February 20, 2015

American Sniper (2014)

Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller



It's taken me quite a few days to even begin to piece together a review for this movie because walking out of the theater, I wasn't quite sure what to think of it. The fact is, no matter how apolitical Clint Eastwood probably thought he was in making this movie, how you feel about it likely reflects your opinion on our involvement in Iraq/Afghanistan. The politics of war are impossible to escape.

From a pure movie standpoint, it's not great. It's incomplete, a little too Hollywood, and really chops up the pacing of the story. I'm sure its popularity at the box office helped propel it to a Best Picture nomination, but I have little doubt it will walk away empty-handed. It's certainly not The Hurt Locker.

What this movie is, however, is emotional. By focusing the war on one man's journey--a man many people can feel like they relate to--Clint Eastwood shrank the topic from "The Iraq War" to "what we believe soldiers experience in the Iraq War." But the thing is, there is no "typical" experience in war. There aren't even "typical" soldiers. Because for every soldier who is happy to fight for the country and has a heart of gold--as Kyle (Cooper) is portrayed here--there are others who are way too excited at the prospect of just killing people, those who simply don't want to be there, and everything in between. I do appreciate the attempt (albeit, briefly) to show these other personality types, but it's hard not to become slightly cynical at Hollywood's insistence on making a lead character as heroic as possible while glossing over any unpleasantness.

What do I mean by this? Kyle's scenes at home between tours are brief and only allude to his having PTSD--an issue that, if properly developed, could have brought a new dimension to this movie. While I am grateful that they mentioned it at all, having a mega-hit like this highlight a pressing problem in our military could have pushed the issue into our national discussion.

Speaking of those home stays... Kyle spends roughly three years abroad over the course of four tours. So why does his son age about 8 years in that time? I understand it's supposed to be a war movie, but with Kyle spending more time at home than in Iraq, and the passing references to his PTSD, more of his difficulty transitioning back to civilian life could have been shown. A random scene here or there of him staring at a black TV screen or flipping out over something benign is not really a complete picture of what PTSD looks like.

What did work, however, were the combat scenes. However you feel about this war--and our involvement in it--the fact is our soldiers deal with some very scary sh*t and I cannot imagine the feeling of not knowing if every person coming toward you is trying to kill you or not. Having known a great number of people who have served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, I acutely felt these scenes as if the person behind the sniper rifle were a friend of mine. It may have felt manufactured to some, but I thought the majority of the interactions between soldiers, locals, and the situations they faced seemed very realistic.

The casting, in general, also works well. Bradley Cooper, in trying to bulk up to match his character, completely loses any semblance of a jawline or general attractiveness, but he manages a consistent Texan accent throughout, which--these days--is something to applaud. He plays a rather understated character and it's nice to see him recognized for a performance in which he's not an over-the-top crazy person. Sienna Miller is totally unrecognizable as a brunette, but perhaps her appearance is only a surprise because no one has seen her in a hit movie in so long. There are few notable characters beyond these two, so the highlight is that no one stuck out as not believable as a soldier.

Many of the criticisms of this movie stem from its omission of any sort of political statement about our involvement in Iraq, the non-existent WMD, or even the direction of military strategy in the area.* To which I say, it's a movie, people. Sure, I criticized the minimal attention paid to PTSD, but that affected the character directly. The politics of this war is another movie completely. Would I like to see a movie about that? Hell yes.

In the end, my biggest qualm about the movie actually had nothing to do with the simplification of Kyle's story to make him America's golden boy or a lack of a deeper political discussion on key issues, or even the choppiness between scenes. It's that a full 30 minutes at the beginning of the film that served little purpose. I know a back story needed to be built, but it was boring and after watching G.I. Jane, I'm convinced no man will ever seem tough for going through Navy SEAL training. I also could have used more of an explanation of exactly how he got into the sniper school. A single memory of deer hunting with his dad does not a sniper make.

Final word: If you can keep a level head about the fact that Kyle's life story has been Hollywood-ized, it's an emotional ride.

*I have also read quite a bit about the notable differences between Kyle's autobiography and this movie and understand why people are upset about some of the ahem, character changes. To which I say, read this article. It'll give you something to think about.

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