American Sniper

american sniper poster

I didn’t really want to see American Sniper.  But a friend of mine worked on the movie and it was getting great reviews, so I decided to both support him and see what the fuss was about.  I walked away a little unsure what I thought of it.  After some reflection, I think it’s sloppily made and more than a little patronizing.

First, the easy one: technically, this movie is not one of Eastwood’s best.  A lot has been made about his . . . idiosyncratic shooting style – short days and limited rewrites.  On the one hand, his habit of only shooting a few takes, and sometimes even using the first one, is the key to the “non-actorly” performance from Bradley Cooper.  I thought Cooper was excellent, and this may be why.  On the other hand, sometimes the actor, the script, or both need some help.  I felt Sienna Miller delivered unconvincing dialogue as unconvincingly as possible – perhaps a few more tries or some dialogue tweaking would have helped.  Where Eastwood’s “efficiency” really calls into question his commitment to the craft is the (in)famous baby scene.  There’s really no excuse (although screenwriter Jason Hall offers two lame ones) for not scheduling a reshoot, since no one could argue that Cooper and Miller’s performances were somehow improved since they were holding what was obviously a doll.  A minor issue, but one that stood out to me (and proves again why my wife hates to watch movies with me these days), is the editing: the accidental match cut between Kyle kicking in a door on the left side of the screen and Mustafa exiting a door on the right side of the screen visually suggests that they are on the same street.  They’re not, as quickly becomes clear, but why frame it and cut it this way?

Now, the hard part: the “truth” behind American Sniper and Chris Kyle, and Eastwood’s responsibility as a filmmaker to tell that truth.  Acting on good advice, I’m not going to discuss this.  Others have, in great detail, in The New Yorker and on Salon.com.  It’s clear to me why Hall, despite his assertion of “doing his homework,” decided to cut some of Kyle’s less savory comments and less verifiable exploits.  Eastwood edited as well, as he apparently filmed the scene where Kyle allegedly kills two carjackers, but that did not make the final cut.

But on top of sanitizing the real Chris Kyle, the film fictionalizes his life to an almost ludicrous degree.  He never misses a shot on screen.  Once he starts escorting the Marines, none of them are injured.  Of course the first door he kicks down reveals the sheik who knows the insurgent they’re after, and of course Kyle is the one who persuades him to turn informant.  Only Kyle notices the dinner host’s battle-scarred elbow, and he alone sniffs out the weapons cache.  Is it any wonder that, despite choosing to join the military rather than be a cowboy, Kyle can still stay on a bucking bronco for the full 8 seconds?  The list goes on.  And on.

It was this combination of selective story-telling and over-the-top mythologizing that I found particularly insulting.  Rather than reflecting on the need for violence, but also acknowledging its consequences for both perpetrator and victim, the film instead takes Kyle’s already simplified autobiography and dumbs it down further.

What’s even more frustrating is that I think American Sniper could’ve been so much better.  So, rather than end here, I have two alternate proposals.  (For those keeping track, this is now the second time the title of my blog has made sense).

1.  Keep it simple: this is the story of the toll being a sniper took on Kyle, and how he was able to regain his humanity.  Cut most of his back story and focus on how hard it is to do what he does.  Kyle is dedicated (the scene where his relief realizes he pissed his pants to stay in position), but frustrated that he can’t protect everyone (the scene where he watches the Marines get ambushed inside the building where he can’t protect them).  He has to make impossible, agonizing choices (the scene with the boy and the mother and the grenade), and hates the fact that he gets questioned (the scene where the Marine JAG asks about the AK-47).  As his relationship with his wife grows more strained, experiences like his brother’s traumatic tour in Iraq and the death of his teammates convince him he has to concentrate on his role as a sniper at the expense of everything else.  It becomes increasingly clear that he doesn’t fit in back home (the excellent scene where a simple drive is cut like a car chase), and he increasingly doesn’t care (the scene where he goes to a bar, rather than his home, after returning).  But he finally begins to suffer (the scene where he doesn’t want to kill the kid with the RPG), and after a mission where he nearly dies (the scene on the roof and in the sandstorm, minus Mustafa), he decides he’s done.  After leaving the military, he suffers from PTSD (the garage “hero” scene and his chat with the VA doctor) and his relationship with his family suffers (the backyard barbecue scene).  Then he begins helping veterans (the scenes at the VA hospital and shooting range) and is redeemed (the scenes with his family) before his tragic death.

As a quick comment, I was really disappointed that Kyle’s work on behalf of wounded veterans was so underplayed.  In reality, he coordinated the donation and installation of gym equipment in veterans’ homes, and organized and even personally led hunting, fishing, camping, and shooting trips for wounded veterans.  No matter what you think of Kyle, these are unequivocally good things he did.

The original screenplay is actually closer to this than the final film is.

2.  Go pretty deep: introduce Kyle as the least reliable of unreliable narrators and embrace the controversy surrounding some of his claims:

  • His spotter leaves their position, and off-screen Kyle takes a shot.  He claims a kill, but it can’t be verified.  However, we’ve never seen him miss before, and a previous scene highlights that he never lies about shots.
  • A JAG questions Kyle about a mission, and he provides a True Detective-like recreation where his off-screen dialogue recap doesn’t exactly match the on-screen action.  Did that insurgent actually have an AK-47?
  • After leaving the military, Kyle comes home one night flustered.  He recounts the tale of his alleged carjacking to his wife, or to some veterans.  No one disbelieves it, but it’s never mentioned again.  Likewise for his story about Katrina.

This version would have to be completely even-handed (more so than, say, American Psycho, although the ending should be nearly as ambiguous).  The audience would see what they wanted to – patriot, psychopath, PTSD-sufferer – in Kyle.

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