Saturday, January 24, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER (2014): Controversial Iraqi War Film

It probably serves no purpose to discuss American Sniper with the ideologically pure.  They’ve decided going into the theaters whether they were going to love or hate the movie.  One camp decided you can’t criticize the film while still being supportive of the U.S. soldiers.  The other side has declared American Sniper jingoistic.  Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone Magazine went so far to pen an editorial entitled, ‘American Sniper’ Is Almost Too Dumb to Criticize.  Taibbi’s smugness is notable since Peter Travers, Rolling Stone Magazine’s long time movie critic, gave the film an extremely favorable review.

For those capable of independent thought, there is room for debate about this movie.  American Sniper is the 38th movie that Clint Eastwood has directed since 1971.  The quality of his films has been wildly inconsistent, but many of his films have been hugely popular.  He has been best in directing westerns such as High Plains Drifter or Unforgiven.  Many of his more recent films such as Letters From Iwo Jima and Gran Torino have been in my opinion sermonizing and too melodramatic.  Even potentially better films like Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River have been badly marred by Eastwood’s inability to tell a complete story.

American Sniper owes a great deal to other films.  Its plot is similar to the underrated Enemy at the Gates released in 2001.  American Sniper deals with a cat-and-mouse game between an American and Iraqi sniper while the earlier film dealt with a Russian and German sniper during World War II.  The movie American Sniper will most likely be compared to is The Hurt Locker, the 2008 film directed by Kathryn Bigelow.  Both movies deal with life-and-death decisions made by American soldiers in Iraq who have difficulty dealing with civilian life.  In sentiment, American Sniper shares the same sympathy for the American soldier fighting in foreign wars as did The Deer Hunter released in 1978.  While American Sniper does not improve on any of these movies, it is an intense and powerful film.

Chris Kyle, a real life U.S. Navy SEAL, is played by Bradley Cooper.  Chris marries his wife (Sienna Miller) right before he’s sent off on the first of four tours of duty in Iraq.  Unlike Chris, his brother Jeff (Keir O'Donnell), who also serves in Iraq as a soldier, becomes disillusioned with the war.  For his part, Chris becomes extremely good at his job.  Chris becomes known as a legend in Iraq for his ability to shoot enemy combatants before they can kill or maim American soldiers.  It is estimated that he killed 160 individuals during his tour of duty – most of which he killed as a sniper on the top of buildings assigned to protect American soldiers on the streets below.  However, he sees many of his comrades wounded or killed.  Many are killed by a mysterious enemy sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) who apparently had been a gold medal winning shooter in the Olympics.  During his final tour of duty, Chris finally is able to kill Mustafa and then decides to return to civilian life.  (As an aside, I was told that there was no real life Mustafa.)

Like so many other soldiers, Chris has problems dealing with civilian life.  He’s alarmed by sudden noises, sits around and watches a blank television screen, and at one point overreacts and almost kills the family dog.  Chris seeks counseling and begins to adjust to life by helping out wounded vets.  We learn in the closing moments of the film that one disturbed vet ends up shooting and killing Chris.

Bradley Cooper is tremendous in the lead role.  In fact, he’s the only character in the movie we get to know in any depth.  Still, the actors playing the soldier all do a good job playing their limited roles.  Unfortunately, the role played by Sienna Miller as the wife left at home shows little depth and detracts rather than adds to the film.  Most of her lines concern telling Chris that he needs to seek help. 

While the battle scenes begin to blend into each other, every scene is tense with anticipation.  There is little time during the 132 minute film to relax, and it gives us a good idea what it must be like for soldiers in actual combat.  Yet like so many American war movies going back to World War II, we learn practically nothing about what anyone but the Americans are thinking or feeling.  We only see glimpses of foreign men, women and even children trying to blow up American soldiers.  The reasons for why the Iraqi War is being fought are never discussed.

Though American Sniper is not a great movie, it is nevertheless an important one.  No one predicted that it would be as popular as it is.  It has been smashing box office records and been heavily attended by American soldiers and their families.  The movie has even served a purpose is starting a discussion about the Iraqi War.  Whether we ever have a truly intelligent discussion remains to be seen.  But only someone with a completely closed mind who seems assured that they know all of the answers would say it was “too dumb to criticize.”

January 24, 2015

© Robert S. Miller 2015