Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Zaki's Review: American Sniper

In the days leading up to and out of the release of director Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, there's been a lot of conversation -- some hagiographic, some just plain graphic -- about Chris Kyle, the titular sniper upon whose autobiography the film is based. I haven't read the book, so I'm not really equipped to comment on that, but at the very least there's a questionable haze surrounding his expressed worldview as well as the veracity of some of the incidents he's described. Since Kyle tragically passed away in 2013, his input is an essential piece of this conversation that will forever be missing.

 As such, when I set down to sum up my thoughts on the film, I decided to leave it up to others to share their thoughts on Kyle the man versus Kyle the character (embodied here in an absolute showpiece performance by Bradley Cooper, who rightly snagged an Oscar nom for the role last week). Of course, even when we remove discussion of the real Chris Kyle (called "The Legend" for racking up more confirmed kills than any sniper in US military history) from the discussion we still have to contend with American Sniper's problematic approach to and depiction of recent real life events.

 War is, at its core, a reductive experience. In the field of combat, there's your side and their side. I get it. That's what's going to keep yourself and your fellow soldiers alive. I have no doubt there's a kind of psychological fortress one has to construct to deal with the heavy emotional ramifications of the job. Of course, film as a medium is also reductive. We can only truly experience one point-of-view, and it's one that's chosen on our behalf by those making the creative decisions, and American Sniper does an absolutely masterful job of putting us inside Kyle's head as he goes about the dirty job of targeting the enemy from rooftop hideaways.

 That said, there is something egregious about how we hopscotch from Kyle and wife Taya (Sienna Miller) watching the events of 9/11 on TV to Kyle's deployment to Fallujah in 2003, implying a degree of causality between the two, and tacitly giving permission to those of us in the movie theater to uncritically accept everything we see depicted in that theater. Now, is it a movie's fault if people are missing/misinterpreting a piece of context that it's not the movie's job to give? I'd say no, but the other side to it is that, unlike with other films, misinterpretations with this one can have some far-reaching real world consequences.

 It's important to stress here that the boots-on-the-ground aren't responsible for the decisions made by higher-ups, however wrongheaded. What I take issue with is the calculus the movie lays down that in Iraq there are only victims and predators, and the answer to both is the American military. Indeed, the very first sequence depicts Kyle spotting a mother and child armed with a grenade, intent on doing harm, and having to make the split-second decision whether to take the shot. "If you're wrong, they send your ass to Leavenworth," says his colleague. But of course we know he's not wrong, because the camera's unblinking eye has already made the truth plain.

 And so it goes for every Iraqi we meet. They just sort of coalesce into a faceless brown horde of "savages" (per Kyle's own words). Whether men, women, or children, we in the audience become conditioned, as does he, to view them with (at best) suspicion and (at worst) hostility. Now, Cooper is absolutely magnetic throughout, and especially shines in later scenes, when the ravaging effects of continued tours on Kyle's psyche as he transitions back to civilian life becoming increasingly clear. This is arguably the emotional heart of the story, and it's powerful stuff. Nonetheless, even in those moments, he never once questions the essential righteousness of his work.

 Again, if that was indeed Kyle's take on the world, then so be it. But the very fact that American Sniper asks to be accepted as an artifact that will stand for time immemorial virtually necessitates a higher degree of investigation then the film is able or willing to offer. As I was watching, I kept coming back to coarseness of the feelings Kyle expressed in his writings. Given that his book came out so soon after his discharge, I truly wonder if he'd had a chance to process and fully sort through everything he had to have been feeling. Given how his story ended, it'll forever be the great unknown whether his thinking would eventually (of necessity?) have evolved. C+

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