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Monday, December 22, 2014
A Man And His Gun. A Director And His Fun.
Cooper as Chris Kyle in Clint Eastwood's drama "American Sniper", based on Chris
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
I will say this clearly and plainly: "American Sniper" is deeply problematic.
Deeply. Clint Eastwood's film is an outsized salute to
masculinity, musculature and fascistic posturing more than it is to the life of
Chris Kyle, a U.S. Navy SEAL. And this film missed a great opportunity to
truly be about Chris Kyle. Wasn't Mr. Kyle more than
sniper for the U.S. government? The film's title aside: surely he was.
Based on the same-titled autobiography by Mr. Kyle, "American Sniper" throws
bouquets on, celebrates and glorifies false notions of masculinity, conflating
them with a narrow view of patriotism and a tribute to a supremely accurate
hired-gun, if you will. The essence of Mr. Kyle the man, his book
notwithstanding, is mostly missing from Mr. Eastwood's pretentious movie.
This intimate, low-key film wastes two good performances by Bradley Cooper as
Mr. Kyle, "the most lethal sniper in U.S. history", and Sienna Miller, who plays
Taya Kyle. By the way, the real-life Ms. Kyle recently lost a slander
lawsuit to Jesse Ventura, whom her late husband accused of dishonoring Iraq U.S.
war veterans. Mr. Ventura hadn't. And he donated his monetary gain
from his lawsuit win to veteran's groups. (The film doesn't, as you would
expect, contain this episode or epilogue.)
The fascist atmosphere of war in "American Sniper" immediately commences in its
very first shot -- not a shot of Mr. Kyle, mind you -- but of a tank. In
close-up. This is the tenor of where "American Sniper" and its
director's intentions, in my view, truly lie. Moments later Chris Kyle is
first seen training his long-range rifle at an Iraqi man, then at an Iraqi woman
and child. In between is a flashback of Chris as a child with a gun, and
with an overly-masculine father. Mr. Eastwood frames the idea -- or
implies it, or both -- that this type of "masculinity", albeit a flawed type, is
what has girded Chris Kyle to become who he was, a tactical marksman.
The masculine angle -- and Mr. Kyle's autobiography references his upbringing
-- completely blankets Mr. Eastwood's film, and sinks it. During the vast
majority of "American Sniper" I felt that Mr. Eastwood was saluting and
elegizing masculinity and jingoism masked as faux-patriotism more than he was
Mr. Kyle himself. Mr. Cooper masks Chris's pain and Ms. Miller plays the
"good wife" who injects the only true feeling and authenticity the film
possesses, even though her Tara character is more an obligatory construct for
cinema's sake than a full-bodied woman who stands on her own in the film.
For all the ruggedness of the well-production designed episodes in Iraq, the
many life-endangering tours Mr. Kyle took, and the bravery of those Americans
who died in Iraq, Mr. Eastwood does what I consider to be very unpatriotic
things in his depictions in "American Sniper". He bloats his film with a
lot of sequences that do not tell us anything about the subject he purportedly
salutes. Much of "American Sniper" traffics in fear, the
us-versus-them mentality of war, the standard kill-shot close-ups and lurid
displays of human beings shot down, bloodied or tortured by the "bad guys", or
is it the Demons Of Death?
This simplistic, overly manipulative film invests in the standard Dirty Harry
"make my day" and "Black Hawk Down" war film tropes, behaviors, fear and
suspicions of the so-called "other". It's a shame (though unsurprising
given Mr. Eastwood's stunt at the 2012 Republican National Convention) that a
man like Chris Kyle, who believed in and died protecting and serving America is
betrayed on film like this. Mr. Eastwood, an oft-hallowed filmmaking
emperor, has no clothes. And no chair
to sit on.
Though "American Sniper" Mr. Kyle's book, IS full of stories about his
experiences as a sniper, which the film clearly genuflects to, Mr. Eastwood
chose to travel down the laziest road to tell a sincere story. The truth
is, the only (and best) thing about "American Sniper" is its five minutes before
the end credits and its end credits moments. Those are what tell
Chris Kyle's story in this film best.
Even so, one can make the case, and I will, that those end credits make
"American Sniper" and all that precedes those credits all the more exploitative
of Mr. Kyle. There's an overweighting of flag-waving and jingoism that
overwhelms Mr. Kyle's memory in my view -- at least as it is depicted on screen.
In Mr. Kyle's book the real Ms. Taya Kyle wrote: "Chris was always very
aware of my feelings...he doesn't necessarily enjoy talking about feelings but
he has a sense of when to bring things out....I noticed it early on in our
relationship. We would be talking on the phone and he was very caring."
(Emphasis, on pages 50 and 51.) This aspect of Mr. Kyle is missing from
the film, which was adapted by Jason Hall. On screen in Mr. Eastwood's
drama Chris Kyle is a one-dimensional war machine.
Filmmakers are free to make entirely "masculine" or entirely "feminine" films.
And throughout his career Mr. Eastwood has specialized in making the former,
both as an actor and a director. There isn't necessarily anything wrong
with that, but it is important to illustrate that the perspective Mr. Eastwood's
have on masculinity often isn't the fullest or most accurate. Even in the
theater of war, masculinity encompasses far more range than shooting a gun and punching
someone -- whether it be a person or a moviegoing audience -- into total
The form of masculinity, as displayed in "American Sniper", is always where Mr.
Eastwood has felt most comfortable. There have been some exceptions, but
even in films like "Mystic River", the women devoted to the male protagonist have
always been emboldening and supportive of destructive masculine behavior.
The same runs true in this latest Eastwood effort. There's a black and
whiteness to this film, as in the director's others, that pervades. No
room for shading. And the kill-or-be-killed stage of war makes this
masking and lack of investigation of masculinity easier. And more
digestible and less complex for audiences.
I came away from "American Sniper" feeling empty, tweaked and toyed with.
And that is not how a film committed to telling a proficient marksman's story
should have made me feel. That last sentence may read amusingly to some,
but I think that Mr. Kyle, even if he was an emotionally closed soul based on
his book, deserved better, more nuanced treatment. Mr. Cooper gives him a
semblance of that treatment. The director gives him none.
"American Sniper" is a tawdry long-form commercial for the 2016 Republican
National Convention. Mr. Eastwood may be able to stump for it to be shown
prior to the next Republican U.S. presidential candidate's nomination acceptance
speech, since he did such a great job as a preview act last time.
Also with: Keir O'Donnell, Sammy Sheik, Luke Grimes, Mido Hamada, Sam Jaeger,
"American Sniper" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for
strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some
sexual references. Its running time is two
hours and 14 minutes.
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