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The deep belief in a lone war-time hero, acting beyond normal skills and courage, to save dozens if not hundreds of lives, which should have disappeared forever in the mechanized savagery of WW I, of course came back.  From morale boosting movies of WW II to cowboy and cop avengers and lately in such technological fantasies as Avatar.  Indeed, about every third movie preview these days seems to be about dead bodies and a warrior standing tall in the rubble.  If there are such things as archetypical human beliefs, locked into our DNA, this, of the lone, super warrior is surely one of them.

Bradley Cooper in "American Sniper"

Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper”

Its most recent incarnation is Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, based on a book of the same name written by the “most lethal sniper in U.S. Military history,” Chris Kyle, with the help of Scott McEwen.  The weekend of the movie’s release, trade headlines are gleefully exclaiming, it is ‘blasting the box offices.”  As an adult-long war resister, I always view the marching band enthusiasm for such moves with extreme skepticism.  Even those billed as anti-war movies often hide their better thoughts beneath a pornographic pleasure in extreme violence, torn bodies and enormous explosions. After reading a review or two claiming this was more than a standard war story,  and not a flag-waving treatment of the US war in Iraq, I overcame my caution and went to see it.  I came away impressed.

Impressed of course, first of all by the technical prowess of today’s movie makers.  With appropriate use, and distribution through the film. of static, wide-angle low shots of military hardware, of close ups of anxiety, fear and death, of crane shots lifting up above a scene, moving from close up to full frame chaos, of helicopter and even drone shots we couldn’t be more immersed in a fighting war unless we were actually there. Excellent editing, quick cuts of unknown men with cell phones, long takes of the hero trying to be certain what is in the scope, add to the tension and fast pace.  In fact, anyone with any symptoms of post traumatic stress should consult with, or go with, friends. The closing fight in a blinding sand storm is simply the best movie representation of the chaos of a firefight I have ever seen.

But Eastwood does something more interesting than organizing great technology to deliver movie magic.  Long an actor and director of lone, male, anti-heroes, he looks at Chris Kyle[Bradley Cooper] differently than the most obvious, jingoistic Stallone caricatures would. In a somewhat awkward flashback we see the young Chris learning to shoot, and being told by his father that he ‘has a gift.’ We learn of his Texas Christianity, his stoicism even as a bronc busting cowboy and the impact on him of the blowing up of the US Embassy in Tanzania (1988) which, at a late age (30) sends him to join the Navy Seals.  Obligatory, but useful shots of SEAL training, and his extraordinary skill with a rifle, get him, and us, ready for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Tower. Cut to Iraq.

The quick cut makes it appear that the invasion was an immediate response, which it wasn’t of course, coming 17 months afterwards. But Eastwood isn’t eliding this time in order to justify the invasion. No political commentary implied. [And those who think it is, will likely will be aggravated by the ‘propaganda.’] What interests him is the cauldron of war, of mens’ emotions, responses, fear and calmness in dire circumstances. I was impressed with the visual and emotional honesty.  Another war would do; it could have been the Civil War or, again, in Europe, 1940s.  But this one is closer, more useful to the imagination.  The opening scene, which has been used in all the previews and TV ads, of Kyle sighting down a sniper scope at a young boy and a cloaked woman acting suspiciously, sets the tone.  He is not at all easy about shooting them.  His face shows us; the hissed warning from a comrade that he’ll ‘wind up in Leavenworth (prison)’ if he gets it wrong, tells us.

Another, later scene with a similarly young boy, doubles down on the tension he feels.  His job, as he tells others, and us, is “to protect Marines,’ not to randomly shoot people he doesn’t like.  And, unlike most soldiers/marines who are doing their sweeps and building-clearing in squads and groups and often have an immediate reason to kill those who are shooting at them, and a diffuse relation to the decision to kill, he is alone, and often not under fire himself.  Several times, his superiors on the phone will tell him “it’s your call, Chris.”  A perfect ‘avatar’ with which to look at war.

And, it’s an ugly war.  Women and children do participate in fighting their enemy. Children are brutalized by the home-forces, to ensure noncooperation with the invaders. Friends are mutilated next to each other.  The chance of war sends a bullet into one instead of the next.  Hewing to the archetype, Eastwood puts Kyle in a long cat-and-mouse game with an Iraqi sniper, doing exactly what he is doing, for the other side. Both with ice in their veins, both deadly accurate.  Eastwood knows how to up the ante.

Kyle is shown not as an automaton but an preternaturally self-controlled man, the ‘strong silent’ type.  We’ve gotten to like him as a cowboy, with an easy charm.  He meets a pretty girl … and marries her.  During the first tour his calm demeanor and deadly accuracy begins to create “the legend” as he becomes known among the other men.  They are calmed by his presence; they trust in his defense of them.  At home, however, in between the four tours, when the control continues, it is a problem not a benefit.  His wife Taya [Sienna Miller], is given plenty of room to question his belief that he is ‘over there to defend her.”  “I’m right here!” she cries,.  “Your family is here.  We need you.”

Even in Iraq, he is confronted with doubts by other soldiers, including his own, younger brother. Voice is given that “this is a fucked up war.”

It’s certainly not an anti-war movie but to my mind it’s an honest-war movie, the sort we don’t have many of.  As such, as honesty often is, we have a small addition to common sense and correction of accepted wisdom, the long-asserted patriotic black mail — that we’re over there – Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq, to protect you.  There have been, and likely will be, cases where that is true, but the burden should be on those who claim it, to prove it, not simply to shout it, and send armies abroad,  creating a self-fulfilled warning:  if they’re there it must be because there was a danger.

The war he is in is shown as confusing, frightening and doubtfully justified.  It shows the vicious vise non combatants are put in, threatened by two, equally deadly, armies.  It shows the grief of parents, the grief of soldiers.

He doesn’t let us off at the end, either.  As Kyle begins to come to grips with his own uncontrolled explosions of violence after coming home, he is persuaded to help other vets at the local hospital.  Amputees, serious flesh wounds, all on display.  He takes some to a shooting range as a way to move beyond being a hospitalized cripple.  A double leg amputee in a wheel chair scopes the shots.  There it is: war.

I don’t think most youngsters ready to be impressed with guts and glory will leave their seats anxious to run to the recruiter’s table.  This makes war seem hard, in it, and out of it.  Men die.  Women die. It’s hard to know the enemy.  The enemy may be doing just what we would be doing should the invaders come to our own shores. So why are we on theirs?

The black screen, single sentence end of the film stuns many.  I knew the story and so wasn’t but thought Eastwood had made a good, non exploitative decision.  Electing to continue in a traditional way could easily turned to bathos or ideas of martyrdom.

Though to my mind Christ Kyle is not made out to be a saint, there are a few touches I thought were missed.  Of the 160 confirmed kills, we saw one non-kill in which he didn’t shoot when the threat ceased.  Good call.  We are left with the impression, however, that he made no bad calls, killed no one which afterward troubled him.  I haven’t read the book from which the movie was taken, nor do I plan to.  Perhaps he never did have any doubts.  From the tenor of the movie, however, a doubt or two would not have been out of place and would have strengthened the character.  One or two homeless, frightened children would have contributed to the sense of senselessness.  A stupid, crazy act by a fellow soldier would have added to swirl of chaos.

Both leads are very effective.  We believe them. Cooper plays Kyle extremely well; he looks, and sounds the part.  Sienna Miller as Taya is perhaps is a shade too aggressive; most of us don’t want to come home through a wall of anger, even if about the truth.  I don’t know about Texas soldier’s families but usually  there is much support among wives around the big bases; she was shown as quite alone.  Supporting roles were good, from the drill instructors to the other men, quick to test and tease each other — though for me, faces got lost in the four tours. Drawled repartee sometimes went by me.  A couple of times I wished for sub-titles or a re-wind button.  And, a problem with many war movies, this included, is that sequences of danger repeated feel less dangerous — if we’re watching, not participating.  I counted about four house-clearing scenes, choreographed much the same: one man kicks the door, another enters, guns left, guns right, up the stairs, down a spooky hallway….. Maybe a different POV (point of view) for the camera in two or three would have added a useful change up.

Makeup and prosthetics –from Taya’s swollen belly to a bullet ruined face– were less art than pieces of the world.  The special effects were simply spectacular, with one, odd burp.  At the denouement of the snipers cat and mouse game, a digital representation of a speeding bullet is added.  It is out of place, distracting and unnecessary, like a cartoon gesture.  The shot immediately following, much more traditional, of a spray of blood on cloth is powerful in itself.  Nothing more is needed.

As I finish this, I read that conservatives around the country are claiming Chris Kyle as their hero, and complaining that the movie stripped his Christian beliefs from him.  Liberals, especially those who have read his book and are aware of some of his real-life dubious claims, think it’s another case of celebrating killers.  For me, it wasn’t a bio-pic; I knew bare news accounts of his life; I didn’t come to learn about Chris Kyle.  The man on the screen seemed authentic, doing what I wouldn’t do, but with reasons and complexities that seem true, and of the world.  Nor did I read the film as approving or celebrating the war. Yes, the enemy was Iraqis; yes the good-guys were Americans.  No, we shouldn’t have been there and sure, it would be far far better to have fewer wars about which to make movies.  In the meantime, however, I’m glad this representation is more truthful about the experience of war than the rose colored recruiting I was offered in my teen-age years.  I didn’t know until too late how much had been left out of the lies.

Perhaps Eastwood could make a follow-up as he did about the Battle of Iwo Jima in WW II, following Flags of our Fathers, from the American side, with Letters from Iwo Jima, from the Japanese.  A great movie could be made from the point of view of an Iraqi family as American heavy armor rolls into town.