US military history" and having his own patrol unit (whose emblem is The Punisher's jagged-jawed skull icon) is no longer a glamorous proposition for anyone (if it ever was, really), and we want to get the hell out of Dodge just as much as Kyle does.
In a way, that Punisher logo is the key to the movie: a man, driven to revenge against mobsters who killed his family, spends the rest of his life murdering "evildoers" indiscriminately--knowing, ultimately that the crusade is futile, but being unable (or unwilling) to do the heavy lifting of dealing with his rage in ways that will create less enemies. Eastwood and Hall's version of Kyle had a revelation (or at least the beginnings of one), while America at large, it's worth noting, has still not learned this lesson.
By cutting out the last few hours of Kyle's life, American Sniper ends on the same shaky footing with which it began. Sure, depicting the circumstances under which he died might have been ghoulish, but there must have been a better alternative than a sloooooow-motion shot of Taya closing a door, followed by a post-script and memorial archive footage. In short, it's back to the flag-waiving rah-rah nonsense--which we'd collectively cut through in the previous hour-and-a-half. I get it, but I don't accept it.
I also don't accept any criticism of Eastwood's film that centers on his personal political leanings. Yeah, he talked to an empty chair at the RNC a few years ago. Sure, he's taken Conservative positions in public before and made movies about gun-toting vigilantes. But when Kathryn Bigelow's film The Hurt Locker came out in 2008, it received near-unanimous praise as a similarly context-free depiction of a soldier grappling with the horrors of war, post-traumatic stress, and an addiction to the battlefield. Jeremy Renner played a similarly impenetrable hero who was, frankly, less likeable than Cooper's take on Chris Kyle. So, where was the outrage then?
American Sniper is a technical and artistic triumph, anchored by Cooper's deceptively nuanced performance. The screenplay and editing choices are undercooked at the edges (and I'm still pissed that the notoriously distracting Fake Baby ruined two scenes that should have been the film's emotional crux), but they add to the film's compelling weirdness. None of us can see inside Eastwood's head, or could have known Kyle's heart. But in presenting this fictitious account of real people and events, they guy who made Dirty Harry an icon examines our cultural obsession with starting and supporting wars that we don't have to look at every day.
As a species, we've moved from hand-to-hand combat to close-range weaponry to snipers to bombs to drones. We get further and further away from seeing those we disagree with as people capable of reason and negotiation; this distance makes it easier to collectively countenance the idea of "collateral damage". Perhaps the genie is good and well out of the bottle, but it's foolish to pretend that condemning people like Chris Kyle for doing what he was trained to do (protect his teammates during missions established by folks whose job it is to know better) is helpful. American Sniper is propaganda only to those willing to be propagandized, and a one-dimensional cartoon only to those who pick at its flaws without considering the work as a whole. If we really want to win the war of ideas and evolve together, we must stop sniping at each other over people's opinions of art that we're too uncomfortable with or too biased against exploring ourselves.