Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Film Review: American Sniper (2014)

Is American Sniper as morally blind, jingoistic and lacking in political context as a host of commentators and critics have described it? Yes. Yes it is. Most of the critical flak has been aimed at director Clint Eastwood, but I'd say scriptwriter Jason Hall and producer/star Bradley Cooper deserve more of the blame.

Eastwood's direction here ranges from efficient to perfunctory to downright lazy, but I'm calling out Hall and Cooper for a jaw-droppingly bad script that feels as though it was crafted by a committee comprised of PR people for the NRA and the Tea Party. The script does such a thorough job of ducking the hard and nasty truths about Chris Kyle and the war in Iraq that it should qualify as a fantasy film. Kyle's ghostwritten autobiography and subsequent revelations about his post-war life made it clear that he was a racist, a sociopath, and a congenital liar who fantasized about killing civilians. These qualities probably helped make him grade A material for the Navy SEALS, but why would a scriptwriter and producer go so far out of their way to whitewash a character who was, to put it mildly, halfway to being a serial killer? The script also cuts and pastes the historical record in order to suggest that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks. I'd say this kind of revisionism, and the film's fawning celebration of good ole boy machismo, is a calculated and cynical strategy to appeal to a specific and considerable American demographic; namely the kind of people who flesh out the ranks of the Tea Party; holiday in Branson, MO; fill the stands at NASCAR races; attend gun shows on Saturdays and pack the pews of megachurches on Sundays. This is the audience this film is tailor-made for. American Sniper glorifies, even beatifies, the values and myths they hold dear and does it with a rigorous disregard for the thorny inconveniences of irony, historical accuracy, psychological insight, and the moral and political consequences of military actions.

American Sniper also continues a tradition of  mainstream Hollywood films portraying wars purely in terms of their effect on American soldiers and civilians. Vietnam films, even politically liberal ones such as Coming Home, had nothing to say about the two million Vietnamese killed in the war. The Hurt Locker, another film about the Iraq war, is very similar in tone and subject matter to American Sniper and also shares its lack of interest in the war's impact on Iraqis. If your only knowledge of Iraq came from those two films you'd be left with the idea that Iraq was entirely filled with terrorists and their civilian supporters. The combination of two wars and brutal economic sanctions between those wars have led to the deaths, by some estimates, of a million Iraqis and the displacement of millions more. According to Hollywood's moral accounting, none of that counts for anything compared to the temporary psychological stresses suffered by one soldier, Chris Kyle, and his wife.

Looked at purely from a cinematic perspective, Eastwood's direction is robotic. The plentiful action sequences are visually dull and lack tension, the boot camp section is an afterthought, and the scenes that show Kyle suffering from PTSD make it look like it's a condition akin to having a few too many coffees. I think at some point in pre-production everyone decided this best way to approach this film was to be non-judgmental and let the facts (according to Chris Kyle) speak for themselves. That's translated into a dull, witless, nasty film that might have worked better if it had paraphrased the title of an earlier, better Eastwood film: how does White Sniper, Black Heart sound?

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