March 7, 2015

American Sniper

Went to a screening of American Sniper last night, a biopic of US Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle directed by Clint Eastwood. As someone who views the US military with skepticism, and is also not religious, I couldn't fully appreciate Kyle's motivations for joining the Navy, or see the virtue in his continuing to fight even after so much death and carnage, both on the US side, and the Iraqi side (him being personally responsible for the deaths of over 160 people).

At the same time, I can see how audiences could cheer on Bradley Cooper as he picks off enemy after enemy with precision (literally killing it at his job), and admiring his character's unwavering stance on protecting his country and honoring God's will. (I'm sure this is what has led to explosive box office in the States.)

The story is told solely through Kyle's experience, and you see little evidence of him considering the larger repercussions of war. When Kyle returns to Iraq for a fourth tour of duty despite the protestations of his wife, his main motivation is to avenge the death of a comrade. Some may see this as honorable, but I saw it as a forced myopia that allows soldiers to keep doing their job. This is enforced by stray storylines of soldiers becoming despondent when they start questioning the aims of war, leaving the army, or even committing suicide.

These contrasting reactions are made possible by the opacity of Bradley Cooper's central performance. I'm trying to figure out how much of it was intentional; I feel like a more skillful actor could have been more emotionally transparent, even while playing a shellshocked, taciturn war vet. When the protagonist is a big, wooden hunk of a person, it rather takes away from the watchability of the film, but it also allows viewers to project their own ideas of war onto the film.

Despite these points of interest, I was disappointed by how pedestrian the film is overall. Many scenes are staged with a surprising lack of originality: the obligatory boot camp montage, where the recruits are called "ladies" and hosed down with ice-cold water; the way you know a soldier is going to die when he says, "I bought a ring for my girl". So few Hollywood films manage a fresh interpretation of the war movie.

So yeah, while I didn't particularly enjoy the film, it certainly has the ability to generate interesting discussions.

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