Monday, February 2, 2015

We Don't Need Another Hero: My Problem with "American Sniper"

I love a good awards-season controversy as much as the next Oscar buff. It can perk up a dull January/February, and create the illusion that movies or actors or living legends or whatever/whoever is central to the controversy are more interesting than they are.

That said, controversy is most effective when it's warranted, and frankly, I don't get all the bickering over American Sniper. Sure, parts of it could almost double as propaganda for the right to bear arms, but as far as the Iraq War that is central to the story is concerned, Sniper's political stance concerning West vs. the Middle East is less obvious than, says, Argo's was two years ago. So there's that.

And this: I don't see Sniper as being pro- or anti-Muslim, nor necessarily pro-war or anti-war. If I had to go with one side, though, I'd say it leans closer to being against military bloodshed. The movie easily could have been subtitled War Is Hell on the Homefront, Too, which certainly would not have been a celebration of it.

But getting back to Sniper's depiction of Muslims, is it inherently anti-Muslim because its story is told from an American's point of view? The movie is, after all, called American Sniper, so I went in expecting a Western focus. While I'll cheerfully concede that Eastwood could have painted the Iraqis with less broad strokes, I see that more as a result of his shallow directorial style than as a political statement or a personal agenda.

Perhaps someday someone will make a movie about the Iraq War from the other side's point of view. What a fascinating movie that would be. In the meantime, we have this one. Being that it was based on the title character's memoir, I'd say Eastwood told the story he was supposed to tell.

That doesn't mean he justifies the killing of 160 to 255 Iraqis. To say that telling the story through Kyle's eyes is an indictment of Muslims and tantamount to racism and xenophobia is like saying that if any screenwriter is ever brave enough to write a movie about slavery from a slave owner's point of view, that movie would automatically be racist.

Calm down, people. The Talented Mr. Ripley, one of my favorite books, had a killer as its protagonist and practically dared you to identify with him. That didn't mean its author, Patricia Highsmith, condoned murder. She was simply telling a story -- one that made for such a disturbing read because it so effectively got inside its main character's head and helped you understand his motivation and, dare I say, identify with it to a certain extent.

That is precisely what doesn't happen with American Sniper, and for me, that's its greatest flaw. It's not that Chris Kyle killed 160 to 255 people. That's a documented fact. There's no way to get around that while making a movie about him. What I never got from the movie was why. Was it his unwavering patriotism? Was he just protecting his fellow Navy SEALS and Marine comrades? Was he a racist and xenophobe who simply hated Iraqis? (His reaction to the little boy who picked up the gun and then put it back down suggests that it wasn't so simple.) Was he just doing his job?

After two hours and 13 minutes, I felt like I knew Kyle's story, but I still didn't really know the man. The movie fails to go deep into his head. We have scenes of his wife telling him how he feels, scenes of him staring off into space, a scene of him attacking a dog in a PTSD fit, but once it was all over, I didn't feel as if I knew anything about Chris Kyle other than what he did.

Why did he seem to love his work so much until he didn't? Why was he such an excellent marksman? Why did killing seem to come so easily to him? Clint Eastwood is the king of wrapping up plot points in neat little bows, but I'm going to need more than a scene with Kyle's father warning him to be neither the wolf nor the sheep but rather the protector to understand what shaped him.

While I enjoyed this biopic more than I did The Theory of Everything, I had a similar problem with both movies. Their depictions of complex, complicated men are too simplistic and borderline hagiographic, which, in Sniper's case, is particularly confusing because Bradley Cooper specializes in playing flawed, complicated men. He does the material he's given justice, but it's far from an "Oh, wow!" performance.

Just in case we don't get that Chris Kyle is considered a hero by pretty much everyone he encounters when they stop just short of bowing down to him, we have that scene with Jonathan Groff, sounding a lot like Patrick, the character he plays on Looking, telling Kyle's son that his dad is an icon. By vaguely announcing, just before the end credits roll, that Kyle was killed shortly after the final scene by a veteran he was trying to help, the movie paints a halo over his epitaph.
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As I watched the scene with Groff, I almost wanted Kyle to recognize him as Groff's gay TV character and pull his little boy away. It would have been the most homophobic move ever, but at least I would have felt like I was looking at a real person and not just a variation on the strong, silent Dirty Harry archetype that Clint Eastwood has spent so much of his career glorifying.

The big difference: Dirty Harry never actually existed. Chris Kyle did.
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