Sunday, January 18, 2015
Clint Eastwood's American Sniper (2014) is trite and surprisingly tedious. Everything in the film is predictable from the opening sound cue, a Muslim call to prayer distorted in a sinister way by loudspeakers to the final shots of the hero's funeral and valedictory titles. The film is grim, humorless, and, probably, more or less accurate in its portrayal of the endless war in Iraq. But the movie illustrates a serious, and, indeed, insoluble problem: it is impossible to make a compelling movie about a man whose principal characteristics are stupidity, resistance to all thoughtful deliberation, and a staunch refusal to display any emotion whatsoever. At one point, a letter critical of the war in Iraq is read at a dead soldier's funeral: the hero's wife asks the protagonist what he thought about the letter. He replies that he paid no attention to it and, even, makes the bizarre comment that his comrade was doomed because he wrote that letter. This is one of the movie's few interesting scenes but demonstrates what's wrong with the picture: you can't make a movie about a character who doesn't really care about anything and whose thinking consists of a refusal to think. The sniper, Chris Kyle, played stoically by Bradley Cooper, has a wife so irritating that one can understand why the poor soldier was driven to re-enlist time and time again -- he served four tours of combat duty in Iraq. Clint Eastwood's direction has been lauded as efficient, economical and craftsmanlike. In fact, I think Eastwood's work on this film is just lazy -- he relies upon every possible war film cliché and his much vaunted objectivity seems to me to be indecisiveness: the material is so unpromising that Eastwood doesn't know what to do with it. Certain aspects of the film are hard to interpret: is it really true that American combat forces paused in the middle of fire-fights to call home and converse with their wives? In at least three sequences, the sniper is distracted from his duties by his whiny wife: he spends about as much time chatting with her on the phone as killing Iraqis, people that the Kyle and his buddies call "savages." The penultimate scene showing Kyle involved in a rape fantasy with his wife that involves him threatening her with a revolver is either some kind of joke, an ill-judged provocation, or evidence that Eastwood had no idea what to do with this material. (I'm surprised no one has mentioned this bizarre scene -- I guess it's not thought offensive because Kyle's wife regards the threat with the gun as particularly merry form of foreplay.) The film has all the standard material about the hardships of basic training, features a kindly PTSD counselor, and, even, takes time to stage a garden-variety massacre of "savages" -- in a climactic battle, the good guys slaughter dozens of Iraqis, gunning down a horde of attacking villains with unerring accuracy. The film has the same problem of all other generic war films; like Saving Private Ryan and Fury, Eastwood wants to show that war is hell while simultaneously staging a rousing shoot-em-up climax in which one American soldier seems to equal a dozen bad guys in courage, deadliness, and sheer fire-power. Similarly, the film personalizes the issues that it raises about the morality of war by staging much of the film as a duel between the American sniper and his counterpart, Mustapha, a vicious enemy who is killed -- in slow motion no less -- in an implausible scene designed to vindicate our hero. (Kyle was notorious liar: did he really claim credit for killing Mustapha in his book? If so, I would be highly skeptical of that claim.) Viewed in one light, the film inadvertently documents the struggle of a plucky group of freedom fighters, outgunned on all fronts and usually outnumbered by armored troops, putting up a valiant defense against a cruel, and culturally insensitive occupying army -- in this interpretation, the bad guys are the US soldiers. Indeed, you can't watch these kinds of films without rooting for the bad guys -- Eastwood is making a dour, dull propaganda film about a war that no one really cares about. To what end?