America is not a peaceful country.
It takes only the briefest of perusals through a history book to realize that the USA was forged, expanded, and maintained in violent conflict. A major war is fought every twenty years or so with innumerable smaller conflicts and interventions seasoned throughout. Want peace? Move to Switzerland.
Along with war, America’s other favorite pastime is movie-making, with Hollywood as the epicenter of the world’s movie industry. It is no coincidence then, that the two of these hobbies often mate and produce offspring—the war movie.
Each of these bastard children seams to produce it’s own conflict as pundits and talking heads debate its merits or lack thereof. Experts and amateurs lock horns, in a contest to out-pun, out-analogy, and out-spin the other. Hyperbole rules and panties get bunched. (See: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan) Provided you remain above the fray, it is all quite amusing.
So, it is with the latest offering from Clint Eastwood: American Sniper.
A bit of background
Before we get into that though, a bit of full disclosure. War movies are difficult for me to watch as I am myself a combat veteran of the United States Marine Corps. Oh, PTSD is not the problem. The problem is one of realism—or not, as is usually the case. I came away from Saving Private Ryan laughing, while my girlfriend at the time was in tears. I suppose it is a bit like a real forensics expert watching CSI.
I further admit, that I am defacto prejudiced—no, postjudiced is more accurate—against any film depicting Navy S.E.A.L.s, because I have direct experience with them and I came away unimpressed. If you don’t want to take my word for it, check out a bit of their history here, here and here.
No one doubts their courage, but they seem to have a habit of dying without accomplishing much.
I do have some respect for the real Chris Kyle. I respect that he chose a macho profession and lived life on his terms. I further acknowledge that it is probable, likely even, that some of my Marine brothers returned home because he was watching their six. When talking about the real Chris Kyle, one has to consider some wacky stuff, but credit where it is due.
Thoughts on the movie
I wrote the above before seeing the movie. When it first came out, I really had no intention of seeing it, but the ensuing shitstorm piqued my curiosity. On the one hand, the leftist fruit bats were getting their panties in a bunch and on the other, the “America, Fuck Yeah!” crowd had a tropical rainforest sprouting in theirs. I had to find out for myself.
Boy, was I in for some serious underwhelming.
After the movie, I stopped off at my local watering hole to knock down a few beers and write out a few quick impressions, while the flirty bartender did her best to distract me. I had to search hard for something positive to say about this flick and here it is—despite all the hoopla, it is surprisingly neutral in tone. That is, it is neither nauseatingly flag waving nor is it an anti-war screed. I appreciate that in a war movie, but that is about all that American Sniper has to offer. Three times in my notes, I jotted down “meh.” That about sums it up.
The biggest problems
American Sniper is visually dull, as if it was filmed by first-year film students under strict orders to master the basics before trying anything fancy. Considering the subject matter (urban warfare, military vehicles, and men), it is a bit inexplicable that everything is rendered so unappealing to the eye.
Was this Clint’s attempt at brute realism? Possibly, but the camera fails to capture anything of the moment, nor convey anything like tension or drama. It even lacks the immediacy of the hand-held, jiggle-cam. The whole effort is flat and non-compelling; unforgivable when Eastwood had such an example to follow-
Boring cinematography is one thing if you then have the proper script and acting. American Sniper has neither. A piece of the petrified forest could have been broken off to replace Bradley Cooper and no one would know the difference. Sienna Miller, as Chris Kyle’s wife Taya, does add a touch of realism with her constant nagging and moaning. She does very well indeed portraying the standard, self-absorbed and even more deadly American Wife.
After a long and brutal tour of war in Iraq, Kyle comes home to bitching and whining. Small wonder he kept volunteering for additional tours. Even I began reflexively flinching each time she came on screen. I get that Eastwood was attempting to portray the toll that war takes on the family, but my question is: why would Chris have ever fallen for her in the first place? From the beginning until the last scene, she just comes across like a harpy. Possibly realistic, but as entertaining as nails on a chalkboard.
The centerpiece of the war scenes is the entirely invented “worthy other” narrative that plays out over the course of his four tours. Again, I get it. You have to have a specific antagonist…or at least supposedly, you do. Stanley Kubrick did just fine without one in Full Metal Jacket and in fact the lack of a specific antagonist kept the focus on the men, where it was supposed to be.
In this case, I see no point when the cynosure is on the stress induced on the home life of a warrior. They saw fit to add one though and apparently there was a writers strike in progress and an uncredited 10-year-old with a box of crayons scribbled it out. Parts of this storyline play out like a cheesy Sherlock Holmes rip-off- “Ah ha! That guy has a scrape on his elbow! What nefarious schemes must he be up to? Come Watson! The game is afoot!”
The only surprise comes when the enemy sniper finally gets his from 2100 yards out— the bullet doesn’t go through his scope. There is one detail though that surprised me, and one that can save your life if you ever find yourself under fire. This was gospel in my unit and shouldn’t be underestimated— never, EVER discuss wedding plans in a war zone. That is a sure way to get a bullet to the head. We will never know how many lives were saved because of my unit’s strict adherence to that.
Issues with the protagonists and the antagonist
So, American Sniper fails on the war front and the home front. We see his desire to be with his family and also with his team in action, yet what we never really see from either perspective is—Why? The enemy sniper “Mustafa” is used as the impetus to get him to return repeatedly to Iraq, but this just remains unconvincing. Kyle states openly (there is no subtlety in the dialogue, at all) a desire to protect his fellow warriors…fine, but what is missing here is any sense of the camaraderie that every man has experienced while off to war.
Kyle and his compatriots don’t show us the very real bonds that men in these situations cement. They instead progress through their lines quickly and stiffly, saying what they think and feel instead of showing us. In between tours, it is one long and tedious argument with his wife. It is only in the last scene where we see any real tenderness at all.
Both settings then result in a stilted, bone-jarring ride to nowhere, like driving through an endless construction zone in a Porsche—bumpy, boring and never getting out of first gear, despite the promise of 430 horsepower. Though it is riddled with problems, this scene from Full Metal Jacket still has much truth in it:
The real Chris Kyle said that war was “fun.” I know what he means. It is not really the act of killing, nor even the action per se, it is belonging to a group of your absolute best friends combined with having a clear mission in life all while testing yourself to the limit. That is what keeps men going back. That is why men such as Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle will leave the comforts of home and hearth to fight and risk everything on the field of battle.
And that is exactly what American Sniper fails to illustrate.