Film Review: America Sniper | Look Closely, and Be Careful

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French film director Francois Truffaut once said there was no such thing as an anti-war movie. His main criticism was that most of these films failed to make it clear that war was not something to glamorize. You could watch Apocalypse Now to see the story of a man driven so mad by war that he himself gives himself over to the darkness of human nature, but you’ll probably remember the visual of airplanes bombing the jungle while “Ride of the Valkyries” plays. This does tie into a lot about how we portray certain atrocities and dark subject matters on film, and whether or not the time we make these sorts of films will play into how the viewer ultimately reads into the story.

American Sniper is the latest of these controversial war films to come out. It’s already boasting an impressive $90 million box office weekend and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Bradley Cooper and Best Picture. The film is about Chris Kyle, a U.S. Navy Seal and the most decorated sniper in U.S. military history. The film follows him over four tours in Iraq, as he racks up over 160 confirmed kills, and also follows him at home, as the effects of the war start to leave a toll on his mind (I’ll come back to this point later). The Clint Eastwood directed (well, with eight assistant directors) illustrates what it takes to become such a figure in the U.S. military and how the way people reacted to the turmoil that arose in the Middle East following 9/11.

Oh, wait. No he didn’t. He didn’t do any of that with this movie.

Eastwood did not do any of what I described in the above paragraph. He didn’t show the personal struggle that comes from military training. He didn’t show how Kyle’s upbringing would lead to a certain path and how that would continue to affect him in the years to come. He didn’t show how the changes in the military during the Iraq War created tons of mental, physical, and emotional distress for the men and women dying in war-torn streets. He created a movie that glorified one man’s war-approved serial killing under the guise of patriotism and an honorable sense of duty. 

American Sniper is a complete mess of a film. Of all the films to come out about the Iraq War in the last ten years or so, this is probably one of the worst ones. It’s been over a month since I’ve seen the film, and it still makes me mad to think about this movie. It completely fails to come off as complex, as artistic, or as a cautionary tale for those willing to lay their lives down for the country. Now, you might say “maybe that’s not what they were trying to do with this movie. Maybe they were just trying to tell the story of one man?” Well, yeah, but they did a pretty terrible job about that.

Here’s the ultimate problem with American Sniper: Chris Kyle is not a complex figure. I don’t have a grand idea of who he was in real life beyond what certain news reports said (such asassaulting Jesse Ventura,  lying about sniping Hurricane Katrina looters, and a double homicide ruled as armed self-defense based solely on his word as a war hero. Oh, wait a minute, he made those up!), and I’m sure he was a good husband and father and was loved by many. But from what I’m supposed to take away from this movie, he was a complete sociopath. Here’s the thing: when you make a movie about a person taking a task like enlisting in the military, you have a lot of questions to ask about who this person is and why they do the things they do. Not all of these questions do get answered, but we should see enough that there’s room to interpret. Here are the main questions to come from this film:

Why did Kyle join the military? He saw a video of some embassy bombing, and thus the thirty-year old cowboy fumes with rage and then immediately enlists the next day. Apparently, his love of America was just that great. Oh, and apparently that embassy bombing wasn’t really why Kyle enlisted, so his reckless enlisting following his victory at a rodeo and catching his girlfriend cheating on him was considered a lot more interesting and cinematic than his real motives for joining the SEALS.

Was there something in his youth that shaped who he was? We get one speech from his dad that we never see after that one speech. We see him defend his brother from bullies, even though the brother appears once after Kyle enlists and the never again. Ultimately, his early home life proves to mean very little since it clearly wasn’t important enough to include. It’s just adding to the myth they’re wanting to create around Kyle.

What did he think of the war itself? He seemed completely okay with it. He continually refers to Middle Eastern people as “savages,” and not once does a single character call him out for that or react in a way to suggest that he’s an outlier. Clearly, the film wants you to agree with his point of view, especially since he always makes the right decisions in the scenes of conflict.

Did being a soldier impact his marriage? Vaguely. We see scenes of his wife (Sienna Miller) asking if he has to go on another tour of duty, but she ultimately does little in the story other than cry and express fears that Kyle never seems to take into consideration. She’s no Penelope, and he’s certainly no Odysseus. 

Does it affect how he raises his children? No. He hardly spends time with his kids in the film, and he’s always a smiling and supportive dad whenever we do see him with them.

Do his actions impact him later in life? Not a bit. He straight up admits he doesn’t feel any regret over who he killed because it was done in the line of duty and to help his fellow troops. Because of real life circumstances, Kyle could forever be immortalized as a hero, regardless of nearly two hundred kills and a complete lack of remorse or humanity about the proceedings. I’m pretty sure most of the people on the other side could justify their actions as “doing their duty,” and not once does the film consider that. It’s weird because this is a movie by the guy who madeLetters from Iwo Jima, one of two films he made about Iwo Jima and one specifically about the Japanese soldiers in the battle. Why would he humanize the other side in one film then staunchly refuse to do that in this one?

It really bothers me because the film is never framed in a way to make Kyle look bad about any of this. If the film was more about how one person could easily discard his humanity to become a cold, calculated killer with the government okay with what he does as long as he doesn’t kill any U.S. soldiers, then that would be fascinating. That would be something different and add unique commentary to how the government has handled the various affairs in the Middle East. It wouldn’t even be bad to use Kyle for that since he was shown to be remorseless and unstable about the whole thing. They never even show him doing some of the things he lied about in his book, which could be used to illustrate his growing PTSD.

But no, we’re supposed to read Kyle’s actions as “heroic” and “just.” We’re supposed to see him as a person who saw what he perceived as injustice and dedicated himself to lending his support to the cause.  You can argue about whether it was all justified or not, but the issue here is how the movie portrayed the actions. In the movie, Kyle is completely justified in everything he does. There’s no room for moral ambiguity, there isn’t an accident, and there are no innocent victims in his action. Every person he shot deserved to die, and that included men, women, and children. He doesn’t debate whether any of these people were simply indoctrinated or even forced to act because of the political climate, nor does he ever consider how the cruel nature of war might be similar to how he came to be a soldier. Nope. As far as the film’s concerned, they’re wrong, and he’s right.

It really bothers me because we have had films about the Iraq conflict that have handled this much better than American Sniper. I don’t think The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty are perfect films (Zero Dark Thirty is definitely weaker), but they at least knew how to tell a story and to cover multiple perspectives. The Hurt Locker was focused on three major characters who each approached the war differently. They were shown to be flawed, and the fact that their main antagonists were inanimate land mines, it removed that “otherness” that comes from portraying the opposing side in combat. They even properly showed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder through Jeremy Renner’s character and portray him as a tragic figure. He’s a dedicated soldier, but it’s because he is empty without this task.

Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, has very little in the way of combat and soldiers. This film is focused more on an office worker played by Jessica Chastain. This time, they’re telling a story about someone who gets to avoid war but still plays a part in it. Chastain’s character is the core of the story, and it makes the film a character study. What kind of person do you have to be to spend nearly a decade hunting one man down? What do you sacrifice? The film does have some questionable moments, but it does make it clear that the hunt for Osama bin Laden was not just about finding one terrorist, but also about how the U.S. responded to this attack and how, through the experience of one woman, it could come to represent a great deal of how global issues were handled in the early 21st century.

I’m mad because American Sniper had nothing like that. It didn’t present any complexity in the situation, and it didn’t make the character or person known as Chris Kyle any interesting or human. It made him a killing machine, and what’s worse is that it’s presented in a way to make him a hero. There’s already been plenty of people who saw the film and took to Twitter to say what they really think about Middle Eastern people. The movie failed at everything it did, and worse it’s making people think they are justified in their bigoted behavior. It’s pure propaganda, and it’s $400 million and counting box office return is just an excuse to keep making movies like it.

Okay, there are some things to praise in the movie. I hate the character he played, but Bradley Cooper did okay in the role. He’s a better actor than some give him credit for, and he did fine with the material given. I will admit there are some challenges in shooting war scenes, so I thought they were fine. I would praise them more, but there were horrible aesthetic choices made in this film. There’s a moment late in the film where they bring slow motion and Matrixstyle bullet time, when it never before occurred in the film, and the result was comical. It might have been because the shot was an important one, but it was still really dumb to watch because the film never took that kind of style again and the one time they used it looked really clumsy and odd.

Even though the film got a nomination for editing, the editing is actually pretty terrible. The film starts in medias res for a scene that is resolved in the first thirty minutes. There’s also a scene which, due to the lack of time stamps, had trouble showing if the scene was happening on one particular day or was actually multiple scenes over multiple days. This wasn’t helped that it was framed around scenes taking place over years, so certain sequences got confusing to follow at times. Also, I don’t care how cool the idea of a battle taking place in a sandstorm sounds, but if it becomes really hard to tell where anyone is in the scene (especially if the people in the scene are almost entirely white men in military uniforms), then maybe you shouldn’t do it. I had to assume the Americans weren’t shooting their allies in the scene because I couldn’t see what they were shooting at.

I generally feel every Academy Awards, there’s one film nominated for Best Picture that will really get me mad. Last year, it was Dallas Buyer’s Club for its terrible portrayal of transgender people, ridiculous revisionist history, and poor mise-en-scene. This year, it’s American Sniper. I’m also certain I’m not going to dislike any of the other films nominated for Best Picture. I saw seven of the Best Picture nods before the ceremony, and not a single one mad me as mad asAmerican Sniper did. I didn’t get to see The Theory of Everything, but even I’m sure that movie wouldn’t offend me and my principles.

American Sniper offended me. It was a bad movie, and worse, it’s only going to make bad things happen because of it. People will watch that movie and think Chris Kyle was some courageous American hero who really was just a hired gun and not some patriotic savior. They’ll be inspired to go to war, and they’ll probably ignore the questions of morality involved with their job. People will see the film’s black and white morality (because there’s no way anything is gray in this film) and think it’s exactly how the world works and want a film like this to exist so they can continue to believe the world operates on this system. Some will look at the film, see the lack of humanity given to the Middle Eastern characters, and think that their xenophobia is justified. People will think killing people is great as long as you only do it in the context of wartime combat, idolizing Chris Kyle and forgetting about atrocities like Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. They’re going to see the conviction of Kyle’s killer and see him as a monster who killed a “hero,” ignoring the fact that the man was mentally ill following a stint in war. Aside from some good acting and some competent cinematography there’s nothing to idolize in this film. It’s pro-war propaganda and is marketing itself as something powerful and inspirational. It’s an ugly story and an unpleasant film, and it is not worth your time.

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