American Sniper

The reluctance that Hollywood showed in making Vietnam movies in the immediate wake of that war does not seem to have carried over to the Iraq War. There are probably many reasons for this but I think the biggest one is that there is no longer a draft and most people don’t know anyone involved in the war. We are removed from the pain of the experience. The reality is very much like watching a movie for most of us. This actually becomes an issue for those who do our fighting. Because when these soldiers come home and they don’t see coverage of the war on the news and they see people going about their business, not apparently realizing that they are living in a country at war, they become confused. This disconnect may be unparalleled in military history.
American Sniper is based on the memoir of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper. Kyle grows up in the Texas back country, and learns to hunt and shoot at an early age. He has a natural talent for it. Throughout his twenties he makes a living as a rodeo rider. When he’s thirty years old in 1998, our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya are attacked by terrorists and he enlists, becoming a SEAL and a sniper. His unit gets word they are being shipped out on his wedding day.
In all he serves four tours, protecting Marine units on the dangerous streets of Iraqi towns. He’s good at this, and the other soldiers call him “The Legend.” The enemy puts a price on his head. That and the difficult decisions he has to make about whether to shoot or not when women and children can be combatants take their toll. Kyle finds it difficult to cope with life at home.
First of all let me say that Bradley Cooper reminds us that he’s a pretty good actor here. He sheds the tics and mannerisms that he employs in his last two David O. Russell films to give us a fully inhabited performance. You forget that it’s Bradley Cooper. He also puts nuance into the performance despite a script that lacks it.
Clint Eastwood, the director, is a reactionary old buzzard but he knows how to direct a film. If he wants to make a pro-Iraq war movie, that’s his prerogative. It’s disappointing to me, however, that he gives the other side of the argument such short shrift. While this isn’t exactly Eastwood’s The Green Berets, it’s not a fair portrayal of the issues. I expected more from him.
The greatest sin, however, is that American Sniper is such a flawed movie. The problem is the schizophrenic script. On the one hand you have the drama of a soldier dealing with PTSD and it does a pretty good job of bringing up the issues of how we treat veterans. On the other hand, it’s a war story with an almost comic book plot of questing for revenge against the enemy sniper that killed members of their unit. These two elements never really fit together well in the film. It almost feels like two movies edited together. The pace flags because the plot structures are so convoluted, something I never expected to see in an Eastwood directed movie.
One thing is for certain: there will be other films about Iraq and some of those will criticize our involvement in the war. My guess is the more we talk about these issues the better. That’s the good thing about making movies about it. It gives us an opportunity to talk.


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