Tuesday, January 27, 2015

American Sniper - The Fake Baby Movie Is Not Very Interesting

The worst reaction for a critic to have to a movie is "meh", when there just is not all that much to say about a movie.  My goal here is to get exciting and energized, making great analysis.  I should have some kind of strong reaction here or there, good or bad, and then prove my points with a series of convincing rhetorical, humorous asides, and brilliant insights.  Instead I feel nothing.  I'm numb I'm not sure if I even saw a movie or took novocaine/

"American Sniper" is a horrifically okay movie.  That is exactly what I have come to expect from gunslinger movie star turned director, Clint Eastwood in the latter stage of his career.  Crushing amounts of apathy is his primary style even since stopped making cowboy films.  Eastwood has spent this century making high-concept personal dramas.  Or to put it more cynically, sniffing around for Oscar Gold by making dull period pieces or "actor movies".  Take the dreary Award-stompers "Mystic River" or "Million Dollar Baby", or the actively miserable "J. Edgar".  The last movie that Eastwood has made that actually had a sense of personality about it was "Gran Torino".  Frankly Eastwood in his last decade of work does not even feel like a passionate director anymore.  His work is by the numbers Oscarbiat:  solid premise, strong central lead playing a fantastic character - do you really need to put in any more work?

Which leads me to wonder.  How am I supposed to get invested in this movie when it does not feel very invested in itself?  "American Sniper" is not really a movie about anything.  It is a drama based on the life of real-life sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a veteran of the Iraq War who became the deadliest sniper in American history.  Kyle is a plain old American patriot - loyal to his brothers in arms, fearless, and apparently beyond all issues of politics.  Eastwood attempts to create in "American Sniper" a classical hero tale, after a career of deconstructing that very concept in films like "High Plains Drifter" and "Unforgiven".  No wonder it feels so hollow.  "American Sniper" is the first attempt at an apolitical movie on the Iraq War, simply about men on the ground and their families.  Eastwood winds up making a movie without greater context, and unfortunately, without much other than a single very good Bradley Cooper performance.

There is already a savage counter reaction to "American Sniper".  Every Oscar Race needs "the bad guy", that one movie that is apparently undeserving of nominations but ends up being a front-runner anyway.  The 2015 Academy Awards has ended up a narrative of "Selma" vs "American Sniper", with each movie fitting neatly into liberal or conservative camps.  "American Sniper" is considered the movie for Republicans, since it is a blameless movie about the War on Terror.  Eastwood is the kind of director who would get into fights with an imaginary Barack Obama in an empty chair*.  Take a mental leap and soon enough "American Sniper" is a loving red, white, and blue handjob for George W. Bush.  And I'm sure "American Sniper" will dance along on the FOX News circuit for another month.  When it loses to "Boyhood" on February 22nd, prepare to see headlines like "Is 'American Sniper' another victim to liberal Hollywood?"

"American Sniper" starring a giant steroid-pumped demigod with Bradley Cooper's face.
The fact is that "American Sniper" is not really a pro-war movie.  Eastwood's aims are minimal, which is most of the reason this movie leaves me with no real impression one way or another.  Chris Kyles watches the planes crash into the World Trade Center and two scenes later is landing in Iraq, ignoring entirely the disconnect of Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.  However, this feels more like narrative convenience (or laziness) than whitewashing.  The film simply skips three whole years of time to get Kyle to do his sniper jig.  For all I can see Kyle never once watches television, never hears of the anti-war movement, and does not even seem to be aware that the United States is a representative democracy, since he never votes or holds a single political opinion.  He is not fighting for anything other than war in the abstract.

Abstract war is not very interesting.  Iraq is not really a place in "American Sniper", rather it is just an obstacle course of yellow buildings and sand.  Kyle's squadmates are just a few wisecrack one-liners and humanizing details to pull on your heartstrings just before they get shot.  They're not really characters.  There are no Iraqi people, only enemy units.  Nothing particularly happens in Kyle's war career.  He achieves no victories, he really suffers no defeats.  There is a long-standing sniper duel with an Iraqi sniper who may or not exist, but that minor victory hardly amounts to a hill of beans in this crazy mixed-up movie.  His Navy SEAL squad are just shuffled around identical Iraqi battlefields with no appreciation for who he is fighting or why.  Even the action scenes are drab and repetitive, an exciting sandstorm final battle notwithstanding.  "American Sniper" has all the narrative weight of an afternoon wasted away playing "Call of Duty" death matches.

But again, I am judging this movie for what it isn't, versus what it is.  That boils down to just Chris Kyle himself.  He is a beefy slab of redmeat Texan prime rib, All-American, proud to serve his country, shove a boot in their ass, hunk of White fantasy.  He's a good man.  Kyle rides horses in the rodeo, hunts, and fights for fighting's own sake.  Cooper makes a character that on-paper sounds ridiculous into believable and even vulnerable, despite a heavy front of duty and honor.  This is not the kind of character to succumb to melodrama or play himself as a victim, even as his life is breaking apart around him.  When Eastwood wants to be a great director he can be, shooting excellent paranoid chase scenes in what are actually just Kyle home with his family on a Sunday drive.  It is cleverly subtle, showing a bright character get burned away into a nub by a long bitter career at war, unable to stop.

As it turns out, sniping is very slow, very meticulous, and very boring.
But then again, I'm stuck wishing for more.  Sienna Miller plays the only other character of consequence, Kyle's wife, Taya.  She is unfortunately exactly what you would fear she would be:  nothing more than a pouting wife stuck on home apparently with nothing more to do than wait for her husband to come home.  She has no existence other than as a humanizing factor on Kyle.  (Not that long-suffering female roles are unknown to the Oscar race, Carmen Ejogo in "Selma" played an equally thankless one-dimensional wife.)  Kyle has a brother but he hardly factors.  And his children are props.  I mean that literally, as infamous screenshots of the fake baby have shown.  (And yes, it is a hilariously-bad effect, but hardly "American Sniper"'s biggest flaw... biggest laugh though.)

So really what does "American Sniper" add up to?  Not a whole lot.  Kyle is an interesting character but one that mostly goes as unexplored as every other facet of the conflict.  People who simply want a feel-good war movie that offers little self-examination but lots of bodies of "bad people" will find their movie in "American Sniper".  Whatever your opinions on the War on Iraq though, there is something terribly unsatisfying with this movie.  Eastwood goes heavy on the drab, deep on the quiet sorrow, but very little on experience or entertainment.  Even if we were just getting a dumb Iraq War action film, I would have more to recommend.  Somewhere there might be a great tragedy to be written about the Iraq War, where our great lions like Chris Kyle were led by fools like Donald Rumsfeld and the entire US high command into an impossible battle**.  This is not that film.

That fake baby is hilarious though.  No wonder why it is the only part of this film to really capture the world's imagination.

* And somehow lose.

** It has been a decade since the opening of the Iraq War, and now I think we can all agree that it was the most pathetically mismanaged and incompetent conflict in our history.  This goes beyond George W. Bush to the entire intelligence and military high command of what should be the most powerful country on Earth.  Support our troops, certainly.  But we do need to be critical of our government and our military when they can be this bad at their jobs.  Supermen like Chris Kyle deserve better, but so does everybody else.

1 comment:

  1. The problem I have with this movie and a lot of other movies is that they are so obviously oscarbait.

    Its just so obviously trying to grab at our heartstrings. But its feel artificial in its design.
    1. Choose a depressing topic such as war,slavery or abuse in a family environment.
    2. Star a B or C list star.
    3.Have multiple scenes of crushing depression.
    4. Shoot it with a lens covered in dirt and grime to make it realistic.
    5.Wait for the stuckup art crowd to declare it the greatest film of all time.
    6.Wait for the awards

    Sword Of Primus