Wednesday, November 11, 2015

American Sniper (2014)

Director: Clint Eastwood                                 Writer: Jason Hall
Film Score: Joseph S. DeBeasi                      Cinematography: Tom Stern
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes and Sammy Sheik

One of the biggest surprises I had at last year’s Academy Awards was when American Sniper lost out for best picture. In retrospect, however, it makes a certain sense. After films like Three Kings and Jarhead about the first Gulf War appeared, followed by The Hurt Locker--which won the Oscar in 2008 for best picture--and Zero Dark Thirty about the post 9/11 conflicts, it no doubt caused some war film fatigue. It’s a shame, because the film was not only better than the eventual winner but it was also based on the true story of Navy Seal Chris Kyle. Warner Brothers had purchased the rights to Kyle’s book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, just a few months after it was published. Bradley Cooper was set to be the producer, but when Kyle was killed less than a year later the studio insisted that Cooper star in the film, while Stephen Spielberg was brought in to direct. It was Spielberg who put a face to the enemy sharpshooter who was trying to kill Kyle in the field. But Warner’s budget limitations caused Spielberg to pull out and Clint Eastwood was eventually brought in to helm the project. Not only did the film fail to win for best picture, it was nominated for six Oscars and only took home one for sound editing.

The film begins with Bradley Cooper on his first sniper detail in Iraq. He spots a woman and a boy coming out into the street after a convoy has gone by. When the woman gives the boy a hand grenade the film flashes back to Cooper’s childhood. His father was a religious man and taught him to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. Later he becomes a rodeo cowboy and when he sees the attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, he feels compelled to join the military. Eventually he becomes a Navy Seal and meets his future wife, Sienna Miller. The two marry and after a brief honeymoon he is deployed soon after 9/11. The story picks up again with the boy in Cooper’s sights. As he begins to run Cooper shoots the boy, and in a shocking development the woman picks up the grenade and he is forced to kill her as well. As the film progresses, two threads weave themselves together. The first is with his wife, pregnant with their first child and worried for his safety every day, especially as he goes back for multiple tours. The second thread is the conflict itself. Cooper quickly becomes known as “The Legend” as he racks up dozens of kills in defense of his comrades. But this splits off into two narratives as well. One is his personal search for Mido Hamada, a man known as “The Butcher” for torturing and killing Iraqi informants. The other is the hunt for Sammy Sheik, a marksman from Syria known as Mustafa, who is killing Marines.

While some critics complained that there was no context for the combat scenes and that the enemy was one-dimensional, they are missing the point of the story. To be fair, it’s not an obvious one and so they can be forgiven for not understanding. The key to interpreting the entire piece doesn’t come until the end, with what appears to be a standard psychiatrist office scene when Cooper can’t seem to shake off his PTSD. VA doctor Robert Clotworthy is able to discover in just a few minutes that Cooper’s obsession is with protecting others. His inability to return to civilian life has to do with his knowing that there are men still fighting that he can’t protect. Clotworthy immediately takes him into the ward of the VA hospital to show him the many veterans who need his help here at home, attempting to recover from wounds both physical and psychological. Given this new mission, Cooper suddenly finds a reason for living and is briefly able to be himself again with his family before his tragic murder. Though it may not be obvious, there is an underlying connection between Chris Kyle and the football player Michael Oher, whose story was told in the biopic The Blind Side. Both men were able to truly find themselves once it was realized how much their personalities were formed by a desire to protect other people.

While there is no denying that Clint Eastwood took on this film with deeply held feelings of his own to honor the men and women who serve in our military, he is not without his shortcomings as a filmmaker. The most obvious is when it comes to music. Where Spielberg’s version of the story would have been buttressed by the majestic compositions of John Williams, there is not even a film score for this picture. And while the opening emotional conflict of shooting the boy--and presumably his mother--is returned to again when a small boy picks up a grenade launcher from a man Cooper has just killed, there is very little emotional exploration of the experience of other snipers who might not have been as morally stable as Chris Kyle. The death of Luke Grimes touches on it, but it is never brought up again. And while this could in no way be considered a bad film, it is also not a great one. Still, as a biography, a look at the life of one soldier who wanted more than anything to protect his brothers in arms, it is undeniably magnificent. That, however, doesn’t necessarily make for great cinema. All of the actors acquit themselves admirably, and it is equally clear that they wanted to do as much justice to their subject as the director. American Sniper is not a great war film, and that is certainly the reason for its lack of success at the Academy Awards, but it will always remain one of the great stories of one of America’s great military heroes.

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