Tuesday, 19 May 2015

American Sniper

Lowdown: The war in Iraq, as seen through the eyes of a lethal American Seal sniper.
American Sniper is a loaded movie. So loaded that I still haven’t made my mind up on how I should regard it. Or did I?
On one hand, American Sniper is directed by Clint Eastwood. Eastwood might specialise in making a fool of himself at Republican party conventions, but that cannot take his great record of direction work away (and he is one of my favourite, if not the most favoured, directors). Then there is the Bradley Cooper tale: how this actor that most of us got to know through films about silly people doing silly things in Las Vegas got into the thick of the autobiographical tellings of American sniper Chris Kyle, went forth through the loops required to turn that story into a movie, and worked on his own physical self so that he could fit into the role of the Hercules sized person that Kyle was. In case I still needed further motivation to watch American Sniper, it came through the real life story of Kyle’s own death: after killing some 200 people at Iraq, the guy was shot dead at home while trying to help a fellow veteran. You can’t make stories like that up.
Then one gets to learn more about the values that Kyle stood for. It is clear that Chris Kyle can be summed up as an “America or nothing” type person more than the majority of others; clear he was a patriot of the type that, well, I do not approve of. All you need in order to figure this out is read a bit of Kyle’s book (you know, the book this movie is based on). There are the Americans, and then there are the subhuman adversaries. One can see where the wind is blowing when fans of Kyle turn their sights on journalist Abby Martin.
When one puts all of the above inputs into the equation, it is clear one is dealing with highly combustible stuff here. So where does American Sniper, the movie, stand?
We follow Kyle (Cooper) from a brief introduction to his childhood, his influential father and his sniping talents and into adulthood. The man appears to not know what to do with himself. That is, until he sees attacks against USA embassies on TV; he decides to do his part by volunteering to the Navy Seals at the advanced age of 30. Against all odds, he makes it and becomes a sort of a superman soldier with his Lois Lane of a wife Tara (Sienna Miller) acquired along the way. Then September 11 happens, and soon enough Kyle is sent to Iraq.
He starts off making a name for himself as a sniper covering up for the soldiers on the ground below. He’s pretty good at it, but it doesn’t come without significant ethical dilemmas. Our great American hero has plenty of dilemmas to deal with when duty forces him to shoot down children. The way the movie has it, he’s clearly in the right decision wise, yet he is also clearly impacted by the experience. Because he's a good American, of course, and not like the savages that send kids to do a man's job.
Making matters worse are the regular occurrences of losing colleagues under gruesome circumstances, coupled by witnessing locals lynched by a particularly nasty local henchman and his loyal sniper. These two turn into Kyle’s nemesis for the duration of the movie, providing for a very clear white vs. black imagery.
This white vs. black imagery pretty much sums up the controversy around the movie. It seems obvious that despite the real life success of Kyle as a sniper/commando on the battlefield, acknowledged with record breaking number of kills, American Sniper the movie hypes things up by giving him dark mirror images of himself with which to conduct his boss fights. More importantly, by repeatedly portraying the “other” as evil as the American as pure hearted, American Sniper clearly sides itself on the side of propaganda. Never does it stop to ask, for example, what Americans are doing in Iraq in the first place?  Never does it wonder what the connection between September 11 and Iraq is. Never does it question the American leadership that fabricated the whole WMD fiction in order to justify its military involvement, and never does it concern itself with what the true motivation for America’s invasion was. And yes, never does it portray America as the invader messing about on someone else's homeland. The depth that comes through seeing things through the side’s eyes  is clearly missing from proceedings, leading to American Sniper’s inferiority in comparison with the likes of The Water Diviner.
I will be the devil’s advocate again and claim that, as long as one is aware that one is witnessing things through the eyes of Chris Kyle, then one cannot claim American Sniper is doing anything wrong. Accept it or leave it, as those types of so called patriots like to say. And personally, I have to agree: American Sniper is, clearly, the product of the Kyle worldview. Yet I will argue further: the innocent viewer bumping unto American Sniper without previous introductions could, and almost definitely would, mistake affairs for an objective representation of your typical good vs. evil fight. That innocent viewer will come out of this movie thinking that America’s is the most ethical army in the world, cursed to be drawn into long lasting wars with maliciously evil opponents.
At its core, American Sniper is a pretty exciting action movie that is well made – as one would expect out of Eastwood. But let me ask you this: beyond the better made action scenes, is there much of a difference between American Sniper and Chuck Norris’ The Delta Force?
As a critic, I will say I consider American Sniper to be an important movie and grant it 4 trigger happy, pure blooded, crabs out of 5. I will, at the same time, and in order to avoid being taken out of context – as is so easily the case with this film – add that I do not consider American Sniper to be a good movie. It is pretty bad; it is propaganda trying to pass as high quality filmmaking.
This is exactly the reason why I consider American Sniper an important movie to watch and why I allocate it with so many crabs: it is an important movie to watch, but only if one does it critically. Only if one asks the questions this movie fails to raise, and ponders on why it is that the avoids raising those questions in the first place.

No comments: