Tuesday, February 24, 2015

American Sniper (2014)

IMDb plot summary: Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle's pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend. Back home to his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that it is the war he can't leave behind.
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, and Jake McDorman.

(Spoilers ahead, as the ending was what drastically changed my opinion of this movie.)

Let me say right away, I haven't read the book and know next to nothing about Kyle himself. So I can't judge it in comparison, I can only judge it as a movie in and of itself.

As a movie... it comes SO CLOSE to being great. Clint Eastwood has does two fascinating and thoughtful movies about violence (Unforgiven and Mystic River), so I was hoping for something equally thoughtful here, even though the role of a soldier is different from someone out for vigilante justice.

There are hints all throughout that Eastwood is building toward something like that. There are fascinating scenes where Kyle encounters soldiers who have doubts or concerns about the rightness and justness of what they are doing. Kyle doesn't even bother to really listen to those thoughts, instead just doubling down on his own personal philosophy and, in one instance, even saying that a fallen soldier's doubt was what killed him. The movie paints a picture of him as someone who could not afford to even entertain the thought that what he was doing was anything less than the heroic ideal, or everything would fall apart. And yet, Kyle's life is not ideal. He deals with PTSD symptoms every time he comes home, though he insists nothing's wrong. It seems clear that Kyle's dogmatism and sincere belief in the rightness of his work is doing nothing to keep him from being haunted by what he saw and did there.

But the movie fails to follow through on these fascinating leads. In the final fifteen minutes of the movie, a doctor even asks Kyle if perhaps he did or saw things in combat that he regrets. (Hinting that perhaps some of his problems are exacerbated by not allowing himself to process that at all.) Kyle insists that's not it... and this time, the movie abruptly takes him at face value. The remaining 15 minutes are spent reminding us what a hero he was, centering on his work with disabled veterans and never again mentioning this internal conflict (or conspicuous lack of one) that was hinted at all throughout the movie.

I understand the desire to present Kyle as a hero, but in the rush to do so, Eastwood cheats us of the dramatic climax he's been building toward. If he had no intention of following through on that story, either positively or negatively, why bother including any of those scenes? All the most interesting moments in the movie, the ones that tried to dig below the surface of the character, were rendered moot by this sudden aboutface. It all hinted at a completely different (and much more complex) story than the one we got.

Maybe Kyle himself didn't ever wrestle through that issue -- I don't know, I haven't read his book -- and the writers couldn't add a moment like that while still being true to his story. Maybe they felt ending with a negative "this never got resolved for him" ending would have underplayed his hero status. Either way, it's a frustratingly unsatisfying movie that spends the first 9/10 of the movie urging its audience to think critically about war and the last 1/10th demanding we pretend along with the film version of Kyle that those who believe in the rightness of war will never have to deal with the negative consequences of it.

2 stars.

How it entered my Flickchart:
American Sniper < House of Flying Daggers
American Sniper > Braveheart
American Sniper > Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins
American Sniper > Ice Station Zebra
American Sniper < Casino
American Sniper < Happy-Go-Lucky
American Sniper < The Perks of Being a Wallflower
American Sniper < The Ten Commandments
American Sniper > The Double Life of Veronique
American Sniper < The Fall
Final spot: 1303 out of 2326.

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