Monday, February 02, 2015
(slight spoilers below)
Is AMERICAN SNIPER amoral? Immoral? A give-me-a-fucking-break ode to bullshit American military jingoism, or a measured and accurate portrait of a soldier at war? Given all the online hoopla over the thing, and its incredibly successful run at the box-office, I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was hoping it would be a kind of a Rorschach test of a film, letting us observe, then report, on what we think we just saw. That's pretty much what I found, and in the spirit of that approach, I'll let you know what I think, but if the film is doing its job, you should feel something else.
Chris Kyle, Bradley Cooper's character, occupies almost every frame of the film, and it's only through the tight little world of this self that we witness the events of his life. From a father teaching his son how to hunt, to dinner-table lectures on manhood requirements, to Sunday sermons at church, to outrage over terrorist acts against America glimpsed on cable TV news, to fierce Navy Seal training, quickly followed by the rigors of war punctuated by homefront tension, it's clearly (and solely) Chris Kyle's view of war that we follow, one that we necessarily judge as we must.
There are films that endorse and advocate their particular views of its subjects. (BIRDMAN comes to mind; you do get the tangible sense with that movie that the filmmakers involved do not take the most favorable of views towards the super-hero culture that has transformed cinema.) Is AMERICAN SNIPER one of those flicks? You tell me.
What I saw was a war movie, told from a particularly American point of view, about one man's immersion in the fiercely brutal ways of his duty. We don't see any war protesters, or Iraqi characters independent of the American occupation. There is an Iraqi sniper who is at least as good at his brutal craft as his American counterpart, but we get no sense of his political aims, his homelife, his inner life. All the Iraqis are either targets, or potential ones. This is Chris Kyle's world. We're watching it with him. Feeling it with him. When his wife complains that he's not there for his family, he barely seems to understand what she's getting at; when his soldier-brother in Iraq says to 'fuck this place', Kyle's bewildered reaction illustrates how myopic his sense of the war has truly been. After one of his fellow soldiers expresses futility at the whole point of the war, and after this same soldier's widow, at his funeral, reads a letter he wrote wondering when all this need for 'glory' would end, Kyle doesn't seem to take in what such an emotional protest is about. Or does he? Eventually, he too, tires of war, is ready to go home, does not want to fire at another child who is picking up a weapon of his own. This doesn't stop Kyle from later teaching his own son how to hunt, which, for some viewers, could be proof that all of this violence he's inflicted hasn't meant much at all. Or, for others, it might mean that Kyle is simply carrying on the noble tradition that he's upheld throughout the course of his life, teaching manly virtues via the way of the gun. Yet this is Kyle's story, period. How you regard that depends.
This may not be enough for some people. What about the families of the one hundred and fifty people he killed? Don't they deserve a voice? Haven't their deaths earned a response to this one-sided look at that terrible war? They certainly have. Yet this film is about that man. About what war does to an American who finds notions of virtue and honor in military endeavours. You could ask, and maybe rightly so: Who gives a shit about the oh-poor-me, maudlin inner moaning of a man who ruthlessly kills for a living? And by merely depicting such an experience, giving it a visual voice, does it not automatically imply sympathy with his cause?
I'm not so sure. We are observing here. If you view the American military and its adjuncts as a noble, even spiritual effort to protect and safeguard the citizens it claims to represent, this movie, from first scene to last, could be read as a realistic look at exactly what it takes to become what a soldier is supposed to embody. There are emotional side-effects to the process, yet a dignity still endures. However, if you think the whole military-industrial complex that's insinuated its way into American life is a dehumanizing brainwash of a farce that enlists people with low-education and minimal awareness of the complexity of international events, well, that's all on display here. Every scene shows us how this particularly American military male is gradually grown and dismantled; each development in the story can be read as cowardly and pathetic, or heroic and ennobling, depending on what you, as a viewer, bring to its artifice.
It's interesting that the film bookends itself with the main character's attempts at portraying cowboys. Chris Kyle admittedly couldn't cut it as a real one, as we watch him in the beginning getting thrown off a bucking bronco at a rodeo, so he joins the military as another way to man up. In his final scene of the film, he mockingly pretends to be an old-time cowboy with his wife at their home, complete with a fake-sherrif's badge and Old West style six-shooter. Begging the question: Does anything ever change, in the character or the country? In the character of the country? Clint Eastwood, the filmmaker, formerly Clint Eastwood, the quintessential cowboy, now showing us an American male who can never let that part of himself go, no matter what hell he's been through? What's Eastwood, the director of such thoughtful war dramas as FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, trying to say here about the nature of his countrymen? This John-Wayne-bravado, embodied by Kyle, is either the best of American might and virtue, or a stunted kind of sick growth. That this playful, inherently adolescent cowboy-trait in him continues to endure at the end of the film, just as it was present at the very beginning, can be read as Eastwood insisting that no real lessons have been learned in the least, or else it could also be viewed as a steadfastly moral kind of courage maintained and extended. Cooper's portrayal gives us the man as he is, and we have to have the honesty bring to this film our own selves as we are.
Again, I think you can be both conservative or liberal (or a bit of a mixture of both), and come away from this film either very impressed or appalled, with multiple reasons to back up your point of view. It has the complexity of moral art to me. Everybody's watching the same movie, but the subject of war, and Americans at war, allows us to enter into the confines of this narrative with our own emotional and political baggage.
By even deigning to show the emotional conflicts of an American soldier, isn't one trivializing his multitude of murders? By depicting his domestic disturbances, isn't Eastwood simply dramatizing a reality that's ignorant of the real damage that's been done due to the actions of this man and his family that we're watching suffer? That each scene carries with it these inbuilt contradictions allows a portrait of a man to be painted that enables the viewer to decide for himself what tints and hues to acknowledge.
There's a dramatic clarity to each scene that paradoxically enables ambiguity to puff up. I believed Bradley Cooper was macho and heartfelt and suffering and prideful. I don't necessarily think those feelings are warranted or noble, admirable or proper for the real man he's portraying, but, as a viewer, one can observe and understand a character's experience without deeming it 'moral' or 'right'. There's a deceptively generous latitude to this whole movie's ambiguity-by-sheer-observation aesthetic that I feel has been overlooked by all sides in their rush to proclaim political loyalties.
This idea is never more present than in the final moments of the film, where reality intrudes into this dramatic narrative. The end-credit sequences features what looks like home-video footage of real-life events, and one could argue that it's the ultimate example of flag-waving American nonsense, hero-worship of a moron of a man who did nothing but kill. (And kill, and kill, and kill, and kill, and kill.) The celebratory glorification of a maniac who destroyed hundreds of non-American lives. You're entitled to that view. Hell, I might even agree with most of it. Yet I watched that final sequence, and I mostly thought to myself: "Yes, this sure is how some Americans tend to celebrate their fallen soldiers." It is what it is. (And this sudden reversion to the more primitive feel of video footage allows the audience to subtly see once again how the concept of 'heroism' is sneakily transmitted and transformed by by televisual means.)
Is Eastwood glory-worshipping here? Metaphorically (and literally) pumping the music up just a little too much? Giving one final, emotional outlet for gullible observers taken in by this tale to tear up and indulge in rah-rah military overkill? Or is such a scene simply a given, an authentic reality, the final photographing of how his countrymen emotionally react to those soldiers who have fought and died in their names? To not depict it at all would be to omit the real stuff of life. I looked at all of those American flags hung over highway viaducts, and watched oversized pictures of the actual Chris Kyle proudly displayed at his memorial service, and, while I won't speak for you, or how these particular scenes might make you feel, I can tell you what I fundamentally thought, as I did for much of the movie, as I did when figuring out how to approach this character as a man, which was something approaching neutral, something primarily observational, a refrain that sounds something like: In the world according to Chris Kyle, this is most likely what happened.