the better truth

the better truth

Thursday, February 19, 2015

American Sniper (2015)

American Sniper (2015)
The Battle for the Home Front

“He's a psychopath patriot, and we love him”― Bill Maher on the lead character in ‘American Sniper’

“Disrespect my son and I’ll unleash hell on you,”  - Wayne Kyle, father of real life character on which ‘American Sniper’ was based speaking to Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper

“Leftists such as Michael Moore will rage on, and professors will judge the movie without seeing it — and all that backlash may cost the movie an Oscar — but Clint Eastwood has done something far greater than win an Oscar. He reached a great nation with a story it needed to hear.”  - David French commenting on ‘American Sniper’ in the National Review

“The movie ‘Sniper’ that is made by Hollywood encourages a Christian or non-Muslim youngster to harass and offend the Muslims as far as they could” - Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader

"American Sniper" lionizes the most despicable aspects of U.S. society—the gun culture, the blind adoration of the military, the belief that we have an innate right as a “Christian” nation to exterminate the “lesser breeds” of the earth, a grotesque hypermasculinity that banishes compassion and pity, a denial of inconvenient facts and historical truth, and a belittling of critical thinking and artistic expression. - Chris Hedges, Tikkun Magazine

What does it mean to be an American who sacrifices for the good of the country? This question is at the heart of Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper”, a feature which is based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle. This much decorated Navy Seal was nicknamed “Legend” for his battlefield skill as a marksman during his four tours of duty in Iraq. He holds unofficial records for being the most lethal shot in US military history. Proof of his effectiveness as a soldier can also be found in the fact that the Iraqi insurgents had a price on his head. This did not deter him from repeatedly re-enlisting despite being shot twice and surviving six separate IED explosions.  Chief Petty Officer Kyle, by all accounts, was a fearsome warrior. 

Some people divorce an individual’s record from the contentiousness of the overall conflict. This is Eastwood’s POV and it applies not simply to the battlefield but to the complete portrait of Chris Kyle’s life. Despite the advertising campaign, the majority of action takes place state-side. This film has more in common with Jane Fonda’s anti-Vietnam “Coming Home” than John Wayne’s war tribute “The Green Berets”.  It is a journey of a man striving to balance family obligations with a desire to serve his larger community. There is a flatness to the narrative as Eastwood smooths the edges of life to highlight what he perceives as the central concern, Kyle’s struggle to do ‘good’ in a sea of ambiguity. Oddly the director eschews shading any facet of the movie. Everything is designed to showcase Chris’ struggle which ironically diminishes the story by creating a cartoonish reality. 

The film opens with Chris facing the daunting decision of whether to fire on a clearly armed young mother and her child. At this point there is a flashback regarding our heroes family. The father is a fire and brimstone Christian, active in his church, who castigates anyone who lets themselves be cowed. Chris had just rescued his younger brother from a playground bully. He and his sibling bear the scars of conflict which prompts the father’s sermon on the obligation of retaliation. One feels more nervous about the blows that would have been delivered by the deacon had the older brother failed to act or the younger one had fled in fear. The most interesting aspect of this is the disconnect between the patriarch’s adherence to Jesus’ ‘turn the other cheek’ ethic, while preaching hardscrabble no nonsense, self-defense. Unfortunately Eastwood sees any momentary reflection on the father’s seemingly contradictory message to undercut the central narrative. The father is not a father so much as a prop to exhibit Chris’ tough upbringing. That childhood included the cardinal tenant of being strong against an oppressor. Eastwood sees the takeaway as Chris being imbued from birth with the mission to violently suppress bullies.  Some audience members might wonder about Chris’ attitude towards his father. He obeyed him…. but was this born of being scared or being a true believer? or both? or neither?  Eastwood wants the audience to simply accept the deacon as merely the guiding influence on Chris. A metaphor for the difficulty of the film lies this minor plot point. This seemingly simple narrative is not simple. This flaw carries over into the wider portrayal of Chris’ marriage and his conduct on the battle field.

There are two moments that reveal the context of the fighting. The first is Chris watching the news footage of the 1998 terrorist attacks in East Africa which killed hundreds of civilians and damaged two US embassies. These coordinated assaults were directed by Islamic extremists. Witnessing live footage spurs Chris to abandon his career as a hard-living cowboy and join one of the most elite units in the US armed forces. Even the most ardent civilian knows that becoming a Navy Seal tests the limits of one’s mental and physical strength. Mr. Eastwood spends a great deal of time documenting the torment of our heroes metamorphosis from tough rodeo rider into gentleman soldier. He meets a vulnerable young woman. Their wedding day presents the second moment that gives motivation for the fighting - their nuptials were near 9/11/2001 - which leads to his deployment to Iraq. There is a conveyor-like movement to the storyline in which context is trumped by desire to present a simple narrative. The unexplored cloudiness of the relationship with his father is followed by a blurriness about this his marriage and the war. Chris respected his father, loved wife and was, by all accounts, a superb soldier. These facts are distinct from his motivations for taking on the responsibilities of starting his own family and his personal feelings about the mission. Where these acts of love or obligation? Or both? Or neither? Towards the latter part of his deployment his unit brandishes a skull symbol on their uniforms and vehicles. It is a visual representation of the horror of the deployment. Yet Eastwood never delves into a discussion of the transformation of a eager patriot to a victim of PTSD. The anguish and stoicism are exhibited but never explored.  

There is a brief moment in the film where the hapless younger brother, who has joined the service in footsteps of Chris, crosses paths with his ‘legendary’ older sibling. He attempts to mask his own shell shock and showers his brother with accolades. He closes the conversation by looking around at the stark Iraqi landscape and saying something along the lines of “it’s totally fucked here”.  The older brother clearly registers that something is wrong. Eastwood shows Chris in many searing moments of pain when comrades are brutally killed, but the passing fraternal pause is the only time there is a shade of doubt about the overall mission. Once again Eastwood focuses his attention on less nuanced readings of horrific situations. Although the battles are technically complicated, the morality is less opaque. When Chris fatally shoots the woman and child, each of them is in the process of throwing a grenade at his fellow soldiers. The director has Chris hold his fire till the last possible moment. In fact there is a tense sequence where he spares the life of another young boy as he abandons his rocket launcher. Chris haltingly rejects praise from his comrades as his moral compass is rooted in knowing that war is a dirty business. He realizes he is not an innocent but he takes solace in the fact that he feels justified. He explicitly states he will defend every one of his shots to his maker when the time comes. This is admirable but one yearns for a sense of Lincoln’s famous answer to a query about whether God favored the Union cause in the Civil War: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” Chris will defend every shot.... but does that mean that he believes God will sanction his actions? Possibly, but what about his brother? Or his wife? It is the lack of bringing attention to these questions that undermines the film and gives ammunition to critics who wish to relegate the effort to being merely propaganda. The overly stylized last battle sequence sets an inappropriate tone of action-adventure heroism that crushes the important credulity of the overall story. I have no doubt about Chris Kyle’s bravery but audiences might wonder about the timing of his Iraqi exit. Did he really slay the nemesis sniper from one mile away then immediately call his wife and say “he’s had enough….he’s coming home now”? Did she really hang on the call while the dropped phone captures the James Bond-like escape with hundreds of enemy troops descending? 

Technically Eastwood deliveries a solid, albeit formulaic, film. Sienna Miller and Bradley Cooper give strong performances that rose over the emotional predictability of the script. The movie has achieved phenomenal commercial success and has won over many who are tired of feeling ashamed of proudly waving the stars and stripes. Perhaps avoiding complication is the prefect antidote to the never-ending doubtfulness of contemporary America. Our enormous wealth and technological prowess is countered by a sense of growing economic uncertainty. We are the first generation to make less and live shorter lives than our parents. We have the most powerful army in the world with science fiction-like capabilities. Yet we stumble against shadowy non-state actors that seem as ubiquitous as our Orwellian intelligence surveillance apparatus which seems to focus on ourselves as much as our adversaries. Given this setting Eastwood gives us an unvarnished, uncomplicated hero trying to do good in the morass of moral ambiguity. The closing footage of Chris Kyle’s actual Texas funeral shows how this man captured the hearts of so many. There are rows of veterans, peaces officers and first responders that literally pack a Texas-sized football stadium to say goodbye. In this sense one can view “American Sniper” as understandably one dimensional. Eastwood feels the need to prioritize the suffering of our veterans. In his view their pain trumps whether the film portrayed Muslims in an unflattering fashion. Furthermore the director feels the uncontested bravery of Chris and his comrades outweighs the need to ponder the righteousness of the war. He is not alone. The First Lady, Michelle Obama, commented on how many military families endure the numerous struggles portrayed in Mr. Eastwood’s film. True enough. Unfortunately the black title card prior to the funeral gave me pause. To paraphrase: Chris Kyle was killed while trying to help a fellow soldier in his post-war recovery.

While Eastwood’s film is setting box office records the trial of former Marine Eddie Ray Routh was commencing in the Lone Star State*. He is charged with murdering Chris Kyle and Chris’s best friend Chad Littlefield. Chris and Chad were attempting to help Mr. Routh through his own difficulties after serving in Iraq and Haiti. The film spends a great deal of time documenting Chris anguish returning state-side. Until he found comfort in helping other traumatized Vets, Chris was either in a zombie-like state of recalling the carnage or, more dangerously, drowning his sorrow in alcohol. There is a scary sequence in which Chris loses control and nearly kills the family dog in front of his children and their friends who are celebrating a birthday. Routh was also struggling but less able to control himself. Sadly the last text sent by Chris and Chad was to each other while they were in Chris’ truck with Routh. They messaged that they were nervous about Routh and both needed to watch each others’ backs.  

There is no argument that Routh committed the horrific act. There is a great deal of discussion about the culpability of Routh. There can be no logical explanation why Routh would murder two helpful strangers and then flee the scene in Chris’ vehicle. This “crazy” act of violence by a clearly mentally ill veteran does not shield him from the electric chair. According to the State’s Attorney the fact that Routh admitted in a confession that he knew he was ‘doing wrong’  makes him guilty capital murder. It is an unspeakable wrong that Routh killed these decorated soldiers but the dangers of stripping down the nuance of the situation, and ignoring the fact that Routh was not of sound mind, will amplify the tragedy. Eastwood delivers a heart-wrenching story of violence pain and sacrifice which has been scorned by some who see Chris as a simple mass murderer; just as many would see Routh as an obvious demon who needs to be put to death. It is dangerous to rush to judgement without fully understanding each person’s journey. What does it mean to be an American who sacrifices for the good of the country? The answer to that question can be found in Routh’s story as well as Chris’. There is no equivalence between these two men as soldiers. Chris was clearly a super-star who garnered massive support for his difficult actions. Routh was merely a grunt who fell victim to his dark side. “American Sniper” gives us the comfort of the former and avoids the disquiet of the latter. We can all take solace in cheering crowds gathered to remember a fallen loved one. We should also be cautious of the angry mob who cries for vengeance against an enemy. My guess is that you could fill a cheering stadium to watch the execution of Eddie Ray Routh.  Ironically Chris Kyle would be the first to person to rise up against the sea of bullies. That is the part of the story Mr. Eastwood failed to tell. We are all joined in arms, especially when we are on the home front. When we talk about Chris we need to speak about Eddie. The latter deserved more than a cue card.

* - On Feb. 25, 2015 Eddie Ray Routh was convicted of capital murder by a jury after 3 hours of deliberation. He was swiftly sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Chad Littlefield's mother said:

"We've waited two years for God to get justice for us on behalf of our son and, as always, God has proved to be faithful".

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