Ballad of Some Soldier

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I’m not at all a guy hides his politics. I’m extremely nonchalant about them and I’m even able to usually circumvent them when I’m enjoying movies (though I do point out when I disagree with a picture). But no, it doesn’t take much to cover up the fact that I lean a little bit more liberal than conservative most times. It’s no shock that I am against the Iraqi War or the aggressive militarization of the U.S. It’s a little bit of a shock maybe that I’m not fond of the automatic hero worship of US soldiers – I don’t think the act of going to a war immediately qualifies you as a shining white morally upstanding person, but the actions you perform under that pressure are it. It’s not the uniform, it’s the character within it.

And of course, I read Chris Kyle’s American Sniper autobiography prior to the movie’s release and fought not to ragequit it. The idea that a guy is going to brag about taking lives – not the ones that actually threatened American Soldier Lives, but uncorroborated accounts of killing car thieves and getting off because of his Veteran status or picking off looters on the SuperDome during Katrina – that’s kind of reprehensible. There’s a really violent mentality fueled by Hoo-rah the entire book that felt like the type of bro-ish attitude I simply don’t have any stomach for. As well as the undercurrent of xenophobia and racism that was really transparent. The world is not black and white and I don’t think Kyle is an out-and-out bad person, considering his work with FITCO Cares helping veterans and their families. But I don’t think he’s a man I would have enjoyed being in the company of. And I wouldn’t call him a hero.

Getting a movie about him is a pretty tough thing, because I’m pretty dismissive towards my biases, but most people aren’t. American Sniper is a movie which I can’t really take most people’s opinions about seriously because half of us walked in with the pre-conception that Kyle is a GODDAMN ‘MURIKAHN HIRO and the movie better celebrate that! And others with the baggage of Kyle’s book being pretty unreadable and expecting the movie to be propaganda from the crotchety old white man, Clint Eastwood. Politics turn people into gargoyles, most people don’t want to entertain any thought outside their own.

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You know who else was against the Iraqi War?

Clint Eastwood. I know it’s hard to remember because Eastwood talked to a chair, but he’s anti-Iraqi War (and pretty much every war since Korea), anti-militarization, and pro-gun control. And a man as easily pissed off as he is is not going to make propaganda simply because its subject died in the middle of the movie’s development or Kyle’s father – the poor shmuck – threatened Eastwood.

I didn’t see American Sniper as a gleaming portrait of an American hero, the self-proclaimed “Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History”. I saw it as, frankly, Frankenstein. Not an overt, obvious Frankenstein tale, but one of the many other movies that portrays a man as having to eschew his humanity to do the things he does.

Think about how we first meet Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) as a child remembering only two primary things from his dad – how to fire a gun and that “if you’re not a hero I’m gonna beat the shit out of you” (or something along those lines, they’re muddled by dad blatantly pulling out his belt ready to kick his son’s ass for giving the wrong answer). It’s easy to see that these are things Kyle takes to heart as principal and before long we see Kyle become a Navy SEAL and the movie follows his four tours in Iraq.

And for the entire length of his military career, he has tunnel vision for three values: God, Country, and Family. Cooper, in a career-best performance, lets that be the only window to how Kyle more and more crafts himself into a macho machine when in the presence of anyone other than himself, but when he is by himself with his own thoughts – it’s a lot more emptier, trying to break off the haunted voices and noise in his head (it’s always a waiting game for him to go back on tour with the troops, he cannot stick around in his house, and we see that coiled tension with every homelife scene – added by the weight Sienna Miller is able to give those scenes despite how thankless her role as Army Wife is). I’m very disappointed in the Academy not giving Sniper that Sound Mixing Award when this movie has warped my idea of a powertool hearing it intermingled with a child’s scream.

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Don’t get me wrong: the movie isn’t bleeding its heart out for Kyle. In spite of settling itself exclusively in Kyle’s broken point of view (without agreeing with it – y’know, like movies can and often do), the movie is ready to indict him of living his life this way whenever it can: three weighty scenes of characters questioning how bottlenecked his values are (one of which is his wife and another is his son) and threatening to break his fantasy and he’s only able to stonewall them or become extremely perplexed that people could possibly have a different idea about the war being for freedom and everything. Even once he’s actually being given random praise by folks as though war was a game, he just becomes uncomfortable – seeing himself given the nickname “Legend” feels like something he doesn’t think he earned. I think this attitude of the character is the primary deviation from Kyle’s autobiography – there’s no way a guy as uneasy by people approaching him to tell him how he’s a hero would possibly be ok with publishing his own exploits in such a bragging fashion (for the record, most of the similarities between the film and the book are the basics of the content – peoples’ names, that dude was sniper, etc., and one scene where he is accused of killing a man holding a Qur’an. There is one scene I was kind of disappointed to see omitted where Kyle pops inflatable balls that Taliban float on water on, but no way a movie this grim would allow that humor). The most damning moment is where Kyle is shown nearly beating his pet dog in front of his kids and friends, one that clearly show mental scarring to the point of violent impulses. I don’t even get how that scene rarely comes up in conversations about the movie.

Not only that, but the movie’s whole climactic finale is based on a blind rage on Kyle’s part where his “slaying the dragon” ends up nearly costing more U.S. lives than would have been necessary and seconds later he’s hyperventilating realizing he’s about to die. It’s the only breaking point the movie gives Kyle.

It’s not about a guy who’s an American hero. It’s about a guy who does dubious things that he believes are right and suffers from PTSD but refuses to accept that because it’s not something manly for him to go through. It’s practically a tragedy in all the ways people don’t seem to realize.

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But it’s also still got some big flaws. The most obvious ones being the production quality of it – the film editing and sound work is a surrounding scape of the dried-out tired atmosphere of a war zone that’s on the verge of collapse by the time Kyle joins, but the rest of it is… well, we’ve all by now heard every joke possible about the most obviously fake baby in US history. And that’s not all – we can call out the fake CGI, the fake background explosions, fake choppers, fake bullets (in very damning slo-mo), fake blood splatters… all looking like a production from 1991 rather than 2014. It is maybe the finest Wal-Mart movie I’ve ever seen, but I mean Wal-Mart as a really pointed barb.

There’s also the obvious question of whether or not the movie is racist, which… yeah, it kind of is. Being a movie that dedicates itself to the perspective of somebody who spends the movie killing Iraqis obviously means one has to hold them at a distance, but that doesn’t dig its grave so much as a necessity. What inarguably does is how the movie goes out of its way to establish an Iraqi character as genial and amicable to the SEALs before revealing he was hiding a cache of weapons and that he’s in fact another one of dem dadgum eevil turrists, implying such immediate distrust is well-founded and that even the best meaning of any Iraqi is undoubtedly someone who means you harm. Hell, there’s a scene that feels straight out of Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy where the Iraqi citizens go after the retreating SEALs yelling indiscernable nonsense (and this is coming from a guy who speaks Arabic) and waltzing towards them like a fucking zombie movie. Then there’s the whole thing about The Butcher (Mido Hamada), a caricature of Islamophobic stereotypes practically made into some sort of laughable supervillain/horror movie slasher without any real-world basis. It’s like having the Mandarin in Iron Man and claiming “Oh, we’re not being that reductive of the Asian-Americans”.

“Moustafa” (Sammy Sheik), a rival sniper from Syria who Kyle spends most of the movie chasing after, is kind of another story. Moustafa essentially feels like a remnant back when Steven Spielberg was signed on to make the movie – his version of American Sniper would have been one with a duel perspective between Moustafa and Kyle (Kyle never engaged in combat with Moustafa in real life) in a cat-and-mouse game. I honestly would have liked to see that movie, but in Eastwood’s version of American Sniper, Moustafa is just another video game boss for Kyle to encounter often. It’s not exactly the source of the movie’s racism, but it sucks to see a character intended to be a rich source of the moral grey this story yearns for, cut down to another background Muslim baddie.

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But of course, the biggest fault out of this movie is the fact that it’s clear Eastwood’s motivations and the motivations of the producers of American Sniper (who actually were friends with Kyle and must have had his death fresh in their mind) are like oil and water at points – Eastwood has to please the Kyle estate by letting movie version Kyle play out as an American fantasy yet is not going to let his work in Flags of Our Fathers/Letters to Iwo Jima be undone by a lack of moral questions in this picture. The most jarring event in the whole movie’s runtime is its end where it telegraphs in the most obvious fashion that Kyle is going to have a shocking and tragic death (shady guy with hat hiding his face in an ominous zoom in, uncharacteristically happy family time before meeting with a veteran, etc.) and then follows up with undoing most of the movie’s discomfort with the labels of “hero” or “legend” by having footage of his funeral interspersed with family photos. It felt slapdashed in the worst way, like I was attending the funeral of a barfly I barely knew, and I’m certain it was more of Kyle’s widow Taya’s idea than Eastwood’s. Which isn’t a very bad thing to want to honor your friend/husband/son (didn’t we just praise a similar ending earlier this year with Furious 7? And last I checked, Paul Walker didn’t serve) but it is winking and an anti-thesis to everything Eastwood’s work had been leaning towards.

I can’t blame anybody for missing the point when a movie is so at conflict with itself like that: it means most audiences who come in with bias are going to leave unchanged. You might even think them validated. If you’re walking in thinking “Oh, this is going to be propaganda 101”, you’re going to walk out still thinking so from Kyle’s persona and the Arab stereotypes. If you’re going to walk in thinking “yeah, we get a real perspective from the war”, you’re gonna walk out thinking it again. Islamophobe? In and out. Hate American jingoism? In and out.

But I still feel the point was missed by both detractors and apologists for the movie. And I still think it’s dumb that there was a whole “Us vs. Them” Oscar race at the time between American Sniper and Selma (for the record, I was leaning towards Selma, but I loved both movies). And I can’t help thinking the movie they saw wasn’t the movie on the screen.

Talking with anyone about American Sniper is an unwelcome feeling and I’d certainly be ok when people are open to the conversation in maybe 5 or 10 years, but nobody’s ready to listen now. We’re kind of thirsty for blood ourselves.

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