Monday, January 19, 2015

Clint Eastwood's AMERICAN SNIPER: Decent But Not Very Deep

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

AMERICAN SNIPER (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2014)

With several sequences dealing with a soldier having trouble adjusting to civilian life after intense tours in Iraq, this film often feels like Clint Eastwood’s THE HURT LOCKER.

But the crusty but lovable filmmaker, who’s 34th film as director this is, obviously feels he has bigger fish to fry here than that film’s “war is a drug” theme.

AMERICAN SNIPER, Eastwood’s new biopic of Chris Kyle (1974-2013), the late Navy SEAL who from 1999 to 2009 racked up the most career sniper kills (over 160 confirmed enemy kills) in U.S. military history, wants to both pay tribute to the man as a modern war hero, and provide a platform for his redemption as a murderer.

It’s not entirely successful in those goals, but it’s Eastwood’s best film as director since 2008’s GRAN TORINO, proving that the man is much better at capturing combat than maneuvering through the tried and true tropes of musical biopics (see last year’s ultra trivial JERSEY BOYS).

In a performance that’s worthy of the Oscar nomination he scored this week, a beefed up Bradley Cooper plays Kyle, who we follow from being a good ole boy Texas ranch hand and rodeo cowboy to becoming a celebrated Army rifleman whose fellow Navy SEALS called “The Legend.”

Cooper’s Kyle, a vessel of extreme patriotism, spends four dangerous tours of duty in Iraq, where we see him mostly stationed on rooftops providing cover for the troops below. In one central scene, which the film opens on then comes back to later in the narrative, Kyle weighs whether or not to shoot an Iraqi woman and a young boy, after seeing in his site that they were about to lob a grenade at a group of Marines on the street.

This is an intense, defining scene, one that TV spots for the film use as a cliffhanger (will he/won't he shoot? - see the movie and find out), and it is effective, but like the movie itself, it doesn't plow that deep into Kyle's character.

Kyle, who constantly calls the Islamist insurgents “savages,” does appear, in fleeting bits of dialogue, to be strongly in favor of the Iraq war, but the film itself is fairly ambiguous about it.

Kyle’s camaraderie with his fellow SEAL team members, who include Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, and Jake McDorman, is familiar feeling but still necessary material in the mix, possibly giving the most insight into what the film thinks the guy was like.

When Kyle is stateside between deployments with his wife Tara (Sienna Miller) and kids, he has the expected trouble adjusting to civilian life, but the aforementioned THE HURT LOCKER went through these motions much more effectively; here it’s way too spelled out.

There’s an action movie drive, which the film is really more about, to Kyle and his team’s hunt for an Al Qaeda terrorist named “The Butcher” (German-Egyptian actor Mido Hamada), and an enemy Syrian sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), in which we're simply watching a good guys vs. bad guys scenario with noisy shoot-outs and chases. All compellingly shot by Eastwood’s longtime cinematographer Tom Stern.

The big climatic battle, taking place on our lead’s fourth and final tour, has Kyle and his unit surrounded by terrorists as a sandstorm approaches. It’s truly exciting stuff, a sequence that proves how much pure machismo Eastwood can still muster at his late age.

Sure, the film hugely oversimplifies, making combat look like a video game at times, and it won't satisfy the folks who are complaining about its supposed pro-war stance, but it falls in line with what Eastwood has been saying cinematically his entire career. Consider that his iconic Dirty Harry character was considered by many to be “fascist” back in the day.

In a way Eastwood's film, via Jason Hall's screenplay adaptation of Kyle's 2012 autobiography, is like the protagonist's phone calls home to his wife; it’s tight-lipped about what’s really going down on in the guy’s mind.

It basically seems to come down to saying this guy believed in what he was doing for his country, but he was a little conflicted by it. That may anger folks who feel that the real-life Kyle had no remorse over his killings and cite passages that say as much in his book, but, for me, the movie version of Kyle never wrote a book.

That is, like all the other films that are based on true stories out there, especially the ones that are Oscar nominated, AMERICAN SNIPER shouldn’t be taken as fact. Moviegoers going in should just ignore all the pundits and think pieces, and just take it as an old fashioned war movie with a smidgen of new school conscience that features an invested, career best performance by Cooper carrying one of Eastwood’s most well constructed productions.

More later...

1 comment:

northierthanthou said...

It's easy to say that the movie shouldn't be taken as fact, but movies often play a large role in shaping public perception. It may be unfair to see it as a pro-war movie, but it would not be unfair to be concerned about a pro-war movie, fictional or otherwise.