‘American Sniper’ Is Almost Too Dumb to Criticize

22 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘American Sniper’ Is Almost Too Dumb to Criticize.

The late Navy Seal sniper, played by Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, is getting lots of attention these days as the film based on his best-selling memoir smashes box-office records.

LOS ANGELES: On its debut weekend Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” blasted into first place at the North American box office with a massive $107 million, a record for a January opening, industry figures showed Tuesday. The war drama, based on the biography of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, has racked up six Oscar nominations, including best picture and best actor for star Bradley Cooper.

Like most Clint Eastwood movies – and I like Clint Eastwood movies for the most part – it’s a simple, well-lit little fairy tale with the nutritional value of fortune cookie that serves up a neatly-arranged helping of cheers and tears for target audiences, and panics at the thought of embracing more than one or two ideas at any time. It’s not a great movie — compared to the epic humanity of “Boyhood” or the strategic subtleties of “Selma,” it pales — but it’s still very strong, better than the curdled-into-store-bought blandness of several of the other awards-ready contenders this year, and certainly better than most of the movies that studios make with big stars these days.

At the recent DC premiere of the film, Kyle’s widow, Taya, says Cooper’s portrayal of her husband is so good it’s “eerie.” Before he was killed, Kyle made the media rounds to promote his book, including this interview with Conan O’Brien, where you can really get a sense of his mannerisms and sense of humor. The film is in many ways an old-fashioned kind of Hollywood hit: built on star power, Oscar buzz and a largely adult audience – 63 percent of whom are over 25 years old. And yeah, if you’ve seen the movie or know anything about his story, watching this is kind of heart-wrenching, especially with his sweet smile and all of his polite “yes, sirs” to O’Brien: “You don’t have to call me ‘sir,’ by the way,” says O’Brien. “I’m a talk-show host!” The success has made Eastwood’s film a flashpoint in Hollywood, Washington, and everywhere in between, sweeping “Sniper” into the culture wars in which the 84-year-old director has sometimes engaged.

Film-industry people angrily reject the notion that their movies have to be about anything (except things like “character” and “narrative” and “arc,” subjects they can talk about endlessly). This is the same Hollywood culture that turned the horror and divisiveness of the Vietnam War era into a movie about a platitude-spewing doofus with leg braces who in the face of terrible moral choices eats chocolates and plays Ping-Pong. Kyle, who served four tours between 2003 and 2009, is the most lethal sniper in American history: The government credits him with 160 confirmed kills. (The previous record was 109, set during the Vietnam war.) Kyle was involved in the making of this movie; he discussed his life and book with Cooper and screenwriter Jason Hall.

More to the point, made it a film whose opening-weekend numbers actually rival marketing-guns-blazing releases like “The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ and “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Because almost no Hollywood hit can go without a group claiming it as its own–and almost no Hollywood hit can go without someone wondering if this isn’t as positive a development as people imagine–the few days that it’s enjoyed blockbuster status have also come with division and argument. A free adaptation of a true story, “Sniper” is the kind of heroic war film Hollywood has largely resisted, depicting the often unpopular and less successful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On one side are such outspoken liberals as Seth Rogen and Michael Moore, who knock the movie and question whether a sniper like Kyle is the unassailable hero the movie makes him out to be. The piece was then amended through conversations between Hall and Kyle’s wife, Taya, as well as conversations between Taya and Eastwood, Hall, and Cooper. Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com, credited the film’s triumph to a “perfect storm” of factors, including Warner Bros’ marketing savvy, which stoked interest in the film by holding it in very limited release for two weeks.

The thing is, the mere act of trying to make a typically Hollywoodian one-note fairy tale set in the middle of the insane moral morass that is/was the Iraq occupation is both dumber and more arrogant than anything George Bush or even Dick Cheney ever tried. On the other are conservatives like Sarah Palin and Blake Shelton, who welcome the movie with open arms for telling a story about an unassailable hero. “’American Sniper’ kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of ‘Inglorious Basterds,’” Rogen tweeted, referencing a propaganda film about a Nazi sniper. No one expected twenty minutes of backstory about the failed WMD search, Abu Ghraib, or the myriad other American atrocities and quick-trigger bombings that helped fuel the rise of ISIL and other groups.

It has been accused of glorifying the life of a bloodthirsty killer, being ignorant of the U.S. criminality in Iraq, acting as pro-war propaganda, and over-indulging in depictions of the local culture’s “savagery.” Kyle does call Iraqis “savages” and “evil” in his book, and while he hesitates before his first sniper kill, that is the only instance of doubt he records. But to turn the Iraq war into a saccharine, almost PG-rated two-hour cinematic diversion about a killing machine with a heart of gold (is there any film theme more perfectly 2015-America than that?) who slowly, very slowly, starts to feel bad after shooting enough women and children – Gump notwithstanding, that was a hard one to see coming. The only thing that forces us to take it seriously is the extraordinary fact that an almost exactly similar worldview consumed the walnut-sized mind of the president who got us into the war in question. While those mentions are rarely positive—often, Kyle writes that he feels bound to follow rules that his opponents do not—he always details complying.

Documentarian Michael Moore sparked more uproar when, in an unrelated tweet about snipers not being heroes, he added that he thought Eastwood confused Iraq with Vietnam. It’s the fact that the movie is popular, and actually makes sense to so many people, that’s the problem. “American Sniper has the look of a bona fide cultural phenomenon!” gushed Brandon Griggs of CNN, noting the film’s record $105 million opening-week Box Office. That said, Kyle’s own credibility was called into question after he claimed that he beat up former Minnesota governor and professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, that the government paid him to shoot looters from the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina, and that he shot and killed two carjackers in Dallas. It also stole the thunder of “Selma” on the very memorial day of its protagonist, Martin Luther King Jr., and it will be the box-office heavyweight among the Oscar best picture nominees. In this case that effect is often literal, with “hero” sniper Chris Kyle’s “sinister” opposite Mustafa permanently dressed in black (with accompanying evil black pirate-stubble) throughout.

As the conservative film critic Kyle Smith summed up, “American Sniper” “scintillates with clarity.” But what if the film isn’t really doing that at all? There’s obligatory somber scene of shirtless buffed-up SEAL Kyle and his heartthrob wife Sienna Miller gasping at the televised horror of the 9/11 attacks. Kyle is fueled by the anger-producing specter of terrorism on U.S. citizens abroad and at home, and he sets out to become a SEAL to protect the U.S. and its freedoms. Which of course there had not been, until we invaded and bombed the wrong country and turned its moonscaped cities into a recruitment breeding ground for… you guessed it, al-Qaeda. He hopes he doesn’t have to kill a child—in a later scene, Kyle prays silently another Iraqi child doesn’t pick up a weapon so he doesn’t have to shoot the boy—but when there’s a threat, he seeks to vanquish it.

When hunky Bradley Cooper’s Kyle character subsequently takes out Mustafa with Skywalkerian long-distance panache – “Aim small, hit small,” he whispers, prior to executing an impossible mile-plus shot – even the audiences in the liberal-ass Jersey City theater where I watched the movie stood up and cheered. Joining the military is a much less abrupt decision in the book than in the movie—Kyle considers enlisting before college, but chooses to get his education first and enlist later at the urging of his family. He’s initially rejected from the SEALs due to his rodeo injuries (he has pins in both wrists) and pursues a full-time career as a ranch hand before a Navy recruiter reaches out, asking him to join the services. To Eastwood, this was probably just good moviemaking, a scene designed to evoke the same response he got in Trouble With the Curve when his undiscovered Latin Koufax character, Rigoberto Sanchez, strikes out the evil Bonus Baby Bo Gentry (even I cheered at that scene). In fact the occupation led to mass destruction, hundreds of thousands of deaths, a choleric lack of real sanitation, epidemic unemployment and political radicalization that continues to this day to spread beyond Iraq’s borders.

Such a response, said so flatly and so often, is hardly an overwhelmingly persuasive response—it ignores, for instance, the need for him and his fellow soldiers to be in that position in the first place–and it’s not entirely clear from the film we’re supposed to believe him that things are so black and white. Yet the movie glosses over all of this, and makes us think that killing Mustafa was some kind of decisive accomplishment – the single shot that kept terrorists out of the coffee shops of San Francisco or whatever.

These are moments that suggest that, for all the support-our-troops fervor, the film– in its own low-key, nonpolicy-oriented way–is also questioning why troops should be fighting there. One Academy member wondered to a reporter if Kyle (who in real life was killed by a fellow troubled vet in an eerie commentary on the violence in our society that might have made a more interesting movie) was a “psychopath.” Michael Moore absorbed a ton of criticism when he tweeted that “My uncle [was] killed by sniper in WW2. The incident occurs soon after Kyle’s arrival in Fallujah, though this is his second tour of duty; he’s already completed one tour in Kuwait and spent a month working with the Polish special forces in Baghdad.

It’s equally dangerous to be seduced by the pathos and drama of the individual solider’s experience, because most wars are about something much larger than that, too. They did this after Vietnam, when America spent decades watching movies like Deer Hunter and First Blood and Coming Home about vets struggling to reassimilate after the madness of the jungles. The movies used the struggles of soldiers as a kind of human shield protecting us from thinking too much about what we’d done in places like Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos. Book: Kyle is aware his younger brother is deploying, and often mentions the anxiety he feels when he comes upon a group of fallen soldiers; he’s always terrified he’ll come upon his brother’s body.

But in public relations as in war, it’ll be the soldiers taking the bullets, not the suits in the Beltway who blithely sent them into lethal missions they were never supposed to understand. Book: Kyle often has to call home while out on patrols, because the fighting is so frequent that if he waits for a stint back at base, it could be a week before he’d be able to reach his wife. On two occasions, he comes under fire while on the phone; once, when he calls Taya while on night patrol in Baghdad, he comes under fire and drops the phone. In Jason Hall’s “Bonus Material” chapter included in the movie tie-in edition of American Sniper, the screenwriter attributes these differences to his post-mortem script revision. In turn, he came to understand his protagonist as a more well-rounded man: “Out of those conversations I got a side of Chris I hadn’t understood before, and I saw how the movie had to be rewritten.

People can’t see themselves the way others do… She filled in a lot of blanks.” Movie: On the day Kyle is killed, he and Taya have a conversation in which she thanks him for working so hard to get back to being the man she loves.

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