The Good: Bradley Cooper’s performance, The direction is generally good
The Bad: So many of the lines are propaganda, Neglects complexity for archetypes, Racist
The Basics: American Sniper transforms Bradley Cooper in an impressive way . . . but does not give him a role worth the changes.
Those who know me know that I am a pacifist and one who is not at all interested in war movies. So, when I pledged to watch all eight films that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, the one I was (by far) least enthusiastic about watching was American Sniper. There was a pretty decent chance, going into American Sniper, that I would fall more into the camp of Michael Moore and Seth Rogen about the movie. I disagree with Moore’s comment on snipers being cowardly (though I understand why he would say that), but Rogen pretty much hit the nail on the head: American Sniper is little more than propaganda for much of the film.
And, having watched American Sniper, I suspect that part of the reason that so many people have so many issues with the film is that they treat criticism of the film as an attack on the military lifestyle. This review is about the film American Sniper and any references to Chris Kyle are for the character presented in the film, not the actual human being upon whom the film’s character is based. As a cinephile, though, what separates the pro-military American Sniper from a great film is its lack of subtlety. In American Sniper, the men are Men, the women are pliable and the film’s initial sense of moral ambiguity is quickly subdued by a macho, pro-America, post-9/11 “The military solution is the only patriotic answer” sensibility that focuses on a very monolithic and redneck viewpoint.
Opening with a U.S. convoy in Iraq being overseen by sniper Chris Kyle, tensions in Iraq are running high. When Kyle sees a boy being given a grenade, he has to shoot the boy. The film flashes back to Kyle’s indoctrination as a child where his father grooms him to be someone who ends fights and guides “the herd.” Following the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania, Kyle enlists and at 30 years old, he begins training to be a Navy SEAL. On the day he finishes his training, he goes to a bar where he meets Taya. After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Chris and Taya get married. Chris is almost immediately called to action in Iraq.
In Iraq, Chris becomes an efficient sniper, dispatching both the child and the woman from the opening scene. Kyle protects most of the Marines, though there is an Iraqi sniper who might be his match. Kyle assists and protects the Marines in Iraq. In the search for the Al Qaeda leader Zarqawi, Kyle and his team encounter the sniper (Mustafa) and Zarqawi’s lieutenant, who uses torture and intimidation to keep Iraqi citizens in-line. After the disastrous encounter, Kyle returns home, but cannot adapt to life back with his wife. Kyle continues to return to Iraq, hunting Mustafa and insurgents there while neglecting his wife and newborn son.
In many ways, American Sniper is Moby Dick for the military crowd. Virtually all of Kyle’s lines could be lifted from recruiting posters as he dehumanizes the Iraqis and focuses exclusively on the idea that somewhere in the world, America is a war . . . and he’s not there. Whenever he is not in Iraq, he is preoccupied with it and Mustafa is Kyle’s White Whale. Kyle is not a sympathetic character in that his actions are never reflected upon in a way that makes his actions seem deep. In fact, in dialogue with one of the Marines working in Iraq, Kyle’s banal assertion that “there is evil here” is put into proper perspective (“there is evil everywhere”) without any acceptable counterpoint.
American Sniper is geared toward a very specific demographic. That demographic is one that might be amused by beefy military men throwing darts at each other’s bare backs . . . as opposed to horrified by that. What makes American Sniper feel like propaganda is how monolithic it is. The five minute montage of kills when Chris Kyle arrives in Iraq (a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks featured two scenes prior) is treated without any sophistication: all of the people shot are would-be killers, suicide bombers, etc. There is no ambiguity or complexity and Kyle does not reflect at all while in the field upon the killing he has done.
Perhaps the most disappointing moment in American Sniper, for me, was the moment Sam Jaeger appears on screen. While I certainly respect an actor wanting to get away from a role, Jaeger is impressive and deep in his role on Parenthood (season five is reviewed here!); seeing him go from a role where he plays an emotionally-evolved character to a monolithic soldier-type hardly seems like career growth.
Director Clint Eastwood does a decent-enough job with American Sniper. American Sniper looks good-enough, which is good because the dialogue in the film is atrocious. Iraquis are referred to almost exclusively in racist terms, women are called “bitches” a disturbing number of times and the character version of Kyle is treated like a superhero who is good at all aspects of the military job (in addition to sniping, he goes door to door with Marines, performs interrogations, etc.). Eastwood, however, does not know the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel (individual issues of comic books are, in fact, comic books; graphic novels are the compilations) – which makes for pretty
Moreover, there is a distinctly un-American quality to American Sniper. Our Third Amendment (placed above our protective right against self incrimination!) protects American Citizens from having to quarter soldiers. In American Sniper, American soldiers take over Iraqi houses, basically keeping their citizens under house arrest in their own homes. The only justification within the film? Of course, they are insurgents, too!
Bradley Cooper does a fine job as Chris Kyle. It’s not a great role, but it is a very different one from those that he has had. Anyone who became a fan of Cooper from Alias (reviewed here!) will find the actor utterly unrecognizable, both in his physical performance and his character style. But good acting doesn’t make the film less propaganda.
For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
The Last Five Years
The Seventh Son
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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