Archive for February, 2015

A Note on “American Sniper”

February 21st, 2015 No comments

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 11.40.50 PM If the talk on the Internet over the controversies surrounding the movie American Sniper were audible, it would be deafening. The controversy, of course, calls into question the veracity of the “true story” while accusing Chris Kyle of being a lying, blood-thirsty, jingoistic racist. If you want to read all the inaccuracies in the movie or all the ways Kyle is not the offspring of a bald eagle and apple pie, then Google it. There are plenty of articles that challenge the entire time line laid out in this film.  BUT, I don’t want to talk about that. Going after a decorated soldier based on this film would be unfair.  I want to change the conversation. Instead of focusing on truthiness, let’s focus on poorly written, ham-fisted story telling from the writer and director.

The opening scene starts on a rooftop, Chris Kyle prone with a sniper rifle cradled in his shoulder as he watches over Marines going door to door. It’s a tense scene that focuses on the sniper dilemma of making the calculated decision to kill an individual while spying suspicious characters approaching the Marines.  And to make this moment an even greater moral issue, it’s a woman and child in his cross hairs.Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 11.40.06 PM

It’s a great way to introduce the Chris Kyle character. A large bearded All-American with his backward baseball hat, sitting in a sniper’s nest guarding fellow Americans on the ground like the watchful eye of God. Then we cut back to his past with tension in our shoulders, left wondering, “will he kill that mother and child?” This is the best the story telling will get in this film.

When we cut back to his childhood we are served up nostalgic scenes constructed with as much subtlety as Eastwood wrapping a Bible in an American flag and hitting you in the face with it. We are treated to a painful speech from his father about three types of people in the world; The Wolves (bad guys), The Sheep (ignorant pacifists) and The Sheep Dog (the selfless protector of the sheep against the wolves and the only one allowed in the Kyle household).

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 11.39.36 PMTheoretically, based on the conventions of screenwriting, this flashback is completely necessary for laying the foundation of Kyle’s character. But the execution was poorly staged with stale performances. This childhood sequence is indicative of the problems that persist throughout the film. There is a complete lack of subtlety and nuance. Ignoring all use of subtext, the dialogue written for soldiers consists of them directly praising Kyle, but he is of course never fully satisfied with his contributions. He wants to go house to house! And we know it’s the deadliest job there because a fellow SEAL tells us immediate, also saying the soldiers on the ground just “feel invincible” with him on over-watch. So just in case we missed it, Kyle is a selfless sheep dog that will gladly volunteer for the deadliest job to “get the bad guys.” And you could have missed it, because you know, subtlety.

It’s as if the Department of Defense commissioned the film as they did with Capra and Stevens and other American filmmakers during WW2. I felt the troubles a returning soldier faces at home were glossed over. At one point, in a car repair shop, his time home felt like what we could call a “humblebrag.” A soldier approaches Kyle, telling him that Kyle saved his life in Iraq by pulling him from a building. Kyle seems off-put and uncomfortable with the praise, especially when the soldier leans down to tell Kyle’s son that his dad is a really hero. It’s one of those, “man, I am an amazing person and saved so many people I can’t even remember all my heroics, but geez, all the praise just makes me uncomfortable, you know? Heavy lies the crown of The Legend” type of moment.

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The final showdown is with Kyle and the elusive Iraqi super-sniper Mufasa. Like I said above, let’s forget that this never actually happened in real life and is just added for dramatic tension. We need to evaluate this again based on the writing of a fictional film.

Kyle sets up on a rooftop, surrounded by enemy combatants, and is anticipating the presence of this nemesis. When Mufasa makes the mistake of killing a Marine, Kyle is made aware of his location, sets up with his rifle and takes aim. Now, just in case we need to be reminded of his level of sheer awesomeness, he measures out 1800 yards. Another soldier says, “pfft, you can’t even see that far out.” Then he corrects himself, “Nope, it’s 2100 yards.” Is that tough? Well, let’s ask the soldier next to him who conveniently tells the audience (I mean Kyle!) that 2100 yards is over a mile. “An impossible shot.” Yeah! Impossible for some God-Damned Sheep maybe! But we’ve a got a freakin’ Sheep Dog here!!

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 11.55.16 PMHe fires, perfect head shot! This alerts the combatants to their whereabouts and a firefight ensues (with a sand storm bearing down on them). But Kyle can’t participate in helping his fellow soldiers for long because now that he’s killed Mufasa, he needs to bust out the SAT phone to call his wife and let her know that now he is ready to come home. You know, like you do when a swarm of jihadists are shooting your comrades-in-arms all to Hell!

It was a bizarre climatic scene that made me actually laugh. I was over this film far before this moment, but it was the second bookend, complimenting the childhood flashbacks. It just reinforced my feelings and I was left thinking that people must be flocking to the theaters out of some sort of patriotic duty, or maybe for Bradley Cooper, because I guarantee it is not for the brilliant story telling. And I’m telling you all, it’s okay to say you don’t like this film. It doesn’t mean you hate America, it means you value quality filmmaking.

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