February 27, 2015

Movie Review: American Sniper


I just got home from watching "American Sniper". I have read about a dozen reviews, all of them filled with superlatives, many of them loaded with accusations about the intent of the movie. By now everyone knows that various Hollywood blowhards have come out lambasting this film as "pro-war propaganda". Some reviews are overflowing with hatred for Al Qaeda and native Iraqis while others are filled with hatred of America. If you haven't noticed any of the controversy surrounding this movie then I have to assume you live off the grid somewhere quiet and I kind of envy you for it.

Now that I have seen the movie I can honestly say I don't know what all the fuss is about. If there is any one word that would describe this movie that word would be, "restrained." There is no political message in the movie that I can see. Maybe I'm blind to it or immune to it or maybe I'm just stupid, but as far as I can tell there is no political message in the movie at all. The movie opens with Chris Kyle and his father out hunting. The father is presented as overbearing, emotionally abusive, and deeply opinionated about the human race. Those opinions are not favorable, but nowhere does he come across as racist, partisan, or even deeply religious. He's just strongly opinionated. If you disagree with his opinions you're going to dislike him. If you agree with them you're going to love him. He is a man that holds no gray. I found the character kind of one-dimensional, so much so that I'm not certain why they felt it was necessary to include him. Granted, I have not read Chris Kyle's book. It is entirely possible the movie depicts the man the same way the book does, but I wouldn't know.

For the first couple of acts Chris Kyle goes from the son of an emotionally abusive father to a rodeo cowboy specializing in bronco riding. Now you might have some opinions about rodeo as a sport and bronco busting itself, but none of the those opinions are in the movie. It's a job he had before he became a soldier. He comes home from a rodeo to find his live-in lover in bed with another man, there's a tussle, but it's neither particularly violent nor particularly emotional. It is a surprisingly restrained scene. So much so that the attempt at delivering a humorous one-liner at the very end of the scene falls completely flat. There is no tension for the humor to dispel.

Then comes the terror attacks on our embassies in east Africa. This prompts young Chris to join the Navy and become a SEAL. He is 30 years old at the time, a bit old for a SEAL, which his instructor pounds into his head over and over again, but Chris Kyle sticks it out and becomes a SEAL. He then meets Taya and they date while he is in Sniper training. One thing that happens during this brief period is the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The day he is married he learns his team is being shipped off to Iraq. His team is eager to get over there and do some damage, but Bradley Cooper presents Chris Kyle as being somewhat ambivalent. After all, this is his wedding day.

Off to war he goes. Four tours altogether. We don't see many of his kills, which is a good thing. In fact, none of the combat scenes are particularly over the top. We learn his first kill was a woman and her son as they were trying to toss a grenade at an American convoy. We see Chris Kyle emotionally torn by this a bit, but again, this emotional turmoil is highly restrained and is neither overplayed nor underplayed. It happened, he hurt, but there is no reason any rational person should come away from this scene deeply disturbed by either the barbarism of a woman and son attacking soldiers or the horror of a woman and son being killed by a sniper. Like the rest of the movie, this potentially divisive scene which could easily be twisted into some kind of statement is not allowed to become a metaphor for anything. I suppose you could say there is no depth here. I would have to disagree. I feel that the lack of a clear symbolic impact gives the scene an even more profound message than it would have had if it had been pushed into being a metaphor for one political ideology or another. War is hell. Sometimes civilians die. Sometimes they die because they try to participate in the war. It is a simple reality and that is how the movie presents it.

There are many places like that in the movie. Enemy combatants have organization and intelligence. There is no gratuitous slaughter of anonymous brown guys going on. There is, instead, a strong effort made to show that these people are indeed, ordinary humans with goals and ideals that put them at odds with the American soldiers. The soldiers themselves are never presented as battle-hungry wild animals, occupying imperialists, chest-pounding heroes, or any of the other popular extremes Hollywood loves to depict. These are ordinary men a long way from home doing a dangerous job because they believe that by doing so they are protecting their homeland.

There are stories told of people coming out of the theater talking about how they want to go kill Iraqis. If those stories are true then those attitudes are something the people brought into the theater and not something the movie gave them. Just the opposite. If anything there is an overwhelming sense of tragedy in the movie, an acknowledgement that the entire war was both necessary and wasteful, which is something that holds true for almost every conflict since World War One.

There are also reviewers who tried to turn the tables and say that in fact this is an anti-war movie. Well, if so, then they missed the scenes where Chris Kyle watches in horror as people climb over the ruins of American embassies looking for survivors or shares a painful moment with Taya watching the towers collapse on CNN. I know exactly how they feel. That was exactly how it happened to me. My wife called from work to say something was happening in New York. I turned on CNN to find one of the towers burning. A short time later, as I was watching, the second plane struck. For several minutes even the CNN newscasters did not realize what had happened. It was kind of surreal, listening to them recount the first attack while speculating endlessly if this was some kind of accident and if so, how it might have happened, as the second plane hits, then there is a pause as the plane shreds itself inside the building, fuel splashing through the interior, and then the explosion. And the whole time the CNN folks are speculating over what could have caused such a tragic accident.

Restrained. That was the overall impression I took away from the movie. The Iraqi war was a tragedy, the way Chris Kyle died was a tragedy, but his service was as heroic as any normal human can achieve. His relationship with his wife was filled with both passion and heartbreak. His life was as important as any human life can be. In the same way, his nemesis in Iraq, a Syrian sniper named Mustafa, has a wife and a child and is a former Olympian who won a Gold medal for Syria. War brought these two men together, made them enemies, and both of them died tragically.

The real question, of course, is whether or not I would recommend the movie. I think, yes. The movie lacks both the chest-pounding machismo of "The Expendables" and the gut-wrenching horror of "Saving Private Ryan." It is a very realistic movie, presenting realistic people making realistic decisions for realistic reasons. It is not boring, but it is very restrained and understated. Hollywood has a very difficult time presenting realism, but in the case of "American Sniper" I think Clint Eastwood has managed to succeed in a very convincing way. It is a good movie, but it is not a great one. If pressed, I guess would have to say that it is in fact the lack of greatness that makes "American Sniper" one of the most important movies Hollywood has ever produced. So, "yes", you should definitely see it.

(As a final footnote, it should be mentioned that the movie character of Mustafa, Chris Kyle's nemesis on the battlefield, is a fictional character. He fills an important role in that he allows us to see the enemy as human beings with an opposing agenda, but he is not real. I suppose it comes as no surprise that even in one of the most realistic films Hollywood has ever produced, there had to be at least one completely fictional character. As I noted above, Hollywood has a very hard time dealing with reality.)