Monday, February 02, 2015

American Sniper


I think I made the  mistake of reading too much about American Sniper before seeing it, from thoughtful blog posts by the likes of Glenn Kenny to ideologically charged Facebook statuses from friends. So, in trying to review the film I'm really reviewing my own reaction to a degree I'm not used to. What to do?

Clint Eastwood's adaptation of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle's memoir isn't concerned with the political justifications for American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but rather with the lived experiences of men and women on the ground. The criticism that Iraqis are caricatured here (there’s no sense of the war’s effect on Iraqi non-combatants) is a legitimate one, but I do think Eastwood has the right to make a film about the war’s very specific effect on these American lives. Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper as a vessel waiting to be filled) demonstrates an uncanny talent as a sniper - he is the officially the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history - but over the course of four tours he also begins to lead a assault team in pursuit of Al Qaeda officer Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Kyle returns to combat again at the end of each tour from a sense of patriotism and duty to his fellow soldiers even as the effects of combat strain his marriage to Taya (strong Sienna Miller) back home. Casting Miller was a wise choice, the film gains a great deal of depth from the presence of an actress who can match Cooper's presence.

The most surprising element of American Sniper is the degree to which Eastwood and Cooper are willing to portray the effects of combat on Kyle even while the character himself doesn't admit anything is wrong. We meet Kyle as a good-time country boy who smoothly picks up Taya in a bar and then watch him become more sullen and withdrawn from his family until an incident at a family barbecue forces him to seek counseling. The greatest service this film can do is to serve as a reminder of the wars our soldiers must fight when returning home. Eastwood compartmentalizes Kyle's story into scenes at war and at home - the combat scenes are superbly shot - but Kyle can't do the same, especially in a scene where a former soldier (Jonathan Groff) who credits Kyle with saving his life approaches him on American soil. Scenes of Kyle interacting with other veterans are believably inarticulate. The film suggests that the experiences helped Kyle but in 2013 a veteran whom Kyle was trying to counsel shot and killed him on a Texas gun range.

American Sniper works well on its own terms, as a story of heroism and of the consequences of war on soldiers and their families. The decision to omit certain incidents in Kyle's post-military career and the subsequent controversy has obscured the message. Those who find meaning in American Sniper can't be faulted, but Kyle may be too difficult a figure for the film to finally take its place as a classic of American military cinema.

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