Sunday, February 22, 2015

American Sniper

     Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, based on Chris Kyle’s memoir, happens to be the most widely seen movie up for the Oscar and, therefore, the one that may draw the most viewers.  It blends both the coming of age and the war genres to yield a highly suspenseful story, even for those who know the
outcome.  It’s also one of the few studio big budget hit movies about the Iraqi War.  And, actually about the war, rather than an allegory for it like most of the superhero movies that have dominated the public consciousness, especially those featuring a group of heroes.  

     American Sniper follows a number of plot mechanics and tropes (i.e. clichés attached to a specific genre) that go back to Gary Cooper in Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941).  These include:  the God-fearing child learning to hunt for dinner; commitment to saving American soldiers’ lives by using his lethal God-given talents; the love of a good woman; ambivalence about either the war or his role in it; ambivalence eventually quenched; a newly found serenity.  Add on the later device of the woman who says, “If you go back, I won’t be here.”  She’s always there when he returns.  The significant 
Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo
in The Best Years of Our Lives
exception I can think of is Virginia Mayo’s character in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) so she pays by being portrayed as a slut.  The ‘80s brought Tom Cruise learning a lesson – generally maturity – after his more interesting, but less photogenic best friend is killed.  These are lined up here and they almost – almost because Eastwood is a master of genre archetypes drenched in ambivalence – work here.  What’s ironic or meta-theatrical about American Sniper is that these real life characters follow situations that have been demarcated in fiction.  

Cooper and Miller as the Kyles
     Where the movie really takes off is in the acting.  Bradley Cooper pulls off the Texas accent without making much of a deal about it.  His snarkiness, which was so funny in Kitchen Confidential (2006 – 07), has been replaced completely with sincerity.  Anger has been one of his acting fortes and he internalizes it here a way that’s understated in an Everyman way, unlike his explosiveness for David O. Russell.  He has changed himself physically to closely resemble Kyle.  It’s a consummate transformation. He neither patronizes nor dumbs down, but I hope he doesn’t brush away his funny and wild sides the way Cooper unfortunately did.  Sienna Miller, sharp featured like Parker Posey and with muscular loose limbs like Hillary Swank, may have found the role that will make me remember her face.  The two of them are fresh and diametrically opposed in their temperaments for the first half.  They have to overcome the writing in the second half of the movie when we know just where their relationship is going and they just about pull it off.  Cooper’s best scenes are with Jonathan Groff as a veteran whose life he saved, but whom he doesn’t (want to?) remember and with a group of vets at the VA.  He expresses a wide range of emotions through his physical tension.

Bradley Cooper and Luke Grimes
      Eastwood mixes the western genre with the war genre very successfully.  It’s no coincidence that Cooper’s nemesis is costumed in black.  There are a number of scenes where the Marines and Seals walk down dusty streets with guns seen and unseen pointing at them and locals who may be helpful or villainous.  The sandstorm scene calls up memories of Sergio Leone’s ‘60s trilogy of masterworks that made Eastwood a superstar.  Strong female characters that aid or challenge the male hero have been Eastwood mainstays.  Miller provides that dualism here as Taya Kyle.  I just wish she had one excellent scene in the last half hour of the movie.  Eastwood has usually found intriguing fresh faces for his movies and he does so again.  Luke Grimes as Marc Lee and Jake McDorman as Ryan ‘Biggles’ Job have been around on TV for a few years, but it’s the first time we’ve seen them and they’re both compelling and very different in looks and acting style from Cooper’s Kyle.  If Kyle’s the heart, then Lee’s the brains, and Job’s the soul of this military unit.  

    There’s been controversy over the movie’s politics and I don’t get it.  This is about the military and soldiers have to be committed to their mission or they’re sunk.  That’s explicated later in the movie when a major character is killed.  A number of characters express complex thoughts about the war and 
A Call From Fallujah
the issue of PTSD is handled head on.  Whatever viewers may think about the war, at the very least an excellent movie is showing it to them.  The ambivalent characters’ and audience’s reactions make this seem like it could be Vietnam, rendering it less specific and more timeless.  However, one caveat we had which relates to its contemporaneousness is that Chris calls Tara at the most inopportune times.  It feels like texting and driving in Fallujah.


Bridgenut said...

This is a wonderful critique of the film, Eric, and I may just go to see it or see it ondemand. However, I can't remember any awards it received last night except being nominated for best film!

Dexter said...

Thanks! It did win one Oscar for Sound Editing, which was well-deserved. We hope you get to see it.