“American Sniper”: 2,100 Yards to Victory

American Sniper.

“It’s a heck of a thing to stop a beatin’ heart.”

During the final scenes of the box office smash American Sniper, that bit of fatherly commentary is among the last words young Colton Kyle (Max Charles) hears from his father, accomplished Navy SEAL marksman Chris Kyle, in the days preceding his dad’s murder. With that plainspoken admonition, a variation on a famous line from Unforgiven, three-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper cuts to the point of director Clint Eastwood’s new film, one of his most controversial and his highest-grossing of all time.

Several previous movies already wagged disapproving fingers at the American government over Iraq in general. Nearly all of them failed. Even one of the least dismissed, The Hurt Locker, garnered more awards than ticket sales. Eastwood apparently took notes on Locker‘s approach and, instead of the usual haranguing and politicizing, set his Iraq movie in Iraq without actually making it a Bush-hating Iraq-shaming thinkpiece. To a certain extent it’s not even about Iraq.

Short version for the unfamiliar: This section seems superfluous for a film whose U.S. grosses will pass the $300 million mark before the Oscars telecast, so we’ll keep this brief: it’s based on the autobiography of a sniper who had over 160 certified kills on record, probably had dozens more that no one counted, and volunteered for four (!) tours of duty over there. Meanwhile back home, his wife Taya (Sienna Miller from G.I. Joe: the Rise of Cobra) kept the home fires burning and raised their two children while he was away on missions, trying to be the guardian angel perched overhead for as many fellow sailors and soldiers as he could under the worst conditions. Some of those incidents aren’t portrayed too differently from the classic wartime-action films from the ’40s through the ’80s — i.e., yay America; boo other guys; shades of gray sold separately.

During Kyle’s time at home, away from his overseas quests and his home-away-from-home, the side effects came at him — subtly at first, escalating with each subsequent tour until the marks of PTSD became unmistakable. Kyle took his treatment one step beyond having himself checked; he also began to invest in the lives of other veterans who came home scarred in every conceivable way. Cooper shares several moments with what I’m 95% certain are real veterans sharing their harrowing experiences and their advanced prosthetics with him and with the rest of us. That can’t have been easy for anyone involved, and I commend the film for those parts alone.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Wartime allies include Kyle Gallner (Veronica Mars, the Flash on Smallville) and Eric Close (Now and Again). One of Kyle’s boot camp instructors, Leonard Roberts, was part of the Initiative on Buffy season 4, and more recently was a Howling Commando on Agent Carter. And the aforementioned li’l Colton is played by Max Charles, last seen in Amazing Spider-Man 2 and heard in Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? It’s exceptionally rare for a film nowadays to take place in Iraq without spending at least 80% of its running time hectoring the audience about why America was wrong and evil and stupid. The film takes the Iraq war itself as a given. It happened. Americans were there. These are some of the things that happened to those who signed up. Some of those things were ugly; some were considered heroic within their circumstances. Bring your unwavering viewpoint and your reams upon reams of partisan journalistic research proving one verdict or the other if you must, but they’re kind of beside the point.

You could make a case for the film being closer to antiwar rather than anti-Iraq, based on the candid PTSD coverage alone. I’m not convinced that interpretation bears out. Eastwood seems simply to aim for an unvarnished closeup of the hardships, traumas, and catastrophes our military men commit to, carry out, and endure in the name of God, country, freedom, honor, heroism, international role-modeling, or what-have-you. (Others might have harsher labels to substitute there. I’ll leave them to that, then.) Through Cooper’s gruff yet damaged bravado, we’re shown the skills he put to use in service to others, the camaraderie that kept everyone else going, and the toll it began to take on him after too many years on the front lines.

(Granted, the local residents caught in the crossfire had it infinitely worse, but at least Kyle and friends seem less cavalier about their presence and their lives than the Hurt Locker guys were.)

Nitpicking? Like all the other Best Picture nominees this side of Birdman, Sniper‘s historical rearrangements have been raked over the coals by approximately seven thousand different “What American Sniper Gets Wrong About” listicles, of which this Slate version seems to have the largest, cleanest font. If you condemned Selma, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything for failing to be history textbooks and making timeline adjustments for art’s sake, then prepare to hate Sniper even harder, if that’s your guiding principle. It doesn’t help that many of the exaggerations allegedly originated with Kyle himself.

As far as stuff I noticed on my own:

Because a nebulous, faceless enemy army is such an impersonal and uninspired movie foe, Sniper has something that few other Iraq movies boast: super-villains! Lurking behind the scenes is real-life al-Qaeda bigwig Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the secret overlord who appears only in glimpsed articles, about as essential to the movie as Thanos was to The Avengers. His right-hand man has the action-figure-ready nickname of the Butcher, and loves to torture and terrorize his victims with a power drill, which begs the question of why he didn’t have a more weapon-appropriate name such as the Engineer or Drillmaster or the Holemaker.

Also on their team is an Olympic sharpshooter who’s like Kyle’s evil twin, and men shall know this faceless, remorseless, silent killer from above as…Mustafa. Sorry, no cool sobriquet for him like the Anti-Sniper or Gunman or Crackshot or whatever. No, he gets a name picked out of a hat full of common Arabic names. Meanwhile in Iraq, some aspiring filmmaker who hates us is developing his first anti-American screenplay about a victorious Iraqi super-hero whose fiercest foe is a surly white assassin named…Bob. Mark the words of this young dreamer: it may sound silly to us Americans now, but this visionary can see a future when Bob toys will be a hot seller in Baghdad big-box stores.

I’m usually among the first to complain when a movie’s antagonists are lookalike CG hordes. I appreciate when someone tries to resist that summer-blockbuster temptation and provide more personal characters among the opposing forces. Problem is, even though Mustafa and the Butcher have specific names and costumes, they’re still virtually faceless. Their only discernible traits are angry expressions and shooting at us. They’re obvious attempts at giving us perfunctory evil faces to jeer. On the inside, they might as well be orcs or aliens.

When Kyle first goes to Iraq, his first two kills receive a scene all their own. After that comes an entire sniping montage in which various bad guys take turns walking into Kyle’s scope, pulling out a weapon, and falling at the impact of Kyle’s bullets. It’s sort of an interesting way to immerse us in a typical Chris Kyle day, but the repetition of shots (from gun and camera) distracted me for a bit. Person wanders in, makes a bad move, POW. Person wanders in, makes a bad move, POW. Person wanders in, makes a bad move, POW. Person wanders in, and so on. I found myself wondering how long the montage would go on, and how well it would play on YouTube if you sped it up and added Benny Hill music to it.

That wasn’t anywhere near as distracting as the movie’s least valuable player: the most obvious baby doll ever to costar in a major-studio drama. Three scenes called for baby actors, and in at least two of those the role of Helpless Newborn was played by a plastic understudy with no professional schooling. The actors try shielding its face from us, but there’s more to a convincing baby-holding performance than prop camouflage. If you’ve ever held a baby, you’re sharply aware that in your hands is a very soft, weighty, fleshy, adorable, easily breakable living being. You hold it gently, you support it, you keep it still, you lovingly envelop it, and you do not let it wobble around in your hands like a basketball you’re thinking about passing.

In one scene Miller strides from one room to the next, jostling the baby with each step in a manner that would’ve made a live baby cry and/or spit formula all over her shoes. In another, Cooper takes the baby from her and it appears to be suffering from a frightening form of paralysis, possibly even rigor mortis. Would it have hurt the producers (which included Cooper himself) to shell out an extra million bucks to have Weta Workshop or Hydraulx or some other effects house insert a CG newborn over the Ed Wood Cabbage Patch?

One personal pet peeve invoked: a scene in which Kyle chides a soldier reading a copy of Marvel’s Punisher #1 (the 2004 version) — a single issue, mind you. Kyle calls it a “comic book”, an accurate term for the format. The guy’s defensive response, “It’s a graphic novel!”, is borrowed from other movies and TV shows, is nearing cliché status, and is incorrect if you’re referring to a single issue as opposed to a trade paperback or sizable, squarebound, actual graphic novel. Kyle may be teasing, but he’s correct. Perhaps the scene is accurate for the time, but today it bugs me anyway.

So did I like it or not? In American Sniper‘s later scenes involving life between and after wartime, I appreciated its honesty and its willingness to forgo glamor in favor of giving us insight into the high cost of military service. Cooper finds nuances I haven’t seen from him before and seems to do all right by Kyle’s Texas accent. (I think. I’d be curious to hear from real Texans on this.) In too many of the earlier scenes of cowboys-‘n’-terrorists, I disliked being so consciously aware of watching a Hollywood production with a traditionally crafted adventure designed as a cat-‘n’-mouse hunt between the heroic Sniper-Man and his arch-nemesis, Mustafa the Dark Sniper.

Regardless, it’s the kind of earnest, pro-heartland movie that Hollywood hates making these days, but that viewers outside New England and the west coast can truly get into and tend to support with gusto, if and when anyone sufficiently talented and bankrolled deigns to make one at this level. Part of me is a little thrilled that it got made at all on that principle alone.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the American Sniper end credits. The first two minutes are accompanied by real photos and footage from Kyle’s funeral, accompanied by an Ennio Morricone piece called “The Funeral” that was originally composed for some 1965 Italian Western called The Return of Ringo. I’m guessing the selection was Eastwood’s.

After the song is over, the images fade and the rest of the credits roll onward in black. From that point to the end, the soundtrack is nothing but respectful, absolute silence.

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