American Sniper: A Study in Partiality

I have a difficult time commenting either way on the merits of this film, I’m too ambivalent about the subject matter, too conflicted about what the final message is suppose to be, and too confused by Clint Eastwood’s supposed anti-war sentiments to decide whether or not this is a good film or simply an okay one that is buoyed by Bradley Cooper and his outstanding performance. It’s also unavoidably shaded by the tragic reality of Chris Kyle’s senseless murder at the hands of a fellow veteran that skews ones perspective somewhat. That this man who survived an undeniably heroic four tours of combat in the Iraq conflict only to be shot and killed in the heart of Texas while trying to rehabilitate a fellow victim of PTSD is a sadly ironic coda to a story that should just be a generic war story about a much proclaimed American hero. I don’t deny the heroism of his acts, there is no arguing with his medals, his reputation, and record confirmed kills. I am, however, surprised by the unilateral perspective presented in American Sniper, specifically coming from a director like Eastwood who made the companion pieces Flags of our Fathers and the vastly superior Letters from Iwo Jima. The former does an excellent job depicting the trauma and hypocrisy of deifying servicemen while turning a blind eye to the effect of war on the human mind. The latter does something that Sniper makes no attempt at: humanizing the ‘enemy’ and depicting them as three dimensional feeling characters suffering under the same grinding horror of modern warfare. I won’t go so far as to take offense in the language used to describe enemy combatants (‘language’ is being generous, the word savages is the only example I can recall being used) because that’s just going to be how soldiers speak. It’s part of the mindset and I understand that but the only speaking roles of Middle Eastern characters are the vicious insurgents and the translators. Granted, the film’s title is pretty specific as to what the subject matter is about but without an understanding of who this enemy is, Kyle’s kills are simply faceless brown people. There is no gravity to the act of shooting people, no teeth to the shocking violence that is taking place. And without that it feels like I’m expected to cheer the man on and I should not feel that way about a war film. Not in the 21st century and not in a film that is suppose to be portraying the deleterious effect of violence on a man.

Seth Rogen got in some trouble for commenting that this film felt like that Nazi propaganda film within a film in Inglourious Basterds and I don’t think this is entirely inaccurate. Let me clarify that I don’t think anyone in the production are Nazis. I don’t think this is propaganda. And I don’t have any right to criticize or belittle Chris Kyle and his actions, I’ve no comprehension of what it takes to do the things he did. But on the whole Sniper felt safe. It felt inoffensive. It felt a little too deferential to the subject matter and disinclined to portray the man in anything other than two lights: professional and haunted. But there were many more shades to Kyle than what is presented on screen and that felt like a disservice to the complexity of the man himself. Again the film straddles that line, not quite action film, not quite biopic and as part of the audience this felt like a disservice as well. Maybe it would have distracted from the sobering qualities of the story to portray his feud with former governor and certifiable nut-job Jesse Ventura, who continued to pursue (and win) a defamation of character lawsuit against Kyle after his tragic murder. Because Kyle claimed to have punched the former pro wrestler in a bar in Colorado, a claim Ventura refuted which is hysterical and sophomoric but also part of his legacy.

There are also some rumblings of Kyle’s ‘self-mythologizing’ which I can’t comment on. Who can fault a man for writing a best selling autobiography with what he’s done, even profiting from his time as a Navy SEAL? If EL James can make a million dollars writing soft core fan fiction it’s an even playing field as far as I’m concerned.

Which brings me to Brad Cooper who up until this point has always been Will Tippin from Alias to me. As far as I can remember this is the first time I can recall forgetting I was watching Bradley Cooper: he disappears in the role and brings Kyle to life in a million subtle ways. My admiration for Rocket Raccoon is the only thing about this film I’m not ambivalent about in any way, I actually found myself longing for more stateside scenes, more interaction with his wife and kids. Cooper wears the misery, the agony of returning to civilian life like Bill the Butcher draped in the American Flag in Gangs of New York. Not enough time is spent examining his actual struggle, we’re left with a single mollified outburst to communicate his instability.

I can recommend this film if only to honor the memory of the guy. I had the random fortune of seeing his funeral procession on I-35 as it travelled from Midlothian to Austin. By chance the office building I worked at overlooked the Interstate and at the time I did not know what I was looking at but I do now. And for that I’m grateful. If America has improved in character at all since the Vietnam War it’s in the treatment and respect given to our veterans. Regardless of politics, we have come a long way from throwing pigs blood on returning soldiers and calling them baby killers. There is at least a growing compassion for what these volunteers, these citizen soldiers sacrifice for what they believe in and we still have a long way to go. There needs to be a bigger legitimate conversation about rehabilitation and support. There needs to be an honest conversation about the state of our VA hospitals and veteran claims. When the suicide rate among veteran soldiers exceeds the actual combat death tolls it needs to be acknowledged that we are failing to an unacceptable degree. I can only surmise that if the onus of rehabilitation had been taken on by the rest of us sooner, and not fallen to the vets themselves, there is a good chance the flag bearers and fire trucks and mourners that lined that highway in Texas would have had other things to do on that dreary day.

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Chef: A Return to Form

Netflix Suggested Viewing

The one major bone of contention I have with this film is its treatment of the critic. Being something of a critic myself I found it a little bit harsh, a scad one sided in its personification of a food critic as being an insensitive, ignoble bully who is quick to cut down writer/directer/star Jon Favreau and his character, the eponymous Chef in question. Yes, it is easy to offend an artist who has dedicated themself to their craft for years with a well articulated piece of writing. It’s far too easy to dismiss a lot of hard work and talent after one mediocre experience with someone’s labor of love. And the primary motivation of Carl Casper and his literal journey of self reinvention is exactly that: a biting criticism of his stagnation as the head chef at an upscale restaurant. I would argue, however, that without that critique, which doesn’t come from a place of vindictiveness as much as disappointment with unfulfilled promise, he would continue to have existed in the rigid, safe confines of his work life.

It’s not hard to believe that a chef would experience this kind of stagnation in life. I love cooking. I love cooking shows. I love watching Gordon Ramsay (in the original Kitchen Nightmares, not the theatrical US version). And I love love love Anthony Bourdain. But I don’t think for a minute that I have the wherewithal, character, confidence, dedication, or insanity to ever become a full time cook. The reality of the job is in repetition and high stress environments. It’s hot sweaty bloody teamwork and repetition. It’s constant cleaning and prepping and cooking and cleaning and repetition. And it’s the service industry. Holy God. So to be really good at this job it takes more than I have and I know it. Which is why I am fascinated and respect those in the field that much more, because the really great chefs don’t just get good at cooking and stay that way. They are constantly challenging and reinventing and creating because it’s the challenge that they live for.

I’m probably paraphrasing Bourdain, it’s unavoidable as his books, shows, and writing have fully informed my vocabulary on the subject, but I believe that food cooked with love is just a little better than food cooked without it. That’s a pretty nebulous statement disguised as a belief but it’s a concept that is more than a little difficult to define. I think you can tell when someone loves cooking, you become aware of it while eating. You don’t necessarily notice when it’s not there but you know it when it is. I’ve had good Mexican food before. Good and expensive. And it was very good. And expensive. But it was not as good as the carne asada tacos made by a good friend’s abuelita, prepared on a charcoal grill in a backyard with about 20 bucks worth of ingredients. I thought I’d had a good Italian sandwich, the staple of any typical sub shop, at a genuine, popular Italian deli in Los Angeles. But I have no memory of that sub anymore after I had a volpi sandwich prepared by a tiny Sicilian woman, the Aunt of my best friend who spoke with a raspy but adorably husky voice in a nameless Italian grocery in the suburbs of Chicago. You may not notice when it’s missing but you know it when it’s there.

To return to my point it took a critic to point out what was missing from Carl Casper’s work and I think his reaction to said critic was appropriately disproportionate. He loses the high ground and, ultimately, the safety net that was also holding him back from truly exploring his craft. Although the critic is eventually somewhat humanized the fact of the matter is that when an artist puts their work out in the world they are requiring critique for validation. A painting that sits in a locked room in the dark is not art until someone knows it’s there. More so with food which has such a potential for subjective interpretation that it….

…that it….

……..because art….and….

Let me start over.

Chef is a really lovely film. It’s a welcome return to form for Favreau who is coming off of the Iron Man franchise/Cowboys and Aliens and wanted to make a small personal Indie film with people he wanted to work with. The cast shows it in a big way, it’s replete with Hollywood A-List stars who command salaries bigger than the films total budget. It shows that this a labor of love and it’s thoroughly enjoyable as a result. Maybe lacking in conflict and a little obvious at times, it still has heart in surplus and is the perfect film for Netflix and a quiet evening with a home cooked meal.

There is a very cool post credits behind the scenes moment that describes the theme of the film beautifully, with Favreau and the chef consultant Roy Choi as they go through the process of making, not kidding, a grilled cheese sandwich. I took special meaning and inspiration from this clip because the first time I really tried to cook something myself, at the tender age of 24, it was a grilled cheese sandwich. Hand to God, I had to call my best friend and ask her how to do it, step by step, because up until that point I knew that they were delicious and I knew what the probable components were but I had no idea how one got from Point A to Point B. Now, years later, I can cook a steak, build a twice-baked potato, and sauté asparagus that would make your socks shoot up and down your legs like a cartoon from the 1940s. But it took years of patience and screwing up and dedication to find the moment that Chef Choi explains in that post credits scene with a few words that I’ll paraphrase. Nothing else exists except you and what you’re cooking. And if you fuck it up it’s the end of the world..

In the end Chef, is really a story about a man and his son reconnecting, a man and his passion for cooking being rekindled, and a very good writer and director making a film he wanted to make out of love for the craft. And, just like good cooking, you don’t always know when love is missing from the final product, but you absolutely know when it’s not.