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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