Sunday, January 18, 2015

American Sniper Review

"It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have."

The above quote doesn't come from the film I am reviewing but rather the 1993 Best Picture winner Unforgiven, my favorite western of all time and coincidentally a work directed by Clint Eastwood, the man who crafted American Sniper which is nominated for 6 Oscars. Seems strange to quote an entirely different film, one that was released 22 years ago, but given the subject matter of this new Eastwood effort it seems appropriate.

American Sniper tells the true(ish) story of infamous U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, a man who is credited for having the most kills by a sniper in history. To be clear, I didn't include the (ish) as some sort of insult to this film as, to be perfectly honest, I have absolutely no idea what is true and what isn't. I have never read the details of the story of Kyle's life and frankly, I don't really care to. I don't need to understand the man Kyle was when he was at home with his family and I don't need to understand what Kyle did while leaving his indelible mark on american history. All I want to judge is the film itself.

At the age of 84, Clint Eastwood is at the top of his game here as he directs American Sniper with grace and confidence and a leveled sense of brutality when the story demands it, and it certainly does at times. How could you tell the story of a man who took so many lives without shedding a fair share of blood? It is a necessity of course, but I also find it amusing when I read so many say that a single film does a good job of showcasing the ugliness of war. Do we still need a single piece of cinema to teach us that war is messy and awful and traumatic? Shouldn't this be common knowledge with or without a look at a bearded Bradley Cooper?

Speaking of Cooper, his turn as Kyle marks yet another fantastic performance from an actor that I never envisioned could be so gifted back when I was introduced to him as a supporting one note character in Wedding Crashers. He plays the role of American meathead perfectly here when that aspect of the character is called for, a man who refers to his enemies as savages when moments later he could be using his own weapon to end so many lives in a manner of minutes, yet I was glad that Eastwood didn't merely craft a picture dripping in jingoism because at times it did feel like the narrative might be headed in that direction. It is clear that the intense negative impact of war is portrayed with some realism through other characters as well as the PTSD suffered by Chris Kyle.

However, I must now toss in a little bit of criticism to sour the delicious dish I was serving up until now, and the irony is the aspect I just complimented will be the focus. I admire that Eastwood attempted to portray the trauma caused by war, specifically in this case the misguided efforts in Iraq (I don't think this even qualifies as opinion anymore, it seems to be fact that the Iraq proved to be a troubling cluster fuck failure), but I feel as if he didn't go far enough in this regard. Sure, I got the whole after effects of combat thing, but that seemed to be heavily outweighed by the bro-tastic fist bumping of american pride and the idea that Kyle was a hero for saving lives rather than a villain for taking so many.

Was Chris Kyle wrong for killing so many people while in combat? Honestly, and this is going to sound crazy, but no, at least in terms of what was asked of him. I personally could never take a life unless I absolutely had to. I just don't have it in me, and I think even if I were to gun down the worst of the worst terrorist, knowing full well I just did humanity a whole lot of good, I would still have trouble sleeping at night knowing that a person took their last breathe because of my pulling of a trigger. Like the quote from Unforgiven above, it's a hell of a thing, killing a man. I can only hope it's the type of thing I will never have to understand. That being said, as a sniper in the U.S. military Kyle was doing his job, and he often times accomplished the goal of saving the lives of those fighting on his side which is precisely what he should have done. 

My problem is this: if Chris Kyle is a hero, why is the other sniper fighting for the opposition the villain? The film doesn't really explore this concept, or if it does than it doesn't do it all that well, but much like Kyle, the sniper gunning down american soldiers was also just doing his job, and as messy and depressing and horrifying as it may be, it is what was asked of him and therefore he carried out his duties. The film seems to portray this opposing sniper as evil and it seems to ask us, the audience, to celebrate his death as a victory, but at the end of the day he was a man fighting for his beliefs, serving those he promised to serve, shooting targets that threatened him and the men around him. Were his kills any more evil than the record number of bodies left behind by Chris Kyle? If so, why?

American Sniper does so much right, it is impossible for me to not recommend it, but I just don't see it as a game changing, Best Picture worthy piece of cinema. It is a very well made and brilliantly performed film, worthy of plenty of recognition but perhaps not the top prize.


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