Dealing Death from a Distance
In the politics of prizes, The Hurt Locker did better than its deserts, though Mark Boal’s script admittedly dealt up a most eloquent supermarket sequence. Not since The Deer Hunter, however, has Hollywood done such justice as American Sniper to polemical wars’ psychological damage to the young men who wear the country’s boots on the ground. But many claimed that director (and song composer) Clint Eastwood moved away from the 2011 book and from the truth of PTSD.
In that co-written autobiography subtitled “Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History” -- more than a hundred fifty confirmed kills and an enemy bounty on his head -- Navy SEAL Chris Kyle did not broach questions of morality, either of war in itself, of the particular Operation Iraqi Freedom or of the job of a sniper. The publication garnered a rainbow of response, not regarding literary merit but about extremes from protecting our soldiers to cowardly shooting from hiding to pointing out that to Nazis partisans in Poland were also “insurgent terrorists.”
Seeming tacked on, the supremely ironic ending adds to, rather than detracts from, what is obvious throughout but which detractors would deny. Whatever may be its maker’s politics, AS is not pro- or anti-war.
More than, say, Enemy at the Gates or Saving Private Ryan, this hundred thirty-four minutes is much concerned with combat killing and what it does to those who do such dirty work. There is no consideration of political right or wrong, just or unjust, one man’s hero being another’s villain. An innate deadeye shot, the boy Chris Kyle (Cole Konis) is taught by dad Wayne (Ben Reed) and will in turn instruct his own Colton (Max Charles). Square-jawed Bradley Cooper as the good ol’ Texas hellraiser he grows into, is pushed by 9/11 to go from rodeo broncobuster champion to the toughest of SEAL boot camp trainees. Patriotism is the motivation, the unquestioning sort that reasons that Iraqis and Afghans must be kept from overrunning San Diego or New York.
Along the way, he woos, marries and in a three-day honeymoon before deployment impregnates Taya (Sienna Miller). In Iraq the other half of his rooftop sniper teams resting in the shade, he stays helmetless in the scalding sun, scanning empty streets through binoculars and high-powered rifle scopes. Whether or not to squeeze the trigger, to kill, and whom, is for him to decide, and though he does not hesitate, he hopes that a young boy will not force his hand. Not content with protecting his countrymen from above, he joins marines on the ground. The hunt for leader Zarqawi, enforcer Butcher (Mido Hamada) and insurgent terrorist sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) becomes personal vendetta as he becomes the living Legend to U.S. forces and al-Shaitan to locals, the Devil with a reward for his death.
In a dramatic stretch, several of his cell phone calls home resound with firefight chaos that terrifies Taya. Between four tours of duty, visits home are fraught with tension. His adrenalin and blood pressure elevated, he is edgy, incapable of relaxing or forgetting; outwardly calm, he snaps at a barking dog and is cold with his wife, for whom he is “not here, absent” as husband, lover and father. Even at the end, when he is “cured” and reaching out to help other mentally and physically scarred vets, ostensibly joking he pulls a phallic pistol to order her to drop her drawers. He is blinkered about what is happening to love and family, and a viewer is justified to wonder about the honesty of his last-minute screen salvation.
Time, place and political winds determine reactions to war movies. Those made here (and in Japan) during the late 1930s and the ‘40s are often memorable even despite blatant propaganda, jingoism and racism. American Sniper steers relatively clear of such baggage, which is in viewers’ minds but not in the film. On combat as it exists today, and on its often unconsidered damage to combatants as well as to innocent civilians, Eastwood has managed an exciting and a true and a sad sobering piece.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated “R” for strong disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.)