Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Recent Watches: American Sniper (2014)

Every Academy Award season has its controversies. 2015 is no different. Were the nominees too white? Was “Selma” underrepresented because of (probably unimportant) historical inaccuracies? Was “The Imitation Game” not gay enough? Yet one film has emerged as the most controversial of the year: “American Sniper.” Is it racist? If it isn’t racist, does it egg on racism? Is it a hagiography of a contentious figure in recent history? What was with that fake baby? Most annoyingly, the film has become a political talking point. This particular debate is stupid. Obviously. You dislike a bad film because it's bad, not because of political beliefs. None of these debates ask the most important question: Is it even a good movie?

“American Sniper” is about the late Chris Kyle, the sniper with the highest body count in American history, based off his own memoirs. A brief segment at the film’s beginning details his pre-war life as a rodeo rider, his early enlistment into the Navy SEALS, his reaction to 9/11, and his soon-after deployment to the Middle East. There, Kyle quickly made a name for himself as a sharp shooter and a killer. The responsibility for his men and the things that happened during the war would weight on his home life.

All right, let’s ask the fucking important questions. Does “American Sniper” smooth over Kyle’s flaws? The film is upfront about Kyle being a redneck and a good ol’ boy but doesn’t ask questions about what that implies. He is portrayed as an unerring patriot, motivated solely by a love of his country and the love of his brothers in arms. The film never discusses if race or religion motivated Kyle’s acts both at home and abroad. Is “American Sniper” racist? The film treats the casual racism of the soldiers as a matter of fact. They refer to the Iraqi insurgents as “savages” repeatedly. Most of the Iraq citizens in the film are portrayed as terrorists, killers, and mad men. The sole positive Iraqis in the film are sacrificial lambs, dying to enrage the audience. Calling “American Sniper” racist may be unfair. However, it presents Kyle unquestionably as a hero, those he killed as evil, and all of his actions as justified. There’s no moral ambiguity. I don’t know about you but that makes me a little queasy.

What also makes me queasy is how “American Sniper” treats war in general. The early scenes of boot camp are the usual macho bullshit, ripped off from “Full Metal Jacket” without a hint of irony. The film makes an early commitment to verisimilitude, when Kyle has to turn his gun on a child in his first day on the battlefield. Too often though, the film treats war like a ra-ra action movie. The CGI pink mist, car crashes, and tank assaults feel less like “war is hell” and more like “Rambo IV.” The most questionable narrative decision is to give Chris Kyle an archenemy. An Iraqi sniper is set up early as his rival. The two have several encounters and the enemy solder gets away each time. One moment that really had me rolling my eyes comes when a fellow soldier starts talking about his soon-to-be wife. Predictably, this guy gets shot by the Bad Sniper, turning Kyle’s mission into one of revenge. When that revenge is dealt out, Kyle can return home, his conscious clear. Is framing a complicated, real life conflict in such light weight, black-and-white terms responsible? More importantly, is it insulting to the viewer’s intelligence?

When questioned about painting the conflict too broadly, Clint Eastwood has said “American Sniper” is actually an anti-war. It obviously is not. Eastwood focuses too much on the glory Kyle reaps from his actions. What Clint meant is that “American Sniper” does feature the effect the war has on Kyle’s mental state. Not subtly either. When at home, he can’t focus on his daily life. His blood pressure is through the roof during normal activities. After coming home, he sits in front of a silenced TV, bombs and bullets still ringing in his ears. He looses it at a barbecue, when his son starts playfully wrasslin’ with the family dog. Okay, sure, Eastwood shows that war fucks with people’s brain. The disingenuous part of this is the shown reason behind Kyle’s PTSD. The lives he’s taken do not weigh on his conscious. A fear of death or being shot at doesn’t bother him. Why is he haunted? Because he could have saved more lives. He’s always thinking about his boys out there and the ones he lost. He doesn’t become happy until he starts helping out at-home vets. Give me a break. There’s no humanity in “American Sniper.”

So the film’s moral center is dubious and it’s incredibly dishonest emotionally. What about the acting? Bradley Cooper brought depth to a space raccoon and, despite my skepticism, has proven himself to be a good actor. In this highly idealized version of Chris Kyle, there’s little room for Cooper to act. He’s a less interesting Captain America, blandly heroic with a golden heart. (Though the Marvel superhero he actually relates the most to is the Punisher. The film doesn’t entertain the connotations of that.) Most of the critical acclaim steams from Cooper’s biceps, which are huge. The rest of the performances aren’t important, since the characters are thin as can be. Sienna Miller, as Kyle’s suffering wife, at least gets to act. Eastwood’s visual palette is grimy and undistinguished. He employs Michael Bay-ian helicopter shots and crowded gunfire. Finally, let’s talk about the fake baby. That such an obvious, embarrassingly bad prop was allowed in the film confirms my suspicion that Clint cares less about making a good movie and more about getting the damn thing shot so he can get on the golf green.

The circumstances of Kyle’s death are brushed over. “American Sniper” ends with real life footage of the man’s funeral. The credits play in silence, out of respect. “He was a hero!” The movie yells at you. There’s no room for ambiguity. This, to me, is more disrespectful to the men who have actually fought and died in war. “American Sniper” simplifies a complex, horrifying event into a recruitment video. The actual details of Kyle’s life are almost unimportant in light of this. His idealized demeanor, and the questionable treatment of those he fought and killed, are a by-product of a film that claims to tell the true story of the Iraqi War but instead reduces the conflict to a ra-ra fairy tale. The historical accuracy of a film isn’t important to me. A film dumbing down its subject matter and insulting the audience's intelligence does. [4/10]

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