First and foremost, we have to separate, if we can, the movie from politics. Any criticism of the film should not be interpreted as criticism of the military, nor the brave men and women who serve in the military. The wars were real, and though this film was based upon a real person, it is still a movie. What I plan to critique here, is the movie, at least to start.
With that being said, as an action-packed thriller, it works. Plenty of explosions, clear-cut heroes and villains, edge-of-your-seat suspense – it works. The main character is immediately likeable, and the love story proves relatable and leaves you rooting for the couple to make it. If all you’re looking for in the film is a couple of hours of dynamic old-fashioned, blow-‘em-up, good guys versus bad guys, you won’t be disappointed. For the majority of the film, that’s what it is. But for as fun as those types of films can be, they are rarely Best Picture films.
Of course, this is not simply an old-fashioned, blow-em-up kind of movie. It is supposed to be a biopic. Here’s where it gets a little difficult to separate the ‘film’ from real-life. The film is about a real Navy Seal Sniper named Chris Kyle and is based on a book written by Chris Kyle. It’s not supposed to be a Hollywood war movie, it’s supposed to be based on real events. And so it becomes unavoidable that in order to fully critique the ‘film’, you have to critique some of the reality behind it.
First off, Chris Kyle was a Navy Seal. That, in and of itself, is worthy of our respect and gratitude. He also served four tours in Iraq, an unimaginable sacrifice worthy of our respect and gratitude. He served his country and he served it well and you can’t take that away from him and I wouldn’t want to, but I have to be honest here in my criticism of the film.
American Sniper borrows a lot from old-time Westerns. The common themes of the all-American man who must leave the homestead to defeat the threat, the protestations of the frightened wife left behind to care for the children and hold down the fort, the elusive and ‘worthy’ opponent – the one guy dressed all in black whose skills place him above the other ‘bad-guys’ so that the overall battle boils down to a showdown between our hero and this villain. It’s all there in American Sniper just as it is in any John Wayne western. But this is supposed to be real life and real life rarely resembles a John Wayne western.
Though there are events and accomplishments that are fact and cannot be denied, I have to be skeptical of a story like this written by the ‘hero’. I admit, I have not read the book, but I intend to. It is very possible that the screenwriters elevated the level of hero-making and that Chris Kyle’s book was not near so self-aggrandizing, but the controversies surrounding the story suggests that might not be the case. In the film, Kyle comes across as a one-man army. Regardless of how good or how tough he was, I’m fairly certain that was not the case. The US military is full of tremendous fighters, legends, and heroes. It takes more than one guy.
That’s 99.5% of the movie, a good-old fashioned western. We love our hero, we hate our villain, we want the man in the white hat to ride home to his wife and children victorious to live out his days in peace and comfort enjoying the freedoms for which he so bravely fought. That’s the story Clint Eastwood told – almost right up to the very end when reality rears its ugly head, and that’s when American Sniper earns its stripes. If you don’t know the story and plan to see the film, keep it that way. I don’t plan on giving away any spoilers, but I’d hate for you to be able to read between the lines and guess, so if you don’t know how it ends, you may want to stop reading now.
Schindler’s List, Lone Survivor, and American Sniper are the only films I’ve seen from which a large audience in a packed theater silently and solemnly remove themselves from their seats and out into the lobby. I’ve left church services in crowds less reverent than these moviegoers. It is a unique transformation from Saturday night fun and date night anxiety to quiet and reserved solemnity. It takes a powerful film and a good storyteller to be able to do that to an audience. Clint Eastwood succeeded. It is because of that impact that I feel American Sniper belongs in the Best Picture category for 2015.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Bradley Cooper in this review. Cooper is nominated for the Lead Actor Oscar. I went into American Sniper thinking the star was that skinny dorky guy from The Hangover. Funny and likeable and I know the women think he’s cute, but a Navy Seal? No way.
I sat through the entire film and never once did I see Bradley Cooper. He wasn’t there. In his place was Chris Kyle. The actor disappeared into the role and inhabited the character in such a way that you forgot who the star was. That is the sign of superb acting. Bradley Cooper deserves to be nominated for the Oscar in his category.
So, while my overall criticism of American Sniper is that the real story was made into a very ‘Hollywood’ story, there are some real issues that this film rightfully touched on, issues that have bothered me as well over the past decade plus.
While it is preferable to have an all-volunteer military, the problem with that is that the enormous amount of sacrifice, by both the service members and their families, falls on a relatively small percentage of the population. The result is our fighting forces are stretched thin, most having to do multiple tours of combat which strains them, their marriages, their children, their parents, their jobs or hopes for jobs back home, and produces some exhausted soldiers. In the meantime, the rest of us go about our usual routines without any form of sacrifice whatsoever. You would never know that America is at war. It doesn’t permeate the nightly news, it doesn’t impact our daily lives, it doesn’t stop us from doing anything. This was not the case during the conflicts of the twentieth century. Even during Korea and Vietnam, most people knew someone who was in the trenches. The wars affected the folks back home. Not so this time around. If you didn’t want to think about it, you didn’t have to. Meanwhile, a small number of families were carrying the heavy burden. They did all the work, we reaped all the benefits, and we didn’t even have to acknowledge it was happening. Janet Jackson’s nipple and the Situation’s abs and Paris Hilton’s skills at oral sex and her stint in jail affected more Americans than the wars raging in the Middle-East. We’d occasionally pause before a sporting event, but even then it was because it was forced upon us, and then it was play-ball and where’s the beer vendor. Ironically, it’s been since the bulk of the troops have been pulled out of harm’s way that we’ve begun to pay attention to them. Personally, I think the bombing at the Boston Marathon had a lot to do with reminding us that there are people out there trying to do us harm.
If all you see in American Sniper is a shoot ‘em up Western, you’ll be sure to be entertained, but you will have missed some very important points the film makes. If your criticism of the film is that it glorifies war, I think you’ve missed the point as well. Was Chris Kyle an American hero? In my opinion, he is. Does this movie tell the real story? Probably not, at least not with full honesty, there’s a lot of ‘entertainment’ going on here. Lone Survivor was a better movie. Does the film touch on some very real issues of America at war in the 2000’s? It does. Putting all that aside and taking the movie simply as a piece of filmmaking, does it belong in the category of Best Picture? It does. Does it deserve to win? Probably not. Does Bradley Cooper deserve a Best Actor nomination? Definitely.
Regardless of my thoughts on Clint Eastwood’s film, Chris Kyle has my respect and my gratitude, as does his family, for their sacrifice, a sacrifice made by too many and a burden carried by too few. If it takes films like American Sniper to bring home to Americans the fact that while we were living the easy life, there were those who were sacrificing everything they had, it is a worthy endeavor.
I’ve yet to see Selma, Whiplash, The Theory of Everything, Birdman, or The Imitation Game. Stay tuned for my thoughts on those as I see them.
For my review of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood, click here.