Search This Blog

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Movie Look Back: American Sniper

When I write movie reviews, I prefer to write them with some sort of broader context. Movies are never seen in a vacuum, therefore discussing the film beyond the film can be helpful. When I initially reviewed American Sniper, I bunched it with another 2014 “prestige” war film, Fury, and called it the death of war films in cinema. Obviously I was being hyperbolic, but since Black Hawk Down, there hasn’t been a straight forward war film I’ve enjoyed- especially one regarding any of the Gulf wars. I was not a fan of American Sniper and I expressed my dislike of the film in my review. I saw the film Friday night of its release and posted my review of the film soon after. Since then, for better or for worse, discussion of the film blew up.

First things first, I stand by my negative review. What other people have thought and Box Office success doesn’t change my feelings and thoughts of the film. The only thing that has changed is my knowledge of what everybody else thought about it. That being said, I have had weeks to reflect on the film which allows me to speak more concisely and accurately. Writing a review after watching a film can turn the review into a jumbled mess, but days and weeks pondering the film allows me time to gather and collect my thoughts.

The biggest fault with this film is Clint Eastwood’s direction, in particular his need to film things quickly and under-budget. Eastwood is notorious for not filming multiple takes and for purposefully excluding scenes from the script. The perfect embodiment of how Eastwood films his movies is the fake baby controversy that dominated your Facebook news feed for a day. Eastwood had intended to use a real baby, but when neither of the child actors to play the baby were available, he used a fake baby. The use of a fake baby was obvious to me as I pointed it out in my initial review, and it would have been noticeable to Eastwood had he looked at his dailies and what he shot. However, since Eastwood doesn’t like to reshoot and Sienna Miller and Bradley Cooper did a good job in that scene, Eastwood said "Eff It" and left that scene in his film.

Eastwood’s take on directorial duties also hindered American Sniper’s narrative. The movie feels like a collection of scenes with no connective tissue between them. By creating a film with a jumbled arc, it made it harder for the viewer to find the film compelling. This is especially frustrating considering the only three dimensional character in the film was Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle. Having so many actors playing soldiers around Kyle that you needed to look at their page to confirm they even had names means the film needed to go the extra effort to find the action around Kyle interesting or entertaining.

Yet so many people did find American Sniper interesting and entertaining. It’s one of the biggest January releases and R-rated films of all time and a film seemingly loved by many. This is the major disconnect that I had with the film. I saw many people on social media saying that they not only enjoyed American Sniper, but had this intense emotional connection after seeing the film. I was jealous of these people because that’s why I think movies are so important and why I watch films as much as I do yet that's not how I felt after the film ended. But after digging deeper into why those people had that reaction, it was mainly the result of how the film ended. The sudden jolt once you realize that Chris Kyle had been murdered with the closing credits rolling over Kyle’s funeral procession left a deep impact with a lot of people. I had a similar reaction (albeit to a much lesser extent that a vast majority of others) but I also believe that an ending to a film, especially an ending like American Sniper’s that’s basically an epilogue, doesn’t change my outlook on the film as a whole. American Sniper as a work art exists from the opening credits to the very end of the film and one section of the film doesn’t speak for the entirety. If people’s reaction to American Sniper is mainly based on one scene, then that’s recency bias taking effect and my negative review based on the film as a whole is a more true experience than people’s love for the film based on the final scene.

However, that doesn’t explain why so many love this film and why it made as much money as it did. I’ve heard the argument that “it’s just good” being a reason but that’s just dumb. Good movies fail to make money all the time and terrible movies make billions (I’m looking at you Adam Sandler). Why in particular did American Sniper make so much money? Grantland’s Bill Simmons says that there are just certain films that people are ready for that we didn’t know we were ready for until the film comes out. He postulates that American Sniper was so successful because it turns out we were all ready for an Iraqi war film. While I hate that argument because it’s the same ex post facto revisionism that Simmons is known for, I do think there’s a kernel of truth to this argument. When you look at films that focus on W’s Gulf wars (or is meant to be a reflection of it), they’ve either been a small Indie film like The Hurt Locker or a film where nothing happens in it like Jarhead. It might just be that we as a movie going culture like shit getting blown up and a film marketed as a biopic of America’s most lethal sniper fits right into our wheelhouse. I don’t know that we were quote unquote ready for a war film as so much as one never existed for the masses.

The last and main argument I’ve heard for why this film is so successful, mainly spouted by right-wing propaganda, is that this is a movie geared towards the right wing and Hollywood doesn’t tend to make those films. Their argument is that the majority of Americans are right-wing and/or Republican and they want to see more movies like this. As much as it pains me to admit it [1], I do think there’s some truth to that statement, however I think it’s much more nuanced than that. I think American Sniper is a story that most, if not all, soldiers can relate to. Based upon the few reactions I’ve seen on my Facebook news feed as well as the various media outlets I’ve seen soldiers discuss the film, American Sniper seems to be one of those films that every soldier can relate to in some way, shape or form. And those people tend to sway right wing or Republican, and at minimum are pro-war, and therefore it appears to be a Republican, right wing film. On The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, there was a four person panel discussing the film, and two of the people were soldiers. One soldier was a sniper who had spent five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and said the film was very relatable. The other soldier said while it wasn’t relatable to him personally, he was enthralled with the fact that this film existed.

I don't know what percentage of the current population are veterans of the Iraqi or Afghani conflict, but I just can't imagine a single one of those people hating American Sniper. This is a film that might instantly make their all-time favorite films just because there aren't any films that represent their experience during this conflict. I'd also imagine that any veteran of any war could relate to this film in some way. If that's true, then more power to American Sniper and completely ignore any of my civilian thoughts on the film. 

Lastly, I'd like to talk about the criticism surrounding the film of what American Sniper should be. On the aforementioned "The Nightly Show" panel, one of the panelist said he didn't like the film because it didn't properly discuss why the United States brought troops to the Middle East to begin with. That's a stupid fucking argument and staple your mouth shut if you go on a national television program and spout that nonsense. This is not a documentary describing every aspect of the war, this is a film that's dramatizing the life of a single soldier. Neither Clint Eastwood nor anyone else has any duty to put specific facts or biases into their films and if that's you main reason for not liking the film, then you're opinion is worthless. Personally, I had wished the film had taken a Milk style narrative focusing on both Chris Kyle and his killer, but I'm also not going to dedicate any more words to that point because I have absolutely no reason to realistically expect that out of American Sniper and I certainly don't hold it against the film that it didn't do that.

However, there was one thing I has wished the film had done better and I bring this up only because Clint Eastwood brings this up over and over again, and that's the effect of PTSD on soldiers. Cooper's Chris Kyle very clearly suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other characters do as well. There's a scene in the film where Chris happens to cross paths with his brother in Iraq, Chris is just coming in and his brother is leaving. Chris is excited to come back and fight for his country while his brother is clearly having mental issues. Yet after that scene, Chris Kyle's brother is never seen from or discussed again. I thought that scene exemplified Eastwood's problem as a director in that he either fails or refuses to explore important aspects of his own story. 

Also, Sienna Miller's character as Chris Kyle's wife sucks in this film. She's just as one dimensional as the soldiers who fight next to Kyle and her only purpose is to be a nag. Shame on either Eastwood or the film's writer Jason Hall for how this character turned out.

Overall, I respect the fact that American Sniper exists and that it reaches people on a deep emotional level. It certainly wasn't the film for me, but based on the reviews I've seen of the film and the number of tickets sold, I'm clearly in the minority on this one. As I said at the beginning of this post, I stand by my original negative review, but I won't stand alone on my island telling people their wrong for liking this film either.

[1] It doesn’t inherently pain me to admit that Republicans or right-wing activist are correct, I just hate the way they assume that Republicans or those leaning towards the right are this one collective mass and their actions are all uniform, like there’s no individuality to any of these people. And for the record, I hate when the left-leaning activists say the same thing.



If you would like to comment on this post, please visit our Facebook page