The Oscar season is here and so far this year, the movies that are competing for best picture that I’ve seen have all been pretty good. I really enjoyed the Imitation Game for example. A film in tribute to Alan Turing, the Father of Computer Science that frankly, should’ve been made much sooner than films made about people with lesser contribution to mankind and certainly less interesting (a Beautiful Mind came to mind). But better late than ever I suppose.
However, one of the outlier is the recently released American Sniper, which got both the left and the right stirred up. It’s directed by Clint Eastwood (no less) and starring the in recent years ever-so-popular Brady Cooper (no less), and currently holds a 73% on Rottentomatoes, as well as being nominated for 3 big categories in the upcoming Oscar.
Both a friend of mine and a critic that I read often–Ty Burr from Boston Globe (http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/movies/2015/01/15/bradley-cooper-stars-clint-eastwood-american-sniper/e1ZyR9HoVuguTb9eqJJ1AI/story.html), recommended this movie. In his Take 2 Ty Burr insisted that this is a movie about the devastating effect of war, and it is not a black-and-white movie, so it is up to you to decide. He also insisted that in the movie there is a scene involving a sandstorm, and that it is a great metaphor for what “we’ve been going through for the past 6 years–we don’t know who the real enemies are.” Ty Burr insisted that you go into the movie with an open mind and see the movie for what it is. So anyways, even though I do have a thing against the American military empire, I got curious and I went to see it, with as much of an open-mind as I can gather. And I decided to write a review about it. The reason is, as far as I have seen, I don’t think several points that I will bring up have been brought up by many of the reviewers that you will read online. So I hope that this will be an interesting perspective. I will also discuss several criticism of Ty Burr’s review that I have.
So overall, there is little doubt that American Sniper is a very well-made movie that is exciting and captivating. It is very well filmed, directed, acted, and the actions are of high-quality. At its most exciting moments, it is a movie that is like the best made life-action war video game you can encounter. The movie gets you into the war zone and takes you with it. But unfortunately I have to say that I was still disappointed about the film.
The reason why I was disappointed is that the movie is still very one-sided–the American side. It is not biased in the sense that the filmmaker decides to alter facts to tailor to the bias of the white Americans knights versus the black Arab terrorists. I don’t have much problems with how the film portrays the facts and the realism of the situation in war and the soldier’s encounters, unlike some other reviewers do (e.g. http://www.vox.com/2015/1/22/7859791/american-sniper-iraq). The bias is such that the movie is solely about the Iraqi war seeing through the eyes of the American soldiers. Now to clarify, there is nothing necessarily wrong with this per se: there is nothing wrong with making a movie about one perspective (it is true that the movie does not show clear political agenda). Most movies regarding conflicts are biased toward one perspective relative to another. It’s just that, this is nothing even remotely new. Most American war movies are such. I dare anyone who can point out an American war movie that does NOT include how much individual American soldiers suffer during the war, and being disillusioned by it. From WWII to Vietnam war, to the war in the Middle East, again and again, through and through. Do we really need another one?
So we have the protagonist, Chris Kyle (played by Brady Cooper), who was dubbed “Legend” because he’s considered the most lethal sharpshooter in the U.S. military. The Chris Kyle character is actually quite an interesting one. What many negative reviewers don’t see is that, he’s Camus’ Absurd Man–someone who was taught and raised for a certain ideal, in this case patriotism, and held on to the ideal even when disillusion from his actual experience came crashing down. The debate should not be whether Chris Kyle is seen as a hero or not, or whether he himself considers himself a hero, that’s a very shallow layer to study the character, but how such a character deals with disillusion when he (for all intents and purposes) voluntarily signing up for something for which he got more than he bargained for. He doesn’t really. When he is asked whether it bothered him to kill people, he denies it, insisting that those he killed were “savages” and he’s only regretting not having saved enough of his comrades. When he is at a funeral and hears an anti-war letter from the mother of a deceased friend in the military, he insisted that it’s the letter that killed his friend, not the war. During all of this Cooper’s performance gave out only uncertainty, doubt, and ultimately, stubborn denial in his insistence unto his familiarity in the Absurd. Cooper was great, the only thing I had problem with his performance was the southern accent–it was really too much, recalling the ridiculous over-accenting of Renee Zellweger’s British English in Bridget Jones’ Diary.
However, many critics, like Ty Burr, have failed to see that the kind of disillusion that Chris Kyle went through, many people go through similar disillusions when making a decision on what they want to do in life. Of course since most careers do not involve killing people the experience might be less extreme. But that is only one of degree, not kind. As someone who chose the path of academia, I can tell you many disillusions that both I, and others have with academia that sometimes make us loose sleep or sink into depression. The movie does not show that war destroys people, but it is people who destroy people, in this case, themselves, every time they involve themselves in something that will go against their moral conscience. People who sign up for such horrific activities such as going to another country to kill other people will reap what they sow, and they will find that they would be trapped, unable to free themselves from their decision and its consequences. In my opinion that is the true metaphor of the sand storm scene, if it is indeed a metaphor–that like a person being addicted to playing video games and cannot break free from the virtual game world, these soldiers are putting themselves in to a state of blinding confusion and trapping themselves in it, difficult to escape. This is reinforced by the fact that Chris Kyle’s difficulty in adjusting to a normal life whenever he returns home. Even a slight sound, though as normal as drilling tools, alerts him, and he finds that he must return to the war zone again and again and again. Because that’s the only place where it all makes sense: It makes sense in a war zone to be so alerted and distressed when there is a sound. So I completely disagree with Ty Burr on this point: contrary to what he insists, there is a clear enemy shown in the movie. The enemy, as in any war zones, is anyone who tries to kill you and your company. And yes, that person can be anyone– a man, woman, or child. It’s the “kill or be killed” mantra that we often repeat in wars that separates a friend from foe in war.
But such perception of reality, factual or not, will ultimately put one into an extreme one-sided-ness. It is ludicrous for anyone to suggest that somehow the movie “showed both sides.” The only people that are portrayed as sympathetically human, the only people you can truly connect to and understand, are the American soldiers. The movie does depict that the terrorists also harm Iraqi civilians so that their lives are also affected. But we don’t get to really know any of the Iraqis–there’s absolutely no character study for any of them in the movie. We don’t get any insight into why they involve themselves in terrorism or other violent activities. How exactly do they think and feel about the war situation or deal with it, like we do with the American soldiers. We see the Iraqis through the lens of the American soldiers, who see them as foreigners who look different, act different, speak a strange language, and do weird and dangerous things (I wouldn’t go as far as saying that they are portrayed as “savages” however, like the Vox reviewer insisted). Even the Iraqi children do not act like children, they look menacing and dangerous. Once again, that doesn’t mean that the way they act is not plausible, because even children turn dark in war times–we’ve known this for centuries really, it would be silly for the movie to show this as some sort of a shock factor. Of course, once again, this is not something that can be necessarily held against the American soldiers from this perspective. After all, in a war zone a soldier’s main goals are survival and getting the job done. Getting to know the locals would be very low on their priority list, and that is perfectly understandable. But the bottom line is, it is ludicrous to say that showing Iraqi locals also being killed by terrorists would count as a “side.” If anything, it would assist in reinforcing the conservative notion that Americans are needed there to fight terrorism.
So if you are looking for any educational value in American Sniper, you would be grossly disappointed. American Sniper is really another unnecessary war movie in hopes of yet again stirring up our sympathies for the poor veterans and all they’ve been through. But really, the tribute in sympathy to the veterans has long been paid in films. We’ve done our duties. Even the most out-spoken anti-American troops people I know are primed to state sympathies to individual soldiers who were physically and mentally harmed by the war. American Sniper is not a movie that the American public needs if the message is “we shouldn’t have war because it destroys people and families.” Because in order to truly understand the devastation that war brings to individuals, BOTH sides must be shown. Why? because only connecting to those of the other side, in understanding that they are just as human as you, can reconciliation truly happen, which is what stops war. For anyone who is interesting in watching a truly great movie about how “war destroys people and families,” I recommend instead, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. That is a movie that not only shows all sides as humanly as possible, and how individuals, as well as how their friends and families are deeply affect by it, it brilliantly uses the War Horse as a symbol as something that stir our fundamental humanity which builds that powerful bridge in reconciliation and understanding. And that is what succeeds in making war seen ever so obsolete and absurd. For example there is a beautiful scene in which both the English and the Germans, though enemies getting ready to kill each other, came together momentarily to free the horse. What more powerful metaphor can there be to reflect both the beauty of human connection over such simple kindness, and the absurdity and horror of war that sets them apart on opposite sides? It is comparable to another brilliant movie: the Pianist. Though also from mainly one perspective, it also shows a simple beauty–music, that can extend a hand to an enemy in friendship and accord. Those are the true great metaphors of peace. And btw, both War Horse and The Pianist take place in wars in which people were DRAFTED–NOT VOLUNTEERED–into war, which is what really what actually set wars apart from other things, and one of the main horrors of it.
Overall, if you are looking to watch a good blockbuster war movie with some family drama, this might be the movie for you. But American Sniper offers nothing special or new on an intellectual level other than, as I have mentioned, “you reap what you sow.” It is merely one of many films in the series on the subject of Americans in war. It is really analogous of Hollywood releasing yet another Marvel movie which you just go see for the fun of it, but in the end you know it’s all basically the same thing, just with different ways of blowing shit up.