Monday, December 22, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW American Sniper
A Man And His Gun.  A Director And His Fun.

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in Clint Eastwood's drama "American Sniper", based on Chris Kyle's autobiography.
  Warner Brothers

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, December 22, 2014

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 just a 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 films 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 submission. 

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, Kyle Gallner.

"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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