Sunday, January 18, 2015

On the Big Screen: AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)

The biggest omission in American Sniper may be American Sniper itself. Nothing in Clint Eastwood's film, apart from the end credits, tells us that his subject, Chris "the Legend" Kyle, wrote a book about himself. You could argue that that's because the film is an adaptation of the book, but Eastwood takes the story beyond the close of Kyle's book to the day he was killed by a disturbed veteran on a supposedly therapeutic firing range. We see Kyle ride off with his eventual killer, but we don't see him signing books or having the least thought of writing one. Yet more than Kyle's record number of kills during his four tours in Iraq, his best-selling memoir is the big reason so many people went to the movies this weekend. I find this an odd omission because Eastwood's film, following not long after J. Edgar, signals a theme for this stage -- he may be 84 but I'm reluctant to call it the last stage -- of the director's career: the process of self-explanation or self-justification for figures who may see themselves as heroes yet are also conscious of some questioning of their heroism. The idea actually goes back at least as far as Unforgiven in Eastwood's work -- recall Little Bill's enthusiasm for telling his story to the dime novelist and his "I was building a house!" appeal for understanding -- while those who saw Jersey Boys might tell us whether this helps that film make sense in the old man's filmography. Showing Kyle (Bradley Cooper) composing his memoir might have made Sniper look too much like J. Edgar for everyone's comfort, and since Eastwood, his co-producer Cooper and their writers were presumably obliged to adapt the memoir faithfully there's less room for the sort of debunking with which Eastwood closes the prior biopic. Yet just as The Bridges of Madison County proved Eastwood a creative interpreter of dubious source material, so we should expect the director to find some room in the screenplay provided for him for his own commentary on Kyle's career. That's the impression I got from earlier reviews who saw Sniper as simultaneously a pro-war and anti-war film, though possibly just as many reviewers see the picture as too unambiguously pro-war for their comfort. Again, obliged to convey Kyle's own view of his life, Eastwood et al must to a great extent call things as Kyle saw them. Yet given Eastwood's own disapproval of the invasion of Iraq -- complicated over time by a certain admiration for George W. Bush's "tenacity," -- can the director really let Kyle have the last word on the subject from the grave?

Your judgment of Eastwood's American Sniper may depend on whether or not you believe that Eastwood believes in the categorization of humanity into three types as expounded by Chris Kyle's father. Chris was taught -- in the film if not the book -- that there are sheep (those naively ignorant of the existence of evil), wolves (evil) and sheepdogs. Interestingly, the sheepdog's primary trait is aggression, redeemed by being channeled into the defense of the herd, the nation, etc. Chris assumes the role early, defending his brother from schoolyard bullies. He sees the War on Terror in the same terms, and Eastwood, Cooper et al have already gotten into trouble with some critics for letting Kyle's judgment of Iraqi insurgents, including women and children, as "evil" (not to mention "savages") go unchallenged in the film.

Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall proceed to problematize this crude worldview in some subtle ways. First of all, the alienation Chris gradually experiences as he shuttles between tours of duty and increasingly troubled stays at home, the detail that seems to earn the film whatever anti-war reputation it has, can be seen as a consequence not just of the stress of counterinsurgent war but of his self-regard as something separate from the civilian sheep. He feels an overwhelming responsibility to protect that makes him feel out of place at home, if not like a quitter once he's home for good. Did the war or his dad do that to him? Was Chris indoctrinated in a way that warped him, as J. Edgar Hoover's mother is shown warping him in the earlier film? Again, a film of Kyle's own book is the wrong place to say so outright, but that very film is structured in a way bound to make some people ask questions. The film also invents a "player on the other side," the Syrian sniper Mustafa whose presence implicitly throws the elder Kyle's categories into question. Like Chris, who had been a rodeo cowboy before enlisting after some 1998 terror attacks, Mustafa is a sportsman -- an Olympic marksman -- who has gone to a foreign land to fight the enemy. Because Mustafa is killing Americans, Chris regards him as evil. He's especially enraged that Mustafa has made videos of his kills -- the closest the antagonist gets to writing his own Syrian Sniper. Mustafa never gets to express his point of view, but the film gives us room to question whether he's really as much a sheepdog as Kyle is, rather than the wolf Kyle assumes him to be. The script contrasts Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) with a more obvious wolf, the al-Qaeda terrorist known as "the Butcher" who tries to discourage collaboration with the Americans by killing or mutilating Iraqi civilians. If I recall right, we never see Mustafa kill civilians. I recall more clearly that Eastwood makes a late attempt to humanize the character before his ultimate showdown with Kyle. When Mustafa gets the call that there are Americans nearby, we see him leaving behind a wife and baby, counterparts to Chris's wife and kids, as he walks past a wall photo of a medals ceremony from more innocent days. It's easy to guess that Mustafa sees himself as a sort of sheepdog, and Americans as the wolves, and if sheepdogs can see each other as wolves that would make Papa Kyle's categories so relative as to be useless for anyone more reflective or introspective than Chris Kyle is shown to be in this picture and, presumably, in his own book. While I may be guilty of giving Eastwood and Hall too much credit, I don't think that they've left material from which to build a critique of Kyle's worldview in the film by accident. But because they've presumably opted to let viewers put the pieces together themselves rather than have anyone in the picture explicitly question the sheepdog idea, many will go home assuming, approvingly or not, that Eastwood endorses it.

If American Sniper is anti-war, it's anti-war in a generic way instead of specifically blaming the peculiarities of the Iraq war for any issues Kyle may have. Eastwood most likely felt an obligation to Kyle's family, and as a relative latecomer to the film project, to leave his own opinion of the invasion out of the movie, but any obligation he felt will still seem like an abdication to people who think any film set in Iraq must tell the truth about the conflict, as they see it. In fact, Eastwood's reticence -- it should be noted that we get no real justification of the invasion, either, apart from Kyle asking whether a buddy would rather fight the enemy in Iraq or at home -- prevents American Sniper from being a definitive film about Iraq, since a definitive film should take one side or the other more strongly than Eastwood ultimately does. Eastwood may be concerned with what war in general does to people, and with how people in war rationalize what they do or become, but his approach arguably leaves him skimming the surface of whatever real story can be found in Iraq. Like J. Edgar, Sniper is dominated by one mighty performance that little else in the picture lives up to. The denial of a Best Director nomination to Eastwood by the Academy may be their acknowledgment that the picture has really been Bradley Cooper's baby all along, and it certainly is his picture. I've come late to an appreciation of Cooper but between American Hustle and this he's clearly become an all-American talent with an intense commitment to diverse roles. No one other than Sienna Miller as Chris's long-suffering wife (and arguably Sheik in a role without English dialogue) makes much of an impression, but the film doesn't really require them to. As an Iraq War movie I don't think it surpasses The Hurt Locker in action or suspense, though Eastwood makes the most of the opportunities created by modern telecommunications to have heartfelt husband-wife chats interrupted by insurgent attacks, and the climactic firefight in a sandstorm is a pretty vivid illustration of the fog of war. The most I can say for American Sniper, apart from what I've said above, is that it's Eastwood's best movie since the deeply underrated Flags of Our Fathers, whose subjects may have found Chris Kyle a kindred spirit.

Update: Since I can't be bothered with reading the book, I'm grateful to Michael and Eric Cummings at Slate for explaining that the "sheepdog" thesis isn't in Kyle's text, but was added to the film by Jason Hall, who adapted it from a 2004 book by an Army colonel. The Cummingses claim that the book, On Combat, has become very popular in right-wing circles, and they make clear that they despise the whole sheepdog concept. What Hall himself thinks of it I can't say, but the resemblances between the way Sniper and J. Edgar show their subjects being shaped by their parents suggest that Eastwood doesn't exactly embrace the idea.


Anonymous said...

"sheep" or "wolf". Does a wolf consider itself evil for doing what evolution has molded? A wolf is a predator. It is incapable of digesting vegetable matter. So for a human (a presumable "reasoining" creature) to create such analogies simply tells me that the person in question is not a "reasoning" being and therefore merely a semi-domesticated primate; not a human being. A human being recognizes a wolf as a predator - not "evil" - but dangerous nonetheless to anything it considers edible.

But Kyle was, apparently, as incapable of reason as his father. If Kyle sees himself as a sheepdog (a defender) how did he justify an invasion of a foreign country? That would make HIM the wolf (going into someone else's sheepfold) and Mustafa, in fact, the sheepdog.

Samuel Wilson said...

The closest Kyle comes to justifying the invasion in the movie is the comment I mentioned in the review about fighting the enemy there rather than here. Apparently some sheepdogs can take the initiative to track the wolves back to their lair, but Kyle ended up in the wrong lair, except insofar as the occupation drew al-Qaeda fighters to him.

By the way, sheepdogs don't occur in nature, do they? It makes you wonder who the shepherds are in the Kyle family typology.