Friday, August 28, 2015

Risky Flicks: American Sniper

American Sniper (2014):
Dir. Clint Eastwood
Written by Jason Hall
Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

The Challenge: 
It’s an annoyance that I even have to talk about this one at all, but I guess since this is apparently some huge earth-shattering fucking deal that the whole culture lost its goddam mind over and it made piles of cash and was nominated for a raft of awards (it won only one, best sound editing) and made everyone on the internet go all gamergate all over each other, I’ve gotta step in and set you people right. So let’s get to it.

What’s the risk?
  • Conservatives loved it, and they let their love be known in the most unappealing way possible: subliterate bloodthirsty tweets, a phrase so profoundly unpleasant that just by forcing me to write it, the movie has one strike against it.
  • It has American in the title, the preferred go-to hustle of dull, pretentious people trying to distract from their moronic pablum by insinuating their drivel is really about something. (exceptions: AMERICAN MOVIE and AMERICAN SPLENDOR, both of which preceded the trend)
  • Disease-of-the-week melodrama about PTSD and patriotism? What is this, the Lifetime network?
Possible Mitigating Factors:
  • Clint? His classical, reserved and actor-focused directorial style can be dynamite when he’s working with a good script. Which is, you know, a good 30-40% of the time.
  • Hello? Best sound design?

The Case:

So, the liberals called this bloodthirsty, xenophobic, dishonest, flag-waving war-justifying unapologetic Bush-era propaganda. The conservatives agreed, but said that was a good thing. To some extent it may be those things, but mostly its ambitions are more modest. It wants to be a good war movie (it mostly is) and also seems to feel obligated to be a persuasive melodrama (it mostly isn’t). Unfortunately it had the misfortune --or bad judgement-- of undertaking those goals with a story about a war which is still painfully present in people’s lives, and believing there was be no need to actually make a clear statement about that war. And that’s where the trouble started.

See, the movie is about a bull-riding, God-and-country lovin’, modern country-music listening, polo-shirt-tucked-into-jeans wearing, red blooded simple kind of man honest American American Sniper type guy, Chris Kyle, who, depending on who you ask, is either everything that is good and upright about America or a sociopathic racist murderer. Actually if you ask him, by way of his autobiography, he makes it pretty clear that he at least aspires to be the latter, with his open xenophobia (he calls the Iraqis “Savages”) and claims to shooting looters during Katrina -- but even so, screenwriter Jason Hall (minor recurring character “Devon MacLeish” in seasons 2-4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?) disagrees, saying that he spent time with Kyle and felt his autobiography misrepresented him. An odd claim, I know, but if there’s one thing not in dispute by anyone, it’s that Kyle’s four tours in Iraq and his 255 claimed kills (160 officially confirmed) kinda messed the dude up a little. It’s not entirely inconceivable to me that, as Hall claims, the book was a bit of self-mythologizing by a bitter, unstable guy who had just returned home from a decade at war and was putting up an angry tough guy facade.  

So what’s the real truth here? The movie’s big problem --and its most interesting quirk-- is that it either doesn’t know or isn’t saying. Just like his autobiography, the movie lets Kyle tell us what he thinks --he’s in Iraq to kill the bad guys, he isn’t bothered by all the killing, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a coward or a traitor--, and then lets us judge for ourselves how much he really believes his own story and how much is just a cover for the immense psychological damage this war has done to him. Kyle gets plenty of time to offer his opinions about what he’s doing and how it’s affecting him, and the movie mostly never contradicts him. In fact, it sometimes even twists the facts a little to better fit his right-wing point-of-view, most notably when the movie cuts from Kyle’s horror over 9/11 to his serving in Iraq, as though the two were related. That obviously raised a lot of hackles among the lefties, and maybe rightly so. But of course, the movie is from Kyle’s perspective, and it’s not surprising that the connection made perfect sense to him and a lot of other people at the time. Besides, if people don’t get that those two things were not connected by now, we can hardly blame the movie for not enlightening them, that one’s on us.

Freedom, justice, the American way.

So we know what Kyle thinks, and we also know that what he thinks isn’t going to sit real well with a lot of people, myself included. The question is, what does the movie think about all this? To both its credit and its detriment, it simply refuses to say conclusively. Of course, there’s not much in the film’s style to suggest that Kyle’s somewhat warped perspective is merely the subjective interpretation of one man. The film is shot with a clear eye towards realism, not subjectivity, and moreover the movie tends to set things up to prove him right when the chips are down. Still, while there are many things here which present Kyle in a positive light, there are also some pretty noticeable details (mostly in Bradley Cooper’s macho but sad-eyed performance) that suggest that maybe there’s more going on here than Kyle is either willing or able to admit. There’s a provocative opaqueness to his character and a general layer of ambiguity about the whole enterprise; Eastwood seems to have been bound and determined to make a movie which could be seen either as a love letter to wartime jingoism gilded in passion play martyrdom, or a searing indictment of an ethos which takes people with good intentions and turns them into emotionally ruined, ideologically rigid killers. By never directly challenging Kyle’s conflation of militarism with patriotism and warfare with morality, it dares us to either accept it as correct (as, it turns out, a lot of people did) or to critique it by way of its obvious destructiveness on Kyle’s psyche. On balance, it probably leans more towards the former (little wonder, since Hall would hardly have been able to pitch a script criticizing the guy after spending so much time with him and his family and then having him, spoiler, die) but there’s just barely enough room in Cooper’s portrayal of him to allow for some doubt.

In theory, that sounds like kind of an interesting idea, but unfortunately it’s severely undermined by two important factors. The first is that it’s probably a terrible idea to try and make an ambiguous film about an issue that it’s pretty much impossible for people to not have a strong opinion about from the start. I know every single fucking asshole with some jackass opinion these days feels like what the world needs is “starting conversations,” (translation: “I’d like an opportunity to lecture you about why you’re wrong”) but honestly this is not a very good conversation starter. There’s not really much conversation to be had which hasn’t already been run into the ground over America’s painful decade and more at war, and even if there was, this movie probably doesn’t have much to contribute to it. Especially since they have sanded a lot of Kyle’s more unpleasant tendencies off in order to make it “fair and balanced” to both sides, just like reality is. I know Hall thinks he was a nicer guy than his autobiography made him out to be, but come on man, he said that stuff. Even if you don’t believe it, you gotta try and explain the character well enough that we could understand why he would make it up. I mean, I don’t think Charlie Kaufman believes that Chuck Barris was actually a superspy, but by the end of CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND we understand him well enough to get why he’d lie about a thing like that. Not so here. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine Cooper’s humble, stoic movie Kyle saying the things that real-life Kyle said in his book, regardless of the circumstances. So not only does the movie not have a lot of real insight into the war, it also doesn’t really offer much insight into this real historical person, does it?

I mean, if we’re not going to be honest about who this guy was and his own claims about what he did… what are we even talking about here? Do we really feel like we can have a meaningful conversation about this topic by sanitizing this guy’s own autobiography so he seems nicer and more reasonable? I don’t think it needs to judge him or present him as a villain, but if there really is something to be learned about this man, I don’t think we can really learn it by turning him into a sanitized, fictionalized Hollywood version. You gotta either tell it like it actually was, or you gotta just change the name and admit that you’re making up a new character to tell the story you’d rather tell. Nothing wrong with that either; I imagine the fictionalized movie Kyle probably resonates with a lot of real soldiers who really did feel more conflicted than he (claims he) did. But you can’t have both — you can’t do a character study about a real person and then change the stuff you find unappealing about them. It’s no longer an actual character study then, more like wish fulfillment.

If this view makes you feel a little uncomfortable, don't worry, this is mostly done by robots now. Whew!

And that leads us to the second problem, and one which is probably much worse for the movie itself: even if we generously assume the most interesting possible interpretation (Chris Kyle is the product of a brittle, spirit-crushing way of thinking that he’s impossibly ill-equipped to overcome, and he’s gradually crushed by it)... he’s still not a very interesting character. He’s just kind of dull and pedantic in the most broad possible way (actually, it’s frankly a little surprising that conservatives weren’t more offended by how completely the character plays into every possible stereotype about them). There may be something kind of tragic about how his iron-clad ethos prevents him from effectively dealing with the messy, complicated real world, but even at that we spend entirely too much time with him for this to be consistently engrossing. If there’s anything interesting here, it’s what he’s not saying, which is a pretty thin thread to hang an entire movie on, and never explicitly drawn out enough to be a genuine conflict.

The real Kyle seemed full of contradictions -- in reality, he praised the anti-war letter written by his colleague Mark Lee that he fumes about in the movie, even as he seems strongly in favor of the conflict; he repeatedly uses the word “savage” to describe the Iraqis in his book, but seemed to take his responsibility to protect their civilians serious, even categorically refusing to kill children (which he does in the film). Watching his interview on Conan, he seems a little squirrely, even goofy, talking his way through his work with a professional’s ease, but with a little kid’s equal parts enthusiasm and embarrassment at being the center of attention. It’s a weird, somewhat awkward conversation -- Conan is trying to make light TV out of the experience of a guy who is famous for killing more people than any other sniper in history-- but it’s also sort of impossible to not find Kyle likable. He has a winning, self-effacing sort of smile, a wide, open face which veers between unselfconscious earnestness and sheepish bemusement. Even on an O’Reilly Factor clip unencouragingly titled “Navy SEAL Sniper Chris Kyle Enemy are Savages/,“ he comes across as sincere and nuanced, which is especially interesting since the story he’s telling -- punching out Jesse Ventura in a bar-- seems likely to be total fiction, in fact Ventura sued him for slander and won. It’s hard to know what to make of this Kyle, but I have to say, even in these pandering talking-head TV interviews, he seems vivid and alive in a way which sad-eyed, glowering Cooper’s movie version of him never does. The real Kyle was, as we all are, a messy, tangled web of contradictions and impulses, but the movie turns him into something much more dull: a symbol, a symptom.

Lacking an ability to probe Kyle’s inner conflict, a huge chunk of this story is just the normal subplot from an action movie where a tearful wife (Sienna Miller, “the military science fiction action film G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” as her wikipedia page eloquently puts it) wants her husband to stop being so awesome and badass and stay home with her in placid domesticity, but he’s restless because he’s a man of action and knows that evil will prevail unless he personally stops it. This conflict is in every action movie ever made, so it’s no surprise it’s in here too. Except that instead of wasting 5 minutes of our time like a normal action movie, AMERICAN SNIPER makes it arguably the central conflict, without really adding any depth to this rather banal disagreement. Seriously, probably half the movie is two kind of shallow, uninterested characters played by terrific actors arguing about why he’s never around and it’s hard to raise kids as a single mom and it’s scary to never know if he’s gonna live or die etc etc. While obviously this is a real hardship for families of people serving abroad, the movie version of this conversation finds nothing interesting to explore that couldn’t have been covered in an obligatory 20-second montage. It just goes on an on, around and around again, without revealing anything new about the characters or resolving in any way.

Oh yeah, I should mention that the plastic babies they use in this are a little stiff and apparently it's some kind of big deal for the internet. I can't say I noticed it while watching, but yeah, looking at this image, that is one plastic baby, all right.

Fortunately, the movie isn’t a total loss because the scenes that aren’t about that are pretty good. Not in an interesting, thought provoking way, but definitely in a gripping war movie kind of way. They’re generally pretty kinetic and exciting, especially for Eastwood (who doesn’t usually go in for fancy editing and big setpieces). The military parts combine a sense of lived-in-realism (particularly the very convincing cast) with some legitimately harrowing gunfights and a healthy dose of entertaining Hollywood bullshit, right down to the black-hatted enemy sniper who provides some narrative structure as a main villain. Unlike most of the movie, these scenes seem to find the right tone -- respectful enough of reality to want to get the details right, but clearly designed to be exciting. And they are exciting; there are at least three fairly elaborate street-battle sequences, including an adrenaline-soaked sandstorm escape during the finale. Again, maybe you don’t like the idea of such a recent national tragedy being milked for entertainment, but you gotta admit that as pure cinema, these sequences work well.

In fact, if the ratio of battle scenes --or even military scenes in Iraq-- to domestic ones had been even a little higher, this one might have actually managed to overcome the obstacles stacked against it and won me over. Sadly, it was not to be. The military scenes are clearly where the film’s strengths lie, but it is stubbornly committed to its idea of itself as a weepy, repressed melodrama, and that’s where it ends up again and again, every time without any real idea of what to do with it. It's so relentless and repetitive that I'd almost be convinced that in itself is the point, if I were even a little more confident the movie has any clear point at all.

That weird sense of a film lacking in any kind of concrete conception of why it exists is heightened immeasurably by the epilogue, which features a happy ending for Kyle so exuberantly overblown and unearned that it borders on parody, and then immediately fades out to text stating that he got murdered by a disturbed ex-vet later that day, and then rolls credits! It's so stunningly poorly thought-out that it borders on the amateurish. Some other movie might find this turn of events ironic, or tragic, or infuriating -- or, it might simply find it unimportant to Kyle’s journey and not worth including. AMERICAN SNIPER, however, seems to feel it’s important enough to warrant mentioning, but not important enough to make any kind of comment about or to connect to the narrative, as apt an example as any of the film’s clunky narrative ambiguity and undercooked perspective.

The Verdict:
Well, I ended up being right that I wouldn’t much like this one, but not necessarily for the reasons I thought. I wasn’t much offended by it. I think lovers on the right and critics on the left both saw what they wanted to see; the movie might have a slight ideological bent --depending on how you want to interpret its view of the intentionally ambiguous central character-- but even if it does, there’s really not much there. And that’s the big problem: it’s a movie about a real person which doesn’t have much to say about that person, and it’s a movie about a real war which doesn’t have much to say about that war. It’s got some fiercely intense battle scenes and a clear-eyed realism about military life, but frankly it’s a little light on actual content for a 132-minute movie about a hugely controversial topic. If we weren’t living in such a toxic swamp of bitter culture-war nonsense, I can’t imagine anyone would have gotten too excited over this glum and unfocused wartime melodrama one way or another. Oh well, hopefully it’ll inspire Clint to make a better sequel focusing on the other side of the conflict like he did with FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS / LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA. I’m sure Twitter will like that a lot better.

Demolition Derpy.

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