Feb 14, 2015

American Sniper

My first gasp of disbelief came early into this movie, when sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is about to shoot an Iraqi boy who is carrying an explosive device. He has him in his sight and is about to pull the trigger when, CUT, all of a sudden Chris is a little boy, hunting with his dad in the Texas woods. A leisurely flashback then introduces us to young Chris. Born into a God fearing family, with a father who looks like the Brawny paper towels guy, Chris defends his little brother from a bully at school -- an American hero in the making.
This cut is one of the most dishonest, dispiriting choices I have ever seen in a film, and it happens at the very beginning. Director Clint Eastwood eventually goes back and shows how Kyle finishes the deed, but the damage is done. This morally complicated killing, an opportunity to show the savagery of war and what it makes people do, has been scrubbed by a bath of homespun Americana. Once our heart strings have been tugged, it's hard for the audience to think that the guy who was forced to make this choice is anything but a hero, because we just saw how courageously he defends his little brother, how, at a tender age, he steals a Bible from church, how he grows up to be a rodeo cowboy, how he feels the call of duty at the news of attacks against US embassies abroad.
We are not to entertain any doubts that he is righteous.
I do not doubt that Chris Kyle was an outstanding soldier who served his country well. I respect his sacrifice and admire his marksmanship. I am not going to discuss U.S. foreign policy or get into partisan politics. My problem is with simplistic narratives like this movie, which pervade the culture thanks to the unhealthy fixation with heroism that afflicts this country. This fixation is directly related to the insane fetish for guns, which is also in evidence in the film.
It's bad enough that we are the only country on Earth that has an industry devoted almost exclusively to the manufacture and exporting of mind-numbing superhero and guns and explosions movie franchises. But when these childish narratives are used to coat historical events, such as the Iraq war, our very tragic, messy, complicated, hellish, costly (and out of sight, out of mind) foreign wars are sanitized and banalized with the mythology of comic books. This is scary because people eat it up. And people eat it up because it is in the nature of movies to rouse us to emotion. Movies are extremely powerful. They affect and influence us consciously and, even more strongly, subconsciously. It's never "only a movie".
Had Eastwood stayed in the moment, had we seen this man shoot a boy carrying an explosive within the first minutes, we would have had more of a truthful grasp on the hard realities of war, and the unspeakable things it makes people do, on both sides. However, the American narrative of heroism is rarely concerned with the unspeakable (unless it's perpetrated by the enemy), or the gray areas, or moral dilemmas. It is concerned with aggrandizement. I say American because many heroic stories are deeply complex: take your pick of Shakespeare. In other countries immensely heroic journeys can happen to two characters in an apartment. The oversimplification of the world into good guys and bad guys is a uniquely American phenomenon.
American Sniper is based on the true story of a man appropriately nicknamed The Legend, the deadliest sniper in US military history. Kyle was brought up in this very culture of heroism and gun worship and so this narrative is natural and organic to him, as it is to millions of viewers who have these kind of stories in their cultural DNA. The filmmakers then further shape Kyle's story into a mythical entertainment, and, in the name of dramatization, sink into many gross simplifications.
For starters, the four tours of duty that Kyle served in Iraq are used as a backdrop to an appalling mano a mano between Kyle and his Iraqi counterpart, a sniper who had been an Olympic gold medalist. By the time, long into the movie, when it became apparent that Eastwood was going to make this "duel in the sun" the climax of the film, my disbelief had turned to disgust. Not only is the Iraq war boiled down to a pissing contest between two equally proficient dudes, but the vulgar, cartoony choice of showing the bullet as it travels out of Kyle's rifle cheapens and disrespects every sacrifice every American soldier has made, and every life that has been lost or maimed, Iraqi and American. It turns the war into a video game.
Zero Dark Thirty is similar: one determined tough cookie nails Osama Bin Laden. Must be Wonder Woman.
I don't see how it helps American soldiers that the rest of society, which is deliberately shielded from the carnage of our wars, should perceive their sacrifice as something out of a video game. If it is a game, how can anyone take it seriously? The Vietnam war ended in part because it was shown week after week in the evening news. The public was appalled. In our time, we have seen little if any footage of the wars, we don't honor the dead as they arrive or adequately help the damaged as they struggle, let alone consider the people whose countries we invade.
Cinematically, there is nothing in American Sniper that has not been done more powerfully and effectively in other war movies, most recently, The Hurt Locker. There is nothing insightful except the tepid introduction of the topic of post traumatic stress disorder. Eastwood is heavy handed on the battle scenes but timorous on the subject of PTSD, which has been notoriously underestimated by the Pentagon. In this movie it looks like every soldier is getting all the help they can get.
Eastwood flirts with the idea of challenging Kyle's gung-ho patriotism but shies away from articulating a powerful contrasting viewpoint, a glaring omission, considering that Iraq was fought under false pretenses. Instead of his Iraqi counterpart, why not confront Kyle with an Army buddy who has real qualms about the quagmire? The one soldier who intimates doubt is shot two minutes later and Kyle thinks he was killed because he stopped believing in the mission. His relentless hero complex is borderline pathological, but the movie does not have the balls to go there. That would have been a far more interesting film, but not so pristinely heroic.
An evil Iraqi called The Butcher, a real life character, is a sadistic torturer and enforcer, but he has no American counterpart. Eastwood includes an indolent American soldier, but there are no homicidal sadists or the kind of unhinged seekers of violence that lurk in every army, including this one. The movie cherry picks the liberties it takes with reality.
Only one remarkable scene summarizes what an invasion by a foreign army feels like. An Iraqi whose house is searched and taken over by Kyle and his soldiers invites them to eat because it is a Muslim holiday. We see the soldiers feasting at the table as if they were right at home, noisily bantering in English, oblivious to how invasive, insensitive, arrogant and rude they are. Of course, the Iraqi turns out to be an insurgent. Of course Kyle smells him out all by himself.

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