“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones.”
- “Julius Caesar,” Act iii Sc. ii
“American Sniper” has achieved that rare elevation from just another film du jour to a cultural phenomenon. The things I like about American Sniper are not the things that vocal proponents seem to enjoy. The things I thought were bad about American Sniper are not the same things that tweeters find wrong.
Director Clint Eastwood has fashioned a modern day western complete with a good guy, Chris Kyle played, with the kind of intensity that Daniel Day Lewis brings to a role, by Bradley Cooper, and a bad guy right down to his black scarf. The film posits that Kyle was a hero and even a legendary hero, but “American Sniper” also hints that being mythic entails darkness of the spirit. All journeys of the hero are allegories.
Let’s immediately move away from whether major (or minor) films should be one hundred-percent truthful. No narrative movie, especially based on memoirs or biographies, ever makes it to the screen with a total accurate representation of said figure. One of my favorite films ever is “JFK” and I certainly don’t take everything Oliver Stone offers as a stone cold fact. Current films like “The Imitation Game,” and “Selma,” and “Foxcatcher” have had articles and tweets pointing out discrepancies. So what? If you want to know the unfiltered truth about anything go do some serious research. By the way, UFOs don’t exist but I’ll watch a film with saucer shaped craft anytime.
Let’s also address the violence factor. The same person who claims that films that show people killing other people in wartime are immoral and offensive is the same person who’s addicted to “BReaking BAd,” and rightfully so since so rarely has a violent narrative arc so added to a story’s psychological complexity. The same person who claims that someone who objects to America being in Iraq (or Afghanistan) should leave the country because they aren’t a good citizen doesn’t grok that a soldier fights for the rights of pro and con alike. Violence doesn’t keep films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket” from being classic films that never get dull on repeat viewing. The same can’t be said for other war films no matter how well produced such as “The Deer Hunter,” or “The Hurt Locker” and now “American Sniper.”
In Eastwood’s landscape Kyle isn’t the same guy who authored the titular book or even the same person who was successfully sued for slander by Jessie Ventura but rather a Man With No Name-type personality who excels at sharpshooting. It’s the same stoic façade that made Eastwood a star in Sergio Leone films. There are less than a half-dozen people on the planet that can make a 2100-yard killshot. For his part in creating a character Cooper lifted weighs for months and studied hours of home video tapes of Kyle’s accent. When early in “American Sniper” Cooper is being cuckolded by Channing Tatum (in a cameo) you have no doubt that Cooper, with his massive pectoralis major, could easily punch out Tatum. “American Sniper” never wants to be a PG-13 examination of war, the language alone would warrant an R-rating much less the well-choreographed and often brutal battle sequences.
One scene has Cooper, on a rooftop, making his impossible mile-in-length-plus shot only to give away his platoon’s position to insurgents on the street below. “You just fucked us Legend,” says one troop. This particular action beat turns into a massive firefight that is exacerbated by an oncoming sandstorm, and provides perhaps the most cinematically arousing moments in “American Sniper.”
Eastwood the director can move from the profound to the mawkish. Just look at a directorial filmography that ranges from “Pink Cadillac” to “Mystic River.” Sometimes “American Sniper” comes to a screeching halt as Squint throws in moments that are supposed to be emotional but that come off as clumsy. Like when Kyle is talking to his wife by satellite cell phone in the midst of battle. However some of the domestic scenes leave a lasting impression of a character that has lost sight of their humanity and may be teetering on the edge of a PTSD breakdown.
We catch glimpses of Kyle watching television at the beginning of the movie and indeed it is his reaction to embassy bombings and subsequently 9/11 that propels him into action. Late in the movie we see Kyle again watching television, with the set in the foreground (from behind) and Kyle in the background on a sofa. We hear him talking in reaction to what’s on the tube. Only when we cut to the reverse shot the television is turned off.
There is no sharply defined side that “American Sniper” chooses, it’s almost like a litmus test where some viewers will use the context to espouse their own political viewpoints left or right, passive or aggressive. The hardest objective mode for a moviegoer is to judge a film on its merits rather than on the political climate of its time. Consider how a film like “Gone With the Wind” plays in 2015. Or consider state-sanctioned movies that were made by world-class directors under political duress, like the biographies Sergei Eisenstein made under the Stalin regime. “Alexander Nevsky” was hailed as a masterpiece in Russia on its release yet pulled from distribution by the Soviets when they made a short-lived pact with Germany in 1940. Also, Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible, Part II” (1946) was considered so subversive the government suppressed the release until 1958, ten years after Eisenstein’s death.
There’s a gulf between Russian art films of the 1930s and current Hollywood fare, yet no film should be censored because of its potential interpretation whether it’s “American Sniper” or “The Interview.” The latter is the film that everyone was talking about several weeks ago and that is presently residing in the forgotten file. Any movie that gets people into movie theaters is good for all movies, indie, neat or tall.
- Michael Bergeron