Sunday, February 22, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER Is Gripping But Problematic Return to Form For Clint Eastwood


- Since its release, AMERICAN SNIPER has been a hotbed of controversy. In terms of where I stand, in all honesty, I find myself slightly torn. Personally, I'm a big believer that, too often, we let opinions about what a movie is "saying" get in the way of its merit as a movie. There are plenty of movies I like and love that also seem to advocate viewpoints I don't necessarily agree with. At the same time, the tricky thing with movies is that we don't always *know* what a movie is saying - it's often a matter of personal interpretation, and even then, a movie often gives off mixed-signals about its true intentions. War movies are particularly problematic. There are some movies that are blatantly jingoistic and propaganda-ish when it comes to war. Think back to any number of old World War II films that were blatant us-vs.-them, good vs. evil epics. There are some films that are clearly anti-war, whose entire point is to de-glamorize combat and emphasize the cycle of violence perpetuated by war as a zero-sum game. The Hurt Locker was, I think, a great recent example of that sort of movie, as was the darkly satirical British film Four Lions. But most war movies fall somewhere in between on that spectrum - acknowledging the high cost of war while also making sure that the combat scenes are super-badass. And this is where we get into some very tricky grey areas. In just the last year, a number of movies - from Lone Survivor to Fury to AMERICAN SNIPER - have been part of this category. They are movies that can be problematic, because their version of war is both something to be reviled and celebrated. The first two movies mentioned, however, can probably have their issues chalked up to mere tonal inconsistency. But with AMERICAN SNIPER, you can't help but think about Clint Eastwood's real-life politics as part of the film's DNA. And that's where, again, we get into some very tricky conversation about art, politics, and the merits of a movie that surprisingly became a hot-button red vs. blue talking point.

But let's forget about politics for a second, and simply talk about Clint Eastwood the director. In a lot of ways, it sort of makes me sad as a movie fan that politics is now such a lasting part of the Eastwood legacy. I wish we could go back to just talking about him as one of the all-time great (if not *the* all-time great) cinematic badasses, and as one of the great actors who transitioned into one of the great directors. But politics aside, there's no question that Eastwood as a director has been in a slump. The last movie of his I truly enjoyed was Gran Torino. Since then, his films have felt stiff, slow, and so blandly directed that you wondered if Eastwood was doing much more behind the camera than simply pointing and shooting. With that said, AMERICAN SNIPER is a huge directorial triumph for Eastwood. It's by far his best and best-directed movie in many years. I've seen some reviews deride the film as shoddily directed, and I think those reviewers are on crack. I think that action and badassery elevates Eastwood's game. If only he'd been doing action all this time and not Jersey Boys, we could have potentially avoided this quality drought. But Eastwood is in top form for AMERICAN SNIPER - a film that in some ways reminds me of his classic Unforgiven. The film is mostly a pretty straightforwardly-shot drama, but the action is edge-of-your-seat riveting. Here, Eastwood shows that he's got a bit of juice still left in the tank. He shoots combat scenes with a clear-eyed, easy-to-follow yet chaotic intensity.

He also gets a phenomenal performance out of Bradley Cooper, in quite possibly his best role yet. As real-life Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, Cooper transforms himself into a jacked-up good ol' boy who happens to be the best in the biz at killing from a distance. I give Cooper credit for bringing a ton of nuance to the performance. Cooper shows us the different sides of Kyle - the soft-spoken family man, the take-charge military veteran, and the haunted-by-PTSD survivor. The film does an admirable job of  showing the many aspects of Kyle - the good, the bad, and the part that was irrevocably damaged by his time overseas.

The various sides of Chris Kyle are spotlighted as the film veers back and forth between his time at home and his time on duty. To me, what's effective here is the repeated juxtaposition of the normalcy of life as a civilian in America vs. the insanity and harsh conditions of life on the battlefields of Iraq. The film hammers home just how difficult returning home can be for a soldier - in some ways, as much if not more so than returning to active duty. Sienna Miller does a fine job here as Kyle's rock-steady wife, who can't help but be concerned when her calls with her husband are interrupted by gunfire. As the drama of Kyle's home life unfolds, the action in Iraq hits hard with nail-biting tension. Kyle's role as a sniper is one that we've not seen fully explored in many war films. In the world of videogames, sniping is now a standard action mechanic, and so there's an air of un-reality to Kyle's actions. But Eastwood, I think, mostly grounds the movie enough so that the action is suitably intense without simply becoming Call of Duty: The Movie.

With that said ... there are some things in the film that do feel a bit "off." The film does a nice job of showing Chris Kyle as a three-dimensional human being, but it also depicts him with the kind of larger than life reverence a film might show to a superhero. In some ways, Eastwood seems to depict Kyle like a modern version of the old Western heroes he used to play - a duty-bound warrior for whom violence was simply a way of life. But it's one thing to mythologize the Old West. It's another to give the same treatment to a very recent - in some ways still ongoing - war, whose legitimacy many question. And it's strange - while some parts of AMERICAN SNIPER do feel on-point (i.e. Kyle's struggle with PTSD), other parts feel oddly cartoonish. For example, Kyle's nemesis in the film - a rival Al-Qaeda sniper - is portrayed as a dastardly villain right out of G.I. Joe. In a way, it's easy to get caught up in these parts of the film as a classic good vs. evil showdown - when Kyle gets the drop on his nemesis, my theater cheered wildly in approval. But the contrast between the adult gravity of the PTSD stuff, and the more anachronistic, us-vs.-them material in some of the combat scenes, was often jarring. What really made me wonder though was the film's ending. Without spoiling anything, the movie's finale uses real-life footage to paint Kyle as a true American hero - a symbol of all that is great and good about the U-S-of-A. But in a film that repeatedly touts Kyle's sniping (aka killing) prowess, it just seems odd and in many ways inappropriate to give him that sort of treatment. I - and I think most others - owe a huge debt of thanks to our armed forces. But when thinking about why we should honor a soldier, I think about acts of bravery, acts of courage, acts of selflessness. To tout someone as a hero because of how good they were at killing - to me that seems like an antiquated and morally suspect concept. Chris Kyle as portrayed in the film seems like a man with a story worth telling - a story that drives home the hardships our troops go through, and a story that reminds us of the difficult price we pay in the fight for peace. But AMERICAN SNIPER seems to treat acts of grave necessity as worth celebrating.

And here's where that somewhat questionable point-of-view affects the movie as a whole: a great war movie tells us something not just about one soldier, but about the nature of the war itself. That's why The Hurt Locker was Best Picture-worthy - Jeremy Renner's war-addicted soldier was emblematic of America's addiction to conflict. But the story of American Sniper - while a moving and intense depiction of Chris Kyle's life - feels told in a vacuum, lacking real context or greater meaning that truly puts his service and sacrifice in a broader perspective. In doing so, it implicitly feeds the dogma of neo-con conservatives that feel all wars are good wars, and that the only real issue is that we don't support the troops *enough* to give them the help they need to keep on fighting. I don't think AMERICAN SNIPER is an overtly political movie at all, one way or the other. But some of the tonal inconsistencies can be troubling, and actually hurt the movie artistically. Basically, the film presents Chris Kyle's story without much in the way of larger thematic context. And that prevents it from being great.

By the same token, those who dismiss the film - just because they fear it may indirectly promote suspect politics - are not being fair to how well AMERICAN SNIPER works as pure cinema. Even if part of the film's box-office success stemmed from it becoming part of a political rallying cry, there's also no way it would have become the sensation it did if it was poorly-made. Eastwood really shines here, and Cooper knocks it out of the park. In many ways, the film works well as the antithesis of the overly-cluttered, choppily-paced action films that crowd theaters today. Eastwood's straightforward style feels oddly refreshing, creating good old-fashioned tension without much in the way of gimmicks or tricks. It's old-school, but unlike Eastwood's other recent output, it's never dull.

I could write a lot more about this film. In many ways, the controversy around it has less to do with the film itself, and more to do with a country still fiercely divided over the war in Iraq and the extent to which we should be engaged in bloody foreign conflict in the modern era. But I do think there's a weird cyclical thing at play here. I think that a generation raised on old Westerns and ra-ra World War II movies has a hard time separating the classic American myths from the current American reality. And trust me, I love that stuff. I love the stories of the stoic cowboy riding up to a lawless town and violently cleaning it up, ridding it of all the scumbags who've infested it. But that's escapist fantasy. Eastwood himself helped to shatter that fantasy with Unforgiven, when his aged gunslinger ruminated that killing a man was a hell of a thing. AMERICAN SNIPER is sort of a riff on that, but the problem is that Cooper's Kyle isn't some lone-wolf gunslinger riding around a lawless frontier. No, he's a highly-trained cog in a military-industrial machine. Big difference. But Eastwood doesn't fully seem to acknowledge it. That's why those old Westerns are so appealing - they were simple stories - good, bad, and ugly - problems solved with a bullet, and then it was off to the next town and next adventure. Is it any coincidence that Eastwood has always excelled at giving us those modern myths, those tales of hard-traveled cowboys and vigilantes? It it any shock that his take on the Iraq war is a version of that story? It's too simple an approach to very complex recent history. Interestingly, Eastwood is the same director who gave us the WWII-from-the-Japanese-perspective film Letters From Iwo Jima. Eastwood at the time felt compelled to humanize the Japanese soldiers of WWII and tell a story from their POV. But there still remains the idea that war is in and of itself noble. But Eastwood never took the next leap, to tell a story of war that might be essentially pointless, even from the point of view of its participants. Some characters in AMERICAN SNIPER touch on that idea, but they seem quickly brushed aside - perhaps the film's way of saying that it ain't got time for that nonsense. But that makes it seem ever so slightly tone-deaf to the story's larger context. And so, AMERICAN SNIPER is really good for what it is. But what it is isn't quite enough to be great.

My Grade: B+

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