Thursday, January 22, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: American Sniper

American Sniper was written by Jason Hall and directed by Clint Eastwood. 

It's the story of Chris Kyle, a real-life Navy Seal sniper who was the deadliest marksman in US military history, with 160 officially confirmed kills during his four tours of duty in Iraq.

The film excels at depicting the horrors of modern warfare and Kyle's harrowing military experience. By filming much of the action through the point of view of Kyle's sniper scope, the audience effectively becomes him, watching every single kill shot unflinchingly. It's an incredibly visceral and effective technique.

The film is less successful when it shows us Kyle back home, struggling to adjust to civilian life. The movie zooms right through these scenes like it's got somewhere else it needs to be. This does a great disservice to the men and women who deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on a daily basis. If Eastwood couldn't be bothered to devote the proper amount of attention to these scenes, then it would have been better if he hadn't included them at all.

Bradley Cooper turns in an incredible performance as Kyle, completely submerging himself in the role— physically as well as mentally. But much like a sniper, the movie aims its narrow focus solely on Kyle, to the exclusion of everyone else. We learn little or nothing about any of the other characters, particularly his wife Taya (played by Sienna Miller).

Some have questioned the accuracy of the film, accusing it of painting Chris Kyle in a glowing light and leaving out some major and disturbing facts. This is nothing new, as no bio-pic has ever been 100% accurate. Always remember to treat such films as pieces of cinema rather than historical fact. That's easier said than done though.


The Plot:
Chris Kyle is a Texas rodeo cowboy who decides to enlist in the Navy after witnessing US embassy bombings on TV. A life-long hunter and marksman, he becomes a Navy Seal sniper.

Kyle marries a woman named Taya and is deployed to Iraq shortly after 9-11. His very first kills there are an Iraqi mother and her young son who attack a Marine convoy with a grenade. Afterwards Kyle is visibly upset by the experience. As he racks up kill after kill, he earns the nickname "Legend" from the soldiers whose lives he saved.

Kyle returns home to his wife and newborn son. He's distracted by his wartime experiences though, and signs up for a second tour of duty. Each time he returns home he's more visibly distraught as he ignores his growing family, and ends up returning to Iraq. He eventually serves four tours of duty there.

Kyle returns home for good after the disastrous fourth tour. He has trouble adjusting to civilian life though, saying he's "haunted by all the guys he couldn't save." He begins seeing a psychiatrist, who encourages him to visit his local VA hospital. He does so, and begins working with fellow veterans, teaching them how to shoot on a target range. This gives his life a new purpose, and he finally begins opening up to his family.

On February 2, 2013, Kyle goes to a target range to help a troubled fellow veteran, who shoots and kills him.

• The movie very viscerally depicts Kyle's wartime experiences, but doesn't bother to examine the morality of his actions. The closest we get is when Kyle says he kills bad guys to save good guys. 

It's a smart move on Eastwood's part— by neatly avoiding any moralizing, it makes the movie all inclusive. Liberals can watch and be appalled by Kyle's body count, while conservatives will see it as a jingoistic tale of a true patriot and hero.

• One thing the film does very well is to paint everything in broad, black and white strokes. The Americans are all uniformly good, while the Iraqis are all automatically inhuman, evil "savages."

This does a grave disservice to the many Iraqis who've worked alongside the American forces for years, as well as the thousands of innocent civilians who lost their lives in the crossfire.

• During Kyle's first day as a sniper in Iraq, he's forced to kill a mother and her young son. Later he appears before his superior officers, who question his actions and demand an explanation. Kyle bellows that he was just doing his job and he considers the case closed. He storms out of the office as his superiors sit and fume, seemingly powerless to stop him.

I have a feeling that this scene would have played out a lot differently in real life. If it even happened at all.

• After Kyle returns from his first tour of duty, he has trouble adjusting to home life. He tells his wife that people are dying every day in Iraq, while he's going shopping at the mall.

I have to admit that same thought has occurred to me before. The US has been at war for years now, but you'd never know it looking around here.

• During his time in Iraq, Kyle develops a rivalry with Mustafa, a Syrian born sniper who was a former Olympic sharpshooter. The two play a deadly game of cat and mouse throughout the film until Kyle ultimately pulls off a truly impossible shot and kills Mustafa.

The whole Mustafa subplot is ridiculous and cartoonish, and feels like it's spliced in from some over-the-top action film. I assume Eastwood included these scenes in order to give the film a tangible villain for the audience to boo, but it wasn't necessary.

It's also completely fabricated. Although there was a real Mustapha, Kyle himself states in his autobiography that they had absolutely zero interactions.

• When Taya calls Chris to tell him that they're having a boy, it's daytime in Texas. It's also daylight in Iraq when he receives the call. It's iffy as to whether this would be possible. The only way it could work is if it was early, early morning in Texas, like 5 or 6 am, and just before sundown in Iraq. Geography!

• Kyle walks into the barracks and sees a fellow soldier reading a Punisher comic book. When Kyle makes fun of his reading material, his friend smugly informs him that it's a graphic novel, not a comic, and there's a big difference. Unfortunately he's clearly reading a thin comic book in the scene.

• All biopics play fast and loose with the truth, and this one is no exception. Although Chris Kyle undoubtably saved the lives of hundreds of American soldiers, the real deal doesn't quite live up to the glorified version depicted here. The film paints Kyle as a heroic figure who was troubled by his actions. That's not quite true. In reality he described killing as "fun," and said in his autobiography that he "couldn't give a flying f*ck about the Iraqis."

Movie Kyle is modest and uncomfortable with his "legend" status. The real Kyle reportedly enjoyed the attention and even contributed to it. He also lied a lot, saying he once killed two carjackers, shot looters during Hurricane Katrina, and even punched former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. Ventura claimed this never happened, sued Kyle and won.

Eastwood chooses to deal with these disturbing discrepancies by ignoring them altogether.

• During Kyle's last tour of duty, his squad is hurriedly searching a building before a sandstorm hits the city. Kyle, perched on the rooftop, sees a chance to finally kill his nemesis Mustafa. His superior officer orders him to stand down, as a shot would reveal their position to the enemy. Kyle defies orders, takes the shot and kills Mustafa, and his squad is immediately surrounded by Iraqis. Several of his fellow soldiers are killed or wounded, and Kyle himself barely escapes with his life.

First of all, once again this scene seems more like action movie embellishment rather than fact. Secondly, true or not, there are zero consequences over the fact that Kyle defied orders and endangered own men, which seems unlikely.

• After Kyle is honorably discharged and comes home for good, he has trouble adjusting. An army psychiatrist suggests he visit wounded soldiers in the local VA. 

He does so, and begins working with the shattered veterans, taking them out to the target range and teaching them to shoot.

One of the veterans Kyle works with is a young triple amputee. He's played by real life veteran Bryan Anderson, who lost an arm and both legs from a roadside bomb in Iraq. His story, while probably not as flashy as Kyle's, would no doubt make just as interesting a film.

• At the end of the film Kyle is seemingly back to normal as he goes off to take another veteran to the shooting range. The movie abruptly ends with a title card saying he was shot and killed by the troubled vet he was trying to help.

His death is neatly avoided as well, happening completely offscreen. This seems odd, as up to this point the film hasn't shied away from murder and bloodshed.

American Sniper very ably shows us the horrors of war, but stumbles when trying to show the fallout back home. It might have been better if it'd just stuck with the war half. I give it a B.

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