Thursday, February 19, 2015

American Sniper (minor spoilers)

Clint Eastwood is one of the few people in Hollywood who went from being an icon in front of the camera to an icon behind it.  The films he directs are often thought-provoking and stunning in their their visual presentation, and American Sniper is no exception.  The story of an old-fashioned "man's man" living in the 21st Century is a fascinating one, built on themes like blind patriotism, PTSD, and war as a drug.  That last one may remind you of a similar little movie, The Hurt Locker, and comparisons to that film are inevitable.  I'll get to my feelings on how they stack up against one another.

Based on the auto-biography by Chris Kyle, the "most lethal sniper in U.S. military history," the story follows Kyle (Bradley Cooper) from his beginnings as a rodeo cowboy to becoming a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq after the events of 9/11. During training, he meets and falls in love with Taya (Sienna Miller), who soon after becomes his wife.  Following the 9/11 attacks, Kyle spends the majority of his time in combat, proudly protecting his country and his fellow soldiers.  Using shooting techniques his father taught him as a child, his long-range shooting skills are unmatched, and he earns the nickname "The Legend."  He becomes involved in a manhunt to find the al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi through his right-hand man The Butcher (Mido Hamada), an equally deadly enemy sniper.  His home life becomes a strange other-world; his affections for his wife and young children have been drained, ignorance of the war angers him, and he becomes awkward in social situations.

What works in the film works tremendously well, especially with Cooper's performance at the forefront.  He portrays Chris Kyle as a man with a good heart but also a child-like naivety about the nature of good and evil.  His black-and-white view of the world is challenged time and time again in Iraq, and whenever he returns home to see his family, he becomes further and further disconnected from them.  When he realizes just how much gray areas there are in life, he doesn't know how to handle it.  After a while, he uses his previous intentions to protect and serve his country as an excuse to go back to the the war over and over, even after his wife tearfully threatens to leave him if he keeps it up.  It's a fascinating character study about a man who experiences dehumanization caused by war, and Cooper's portrayal of him couldn't be any better.

The film's minimal usage of music and emphasis on sound design creates a tension-filled atmosphere that hardly lets up once Kyle goes to Iraq, even in the civilian life scenes.  Disorienting shaky-cam isn't an issue for action scenes, color is muted and suitably melancholy, and the editing is sharp and efficient.  At first I found the sudden jumps in time periods jarring, but afterward I realized that it puts you in Kyle's shoes in a sense; suddenly his children are years older and are unrecognizable from the babies they used to be.  It strengthens the disconnect he has between his home life and his army life in a subtly and effectively.  Visual effects are top notch (sparse as they are), as is the production design.

Something holds American Sniper back, and similarly to this year's The Imitation Game, it happens in the last few crucial minutes of the film.  I won't say exactly what happens, only that it doesn't come to terms with the theme it's been setting up for the ENTIRE FREAKING RUNTIME: the dehumanizing effect that war has on a person and how that person deals with it when they are thrust back into society.  I'm not necessarily saying that I  enjoyed The Hurt Locker more overall, but its ending shines in comparison; it makes a the gutsy move to conclude with, "War is a drug, and the people who become addicted to war ultimately sacrifice what makes them human. "  American Sniper seems to conclude with "War fucks you up, so get some help when you get out and you'll be fine!"  That's not to say the film ends happily, and if you know the story of the real Chris Kyle, you know what happens to him. Could a few less scenes in Iraq and a few more scenes at home in the last act have helped fix this issue?

Suffice it to say, the ending DOES NOT ruin the movie.  I didn't gush for four paragraphs to end this with "it sucked."  American Sniper is a still a powerful, fascinating, and very emotional movie thanks to outstanding performances, excellent writing, direction, and good pacing.  It's really remarkable that Sniper is currently competing against two mega-franchise films (Hungers Games: Part 11 of 45 and Guardians of the Galaxy)  for top-grossing film of 2014.  Maybe people are getting tired of CGI explosions and sequels to sequels to sequels?  Whatever the reason for its success, it makes me very happy.  A solid and non-pandering anti-war film if there ever was one, American Sniper is a must-see.

9 plastic babies out of 10