Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Trying to Be Fair to "American Sniper"

The reaction to Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," about Iraq War vet Chris Kyle, is far more interesting that the film itself.  I don't think that this is one of Eastwood's more egregious misses like "J. Edgar" or "Hereafter," but it's certainly not one of his better films either.  I'm mystified by its high box office earnings and the multiple Academy Award nominations.  At the same time, I don't think it deserves to be the target of the vitriol it's received.  "American Sniper" appears to be a perfectly well-intentioned biopic of a good soldier struggling through adversities on the battlefield and at home.  It's just not a very good one.  
Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle, who we follow from his pre-enlistment through four tours of duty and then a rocky return to civilian life.  He meets Taya Renae (Sienna Miller) midway through his training, and she becomes his girlfriend, and eventually his wife and the mother of their two children.  Much of the film is taken up by Kyle's time in Iraq, where he becomes one of the most successful sharpshooters in American history, and is hailed as a "legend."  Kyle's story plays out in the usual way - the combat takes its toll on him, his relationships with people back home are put in jeopardy, and transitioning back to normal life presents difficulties.  I appreciate that it's apolitical, focuses solely on Kyle's experiences from his point of view, and is very simple and direct.  It feels very much like recent documentaries on American troops in the Middle East like "Restrepo."    
There's no clear message in "American Sniper," which I guess is part of my problem with it.  The story of Chris Kyle is so generic and handled so straightforwardly, viewers are projecting whatever they want on it.  Bradley Cooper's performance is pretty bland, so he can be interpreted to be a hero or a monster.  No context is offered for Kyle's actions in Iraq, some of which are very troubling.  The violence clearly has an impact on his mental and emotional state, but his treatment is glossed over in an awkward third act.  Frankly, some of the filmmaking here is noticeably rushed and subpar, including the now notorious plastic baby who appears briefly as one of Kyle's infant children.  Eastwood has maintained that "Sniper" was intended to have anti-war messages and I believe him.  And I believe the people who saw the movie as blindly patriotic too.
I didn't enjoy "American Sniper," and I've come to the conclusion that a large part of that is because I simply don't like the film's version of Chris Kyle or the conservative  military culture that he inhabited.  I don't like the casual crassness of his behavior or his ability to shut off parts of himself that would have gotten in the way of his ability to perform in the field.  I don't like that he didn't question the war or his place in it.  And I found his relationship with his wife and kids as they were portrayed in the film downright cringeworthy.  The narrative felt more like a cautionary tale than a celebration of his life, which is not what I think any of the filmmakers intended. Whatever the movie actually intended to convey about Chris Kyle has gotten completely lost.   
I keep turning the film's particulars over and over in my head, trying to figure out what so many people saw in it.  The depictions of warfare were intense, and the behaviors of the soldiers were uncommonly candid, which I appreciated even if I found some elements repulsive.  The moral ambivalence that I found so troubling easily could have been seen as a positive by others, especially those who dislike anti-war messages.  Then there's Bradley Cooper, whose charms have consistently eluded me.  Is there something that I'm missing about his work here?  Or Sienna Miller's?  I'm aware of my own biases toward the material and trying to be fair to the film, but the harder I look, the worse it comes off.  
I'm afraid my initial impression is the one I have to stick with.  "American Sniper" has been accused of many things, but really the only thing it's guilty of is mediocrity. 

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