Fact-Checking the Film: ‘American Sniper’

22 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘American Sniper’ Is Almost Too Dumb to Criticize.

I saw American Sniper last night, and hated it slightly less than I expected to. While the fists have been figuratively flying in a debate this week about the spirit of military snipers, Kid Rock is weighing in — and he’s not pulling any punches.American Sniper may be quickly stealing the title of the most politically controversial film this Oscar season, but screenwriter Jason Hall maintains he just penned a portrait of a beleaguered soldier — not a political statement.

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.

Posting this week on his website, the Detroit-native musician had this to say in a short article aptly entitled: “AMERICAN SNIPER, MICHAEL MOORE AND SETH ROGAN (sic).” “F— you Michael Moore, you’re a piece of s— and your uncle would be ashamed of you. American Sniper has turned out to be the dark horse in this year’s Oscar race, landing six nominations last Thursday despite being largely ignored by other awards shows. (It received no Golden Globe or SAG nominations.) Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, the film is based on Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s autobiography of the same name—which, in turn, is based on Kyle’s memory. 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. But “Sniper,” in which Bradley Cooper plays the late SEAL Chris Kyle, was legitimately and humongously successful — its $120 million over the four days of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend helped earn it the biggest January opening ever.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, laughter broke out during at least one media screening when Little Baby Plastic appeared. “The Baby In ‘American Sniper’ Is The Fakest Baby In Movie History” declared a BuzzFeed headline, accurately. (Though that “Twilight” baby was a really fake baby, too.) Hitfix calls it “a creepy robot baby,” which, again, is not wrong. “Laughably fake,” says Film School Rejects. It cost him his physical health, his mental health and almost cost him his family — but Chris probably would have paid the price over and over again if he’d been asked, which is both patriotic and totally tragic.” Actor Seth Rogen and director Michael Moore stoked the controversy over the weekend when they each tweeted what were widely interpreted as criticisms of the film.

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. Rogen wrote: “‘American Sniper’ kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of ‘Inglourious Basterds,’” referencing the fictional Nazi propaganda film about a German sniper featured in Quentin Tarantino’s movie.

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. Enter Michigan-native filmmaker Michael Moore, who (not for the first time) managed to get his name into the headlines on the coattails of controversy, tweeting: “My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. Meanwhile, Moore tweeted that he had always been taught snipers were “cowards.” Both Rogen and Moore have since backpedaled on these comments: Rogen explained in another tweet that he “actually liked” the movie, while Moore penned a lengthy Facebook post praising Bradley Cooper’s performance as Kyle. 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. 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. I’d like to, but I don’t.” Several journalists (most notably New Yorker writer Nicholas Schmindle) have tried and failed to corroborate some of the tales in the memoir, including one in which Kyle shot and killed two armed men trying to steal his truck in Texas and another in which Kyle set up as a sniper atop the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina and shot 30 looters. 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. It’s clearly, they all seem to agree, making an argument in favor of the military—not in a general we-need-them sense (as nearly everyone on the planet believes) but in favor of the way this specific military carries out missions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

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. Hall had met Chris “The Legend” Kyle before the book’s publication in 2010, and — after years of talking with Kyle — decided that the soldier had been more affected by his high body count than he let on to the public. 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.

They skipped that chicken-egg dilemma in the film, though, because it would detract from the “human story.” Eastwood plays for cheap applause and goes super-dumb even by Hollywood standards when one of Kyle’s officers suggests that they could “win the war” by taking out the evil sniper who is upsetting America’s peaceful occupation of Sadr City. 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. He started a business that installed exercise equipment inside veterans’ homes and even began spending time in small groups with vets who needed to talk about their problems.

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. He would often take these men out to shooting ranges where they could bond and talk to them about their struggles with finding jobs, re-acclimating to family life and PTSD. 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. 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. Get the f— out of here.’” When Hall told them he just wanted to tell Kyle’s story, the SEAL yelled at him again to go back to his room. “I knew these guys were rough housers, and I was like, ‘Look man, I’m not going anywhere, but if you want, we can wrestle.’ So he threw down his beer and came charging at me.” Hall had some experience from wrestling as a kid and was ready for the SEAL. “I took him down. 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. 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.

Book: “The Butcher” is never mentioned in the book, though the character is likely based on Iraqi Shia warlord and executioner of the Sunnis Abu Deraa. 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. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.” And they did. “When anyone challenges this story or thinks that I didn’t try to put the whole story out there, I’m like, ‘You know what?

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. Kyle does complete a 2,100-yard kill, and the depiction of the shot is largely correct in the movie adaptation—going after a shooter on a distant rooftop—but the man on the other end of the shot is not Mustafa.

Taya told him of their courtship, their marital struggles, and how it took years for Kyle to finally reconnect emotionally with her and the kids. “The first draft of the script that I had was a war movie,” says Hall. “Then I talked to Taya, and I saw what was at stake for him emotionally. 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. I made a promise to Taya that I was going to tell her husband’s story right.” Turning a real story into an Oscar-worthy picture without facing some backlash — personal or political — is no easy feat, as demonstrated by some recent scandals: the real-life Mark Schulz’s enraged response to Foxcatcher, and the criticism of the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson in Selma.

And though Hall did eventually earn Taya’s approval — she cried and told him Cooper had brought her husband back to life — he still bristles under the implication that Chris Kyle’s story is one that glorifies war. “Chris and those other guys, they didn’t pick the war. If they did, they would have picked somewhere else because Iraq is a s—hole—it’s 140 degrees and just dirt,” he says. “The movie isn’t about whether we should have been in Iraq or not. It’s about how war is human.” Hall won’t acknowledge a political agenda, except to emphatically assert that our government needs to do a better job of taking care of our veterans. “A lot of these guys come home — they have no work, no place to live. 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.

It took him years to get back, spiritually, to the guy he was before the war,” says Hall. “I hope every time a politician decides to send us to war, maybe they saw this movie and know the cost of it.” 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 Hall’s “Bonus Material,” he tells us that the conversation was real, and that it happened a month or so before February 2, 2013, when Kyle was killed with his neighbor Chad Littlefield.

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