“American Sniper” Hits The Mark For Melodrama, But Misses Badly For Veracity

Posted: January 18, 2015 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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What is it that makes a hero?

There are probably as many different answers to that question as there are people reading this (in other words, probably a few hundred if my daily wordpress stats are to be believed), but there are some character traits that I think we would all consider to be heroic : willingness to sacrifice oneself for the well-being of others, truthfulness, bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, staying firm in one’s ideals (assuming they’re decent ideals, of course) even when it’s dangerous to do so, etc.

By those standards, then, the “most lethal sniper in U.S. history,” Chris Kyle — who is credited by the Navy with over 160 kills in Iraq, while in his  memoir, American Sniper (upon which, needless to say, Clint Eastwood’s new film is based), he himelf puts the number northwards of 250 — probably meets most people’s definition of what a “hero” is. But let’s take a moment to consider things more closely, shall we?

Without wishing to step into a political minefield (whoops, wrong military metaphor there) with this review, let me just state right off the bat that I haven’t read Kyle’s book, but I have been following the ongoing brouhaha about the movie’s divergence from it online, and I find a lot of what I’ve heard about what Kyle wrote (or, more than likely, had ghost-written for him) fairly troubling : he says that he “enjoyed” killing; that he “never hesitated”; that he considered any and all Iraqis — women, kids, you name it — to be “enemies”; that the fact he took so many lives “never troubled him.” Chances are that an autobiography written by Henry Lee Lucas would read much the same way, yet one guy was buried with full military honors while the other sits in a prison cell for the rest of his life.

Now, hold on a minute — before you think I’m necessarily equating what Kyle did with the actions of one of history’s most notorious serial killers, rest assured that I am fully aware that numerous legal distinctions exist between murder on the field of combat and murder for the sheer, depraved love of it — but let’s remember that Kyle did, in fact, claim to have “enjoyed” his work, to the point where even boasted of bringing his “skills” to the homefront and “taking out” numerous “looters” during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while in the employ of the notorious Blackwater “security” firm. If that’s indeed the case, then the line between trained killer in combat and serial killer on the streets (a line that’s drawn, I suspect, as much to ease the collective conscience of the public as it is  the conscience of the individual soldier) is pretty thin in this case.

Eastwood and his screenwriter, Jason Hall, wisely ignore this period in their protagonist’s life, not only because showing Kyle working for Blackwater would immediately piss off about half the people in the theater, but because that particular piece of chest-thumping on his part could never be confirmed, and our guy Chris was known to fabricate stuff when it suited his purposes — just ask Jesse Ventura, who won a $1.8 million defamation of character suit brought against the late sniper’s estate when Kyle boasted of having punched the wrestler-turned-governor out after Ventura supposedly said (at a Navy SEAL gathering, of all places) that he was glad so many SEALs got killed in Iraq because we never should have been there in the first place.

Now,  there are those who would argue that Ventura, who isn’t always known for engaging in the most responsible rhetoric himself, was only getting a taste of his own medicine and that in some weird way he and Kyle probably deserved each other, but no matter how much you might dislike ol’ Jesse, you’d have to be born yesterday to think that he’d be flat-out stupid enough to tell a room full of his fellow SEALs that he was glad a whole bunch of their brethren were dead. So Chris Kyle and the truth weren’t always, shall we say, strong allies  (there’s one of the qualities of heroism we opened this review with scratched off the list, then), but to me the most disturbing thing here is that even if the American Sniper never killed anybody in New Orleans — and I sincerely hope he didn’t — he wanted people to think that he did, and I’m sorry, but that’s just plain fucked up.

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You’d never guess that Kyle had this rather ugly side to his personality from Bradley Cooper’s portrayal in the film, though. Cooper does a fairly decent acting job here — apparently he put on 40 pounds of pure muscle for the role — and his version of Kyle comes across as a well-meaning, “standup guy”-type who ultimately grows to have doubts about both the war in Iraq itself and his place in it. In short, he shows both a conscience and a depth of character that the person he’s portraying never did. And that disconnect from reality is at the heart of my concerns with American Sniper.

Just to lay my cards on the table, I initially had no intention of seeing this movie — it looked like another glorified military recruitment ad, and as far as I’m concerned the Pentagon can do its own PR work without enlisting Hollywood’s help, but the more I read about it, the more intrigued I became. To be sure, Eastwood has crafted a technically fine film here, with some standout scenes that drip with tension and are beautifully shot (the one that shows Kyle running through a dust storm in order to hop into the back of a fleeing troop carrier is especially memorable), and there’s no doubt that I was surprised to see a notable right-winger like Clint take such a nuanced approach to this subject matter. I expected two-plus hours of macho flag-waving, and ended up seeing a reasonably gripping and emotionally involving tale about the heavy price that war claims on the part of those who participate in it. It’s no Saving Private Ryan (incidentally, Steven Spielberg was originally attached to this project as director, but pulled out in the rather early going) or Full Metal Jacket, by any means, but it certainly shows that the battlefield is no picnic and does so in a way that most level-headed people on either side of the Iraq war debate will find fair-minded and thought-provoking.

Let’s be honest, though — not everybody is all that fair-minded, and some of the online attacks that critics who were less than enthusiastic about this film have been subjected to have been just plain unhinged. A recent piece on The Guardian website showed just a sampling of the ugly tweets that reactionary extremists have directed at various cinematic scribes, and it’s pretty ugly stuff, which leads one to wonder — what, exactly, is at the core of this desperate need to lionize the actions of a guy who’s killed either 160-ish or 250-ish (depending on whose numbers you believe) people? If you come into the debate with the view that the war in Iraq was somehow fought for the purposes of “keeping us safe” or “protecting our country” or somesuch, fine, but at least be honest enough to ask yourself — would any of the people Kyle killed because they posed a danger to his fellow soldiers have even been a danger to them if we hadn’t invaded their country in the first place? And what lengths would you be willing to go to in order to drive out a foreign army that showed up on your doorstep and plunged your nation into a conflict that you and your fellow citizens never asked for? Shit, as much as I actively despised George W. Bush and as much as I’m profoundly disappointed-to-the-point-of-disgust with Barack Obama, I wouldn’t want another nation to come in here and depose either one of them, and if said nation’s military forces were tearing through my neighborhood, I’d probably be willing to get up off my ass and try to fight them off (not that I’d be much good at it).

Again, no disrespect intended here to any readers who think there was something noble and/or just about our invasion of Iraq, but if you really want to be able to defend that position, you would be well advised to consider it from all perspectives in order to formulate a truly solid view — and the same goes for those of us who weren’t in favor of the war; I know that my knee-jerk initial opposition to it couldn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and it took a certain amount of time before I was able to fully grasp all the intricacies of the issue and to state in cogent terms why this was a war of choice and not necessity that was  being fought more for the sake of corporate profits than anything to do with notions of freedom or security. If you buy into Chris Kyle as portrayed on film, those same doubts, and that same feeling of profound disillusionment, eventually came to inform his own outlook on the war — but that, as it turns out, is all just propaganda of a different sort than I’d be banking on before seeing American Sniper.

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Even so, there’s no denying that it’s effectively constructed propaganda,  and that it’s propaganda of a rather surprising nature. My initial concerns that Eastwood was going to engage in a glorification of the war and of his protagonist (concerns that I stated pretty bluntly on a facebook conversation thread that earned me my very first internet “stalker” and gave me a taste, in microcosm, of what some of the “real” critics have been forced to put up with) were ill-founded, but his decision instead to engage in a full-on rehab effort of Chris Kyle’s reputation could, perhaps, be even more of a whitewash than the one I was worried about.

Or is it? There’s little doubt that if, say, Oliver Stone indulged in this sort of historical revisionism that he’d be positively raked over the coals for it while Dirty Harry finds himelf more or less getting a free pass, but at least American Sniper gives a realistic accounting of what most vets who have been forced to kill go through psychologically, and shows in a fairly unflinching light how combat, and the inability to leave it behind, can seriously damage a soldier’s home life, as well, by way of Sienna Miller’s very nice turn as Kyle’s long-suffering wife, Taya. This may not be Chris Kyle’s story per se, but it’s a pretty good story nonetheless.

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Up until the end, of course, when our  sharpshooter met his death at the hands of another veteran under circumstances that can be fairly described as almost mind-bogglingly bizarre and tragic. One thing both American Sniper the book and the film seem to agree on is that helping his fellow vets was important to Kyle, and whether or not one perceives of his actions on the battlefield as being “heroic,” his volunteerism in service to his brothers in arms certainly was. Eastwood declines the opportunity to show the shooting range incident that we’re all no doubt familiar with itself, but in a moment of supreme Hollywood cheesiness he takes second to portray the other party involved as being a leering, sinister, “creepy” figure — which is sort of a shame because he spends so much of the rest of the film eschewing such simplistic, pat, two-dimensionality.

Oh well. Clint might take the easy way out, but I give him a certain amount of credit for not taking it nearly so easy up to that point. I just wish that Chris Kyle as he really was bore more resemblance to his Hollywood version — even if I’ll always be troubled by the fact that they felt the need to clean up his story in the first place.

To drag us back to where we started, then, it seems that the media is determined to make a hero out Chris Kyle one way or another — regardless of whether or not you, I, or anyone else thinks that he was. When he was alive,  it was through a book that portrayed him as a ruthless, reflexive, unthinking, unfeeling killing machine, who never lost a moment’s sleep over his actions and always felt he was in the right. Now that he’s gone, it’s though a film that shows him as an actual human being suffering the same sorts of psychological traumas that almost any of us, apart from the truly psychotic, would be going through in his situation. The latter makes for better storytelling on the silver screen now that the war in which he served is supposedly “over”, while the former made for effective inspirational/recruitment material while said war was still going on — but neither addresses the key issue of why it’s apparently so important that his guy be considered a “hero” in the first place.

Comments
  1. trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

    Reblogged this on Through the Shattered Lens.

  2. dobbie606 says:

    a wee bit of history to go along with Your balanced review, Prof Ryan:
    http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article40659.htm

  3. What a great read you have constructed here, and I will enthusiastically tweet this out.

  4. Well written post. I really enjoyed American Sniper as a piece of entertainment. But frankly I feel that any film that promotes or labels killing as heroic is an insult to humanity.

    • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

      I pretty well agree with that, I can understand the whole attitude of seeing killing as a “regrettable necessity” of some sort in battle, and I think that’s how most combat veterans who have killed see it, but the idea that it’s ever a “heroic” action is, frankly, pretty twisted.

      • I consider myself a Pacifist, yet War films and Westerns are two of my favourite movie genres. I think it is because to encounter these types of films you must look at your own values, they reveal something of our own character in watching them.

      • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

        Excellent point, to be honest I’m not a big war movie buff myself, but when they’re done right, there are few genres as powerful.

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