Tuesday, February 17, 2015


The Real Chris Kyle

I've been avoiding seeing Clint Eastwood's AMERICAN SNIPER for a number of reasons: although I've been a fan of some of Eastwood's films, as a progressive I intended to boycott everything  he did after his embarrassing (and infamous) interview with an empty chair  at the 2012 Republican convention.  And then the controversy about the film also turned me off, as it's enormous box office success (the biggest grossing R rated film since, somewhat appropriately, Mel Gibson's equally controversial THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST) led to inevitable debates about its message, even as it was nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture and Actor. And, in a real low point in American culture, fans of the film  took to twitter to make offensive statements such as: "Nice to see a movie where the Arabs are portrayed for who they really are, vermin scum intent on destroying us."  Those stupid tweets have probably cost the film a Best Picture Oscar, with the Academy not wanting to reward a film that inspired such racist bile.

But all the debate couldn't help but pique my interest, and I'm enough of a film geek that I like to watch all the Best Picture nominees before the awards are given.  So I went.  My first reaction is that the film is undeniably well made and well acted; Eastwood clearly knows how to stage an action scene, and he avoids the quick cutting and jerky camera angles that mar so many modern action scenes (a shoot out in a dust storm towards the end is particularly exciting).  It also clearly wants to portray for the audience the sacrifices and struggles that American soldiers have and continue to make, which is certainly a noble enough purpose. But the film's black and white view of the war makes it at times a tough watch.

Part of the film's problem is the history of its production: the film's hero, Chris Kyle, published the book AMERICAN SNIPER: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF THE MOST LETHAL SNIPER IN US MILITARY HISTORY (co written with Scott McEwen and Jim De Felice) in 2013, and actor Bradley Cooper expressed an interest in adapting it.  At first, he wanted just to produce the film, but Warner Brothers eventually convinced him to also star.  He briefly contacted Kyle before Kyle was tragically killed by another Iraq war vet at a gun range in February of 2013.  Kyle's tragic death inevitably meant that the film would stand as a tribute to him, and unfortunately that means that the character is portrayed as absurdly noble and brave; Cooper's a fine actor and does what he can with the role, but this is a character without depth of nuance, and the film's script even has friends and family members telling Kyle how great a hero and father he is.  The real life Kyle was prone to exaggeration, saying that he once killed a car jacker and looters in New Orleans after Katrina (there's no evidence for either claim).  He even once said the he beat up former governor (and Navy SEAL) Jesse Ventura, a charge that Ventura successfully sued him over in court.   Not surprisingly, that side of his character is never shown in the film.

Interestingly, David O Russell and Steven Spielberg both considered directing the film before Eastwood came aboard, and it's tantalizing to think what kind of movie they would have made.  In defense of the film, Eastwood has said that it had "the biggest anti-war statement that any film can make."  With all due respect to Eastwood, if that was his intention the film is a failure: early in the film, we see Kyle and his wife respond to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on TV, and shortly thereafter Kyle deploys to Iraq.  The fact that the Iraq invasion was not a direct response to those attacks is left unspoken in the film, as is the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that were ostensibly the rational for the war in the first place.  More than once Kyle contends that the war is about defending Americans back home, an argument that goes uncontested.

One of my least favorite films of all time is 1985's Sylvester Stallone film RAMBO:FIRST BLOOD II, in which  Viet Nam vet John Rambo returns to Viet Nam and singlehandedly rewages and wins the war with his trusty explosive arrows.  The film absurdly gave audiences a cathartic happy ending to a war that had none.  Although AMERICAN SNIPER is a far better film, it often tips closely towards that film's simplistic reduction.  One of the through lines in AMERICAN SNIPER is that there is a rival Iraqi sniper named Mustafa (unnamed in the book, but based on a real person) that Kyle pursues before inevitably gunning him down in his final tour of duty; giving our hero a villain to chase and kill at the end gives the film the same kind of simplistic rah-rah ending that RAMBO did, avoiding the realities of both real life conflicts for easy uplift.  In the real world, Kyle believed that Mustafa was probably killed by someone else,  but he was never sure, an ambiguity the film avoids.

Slyvester Stallone blows away subtlety 

Equally troubling is the film's depiction of the Iraqi people, who are continually referred to as "savages" by the film's hero.  Except for one Iraqi man who briefly considers helping the Americans, all of the Iraqis in the film are enemies of America. While I would hope that Eastwood (and screenwriter Jason Hall) don't agree with the horrible sentiments of those aforementioned anti Arab tweets about the film, you can see why the film inspired them. While one can't expect a film named AMERICAN SNIPER to have a balanced view of the war, at least some appreciation for the people of the country the US invaded wouldn't hurt.   But then, that lack of appreciation may be the key to the film's box office success; while other films about the Iraq war have not made much money (even 2009's THE HURT LOCKER, which won best picture, was only a moderate hit), this one is setting records by turning a controversial war that most Americans came to see as a mistake into an exciting action film with a noble hero and evil bad guys.  Personally, I can't look at that war in that way, and I hope history won't record it that way either.  In many ways, Clint Eastwood's career has paralleled that of Hollywood legend John Wayne, and unfortunately AMERICAN SNIPER feels like his version of Wayne's  pro-war Viet Nam film THE GREEN BERETS, which is far from high praise in my book.