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Every war has its heroes who are used to symbolize the conflict and try and bring it meaning in some way.
The Great War had Sgt. Alvin C. York who led a raid on a German machine gun nest, killing 28 soldiers and taking captive more than 100 others.
His story was turned into a movie starring Gary Cooper that was used to support American’s entry in World War II (it was playing in the theaters as Pearl Harbor was being bombed).
The Second World War had Audie Murphy, who became a hero after holding off a company of German soldiers and then leading a counterattack, all the while wounded and out of ammunition.
Murphy became a movie star after the conflict was over, starring in such films as The Red Badge of Courage and The Quiet American, as well as a series of B westerns. He also played himself in the film To Hell and Back.
In the Viet Nam war we had Ron Kovic, memorialized in the book and movie Born on the Fourth of July, and played by Tom Cruise in the film.
And now we have Chris Kyle who became a sniper in the Iraqi War (or whatever we’re calling the conflict) and was credited with more than 160 kills.
I have to be honest here and say that though there is much to admire in the movie technically (it’s certainly a well put together film), I found it all, well, somewhat disturbing.
York first tried to avoid joining the army, citing religious beliefs, and afterwards, in looking back, didn’t quite see the point of it all, coming to the conclusion that not much of anything was resolved.
Murphy suffered from PTSD, had violent mood swings, slept with a gun under his pillow and became addicted to sleeping pills.
And Kovic, shot and paralyzed, restricted to a wheelchair, grew very bitter about the war and became outspoken in his opposition.
Kyle, however, was a bit of a different kettle of fish, at least as dramatized in the new movie, American Sniper, written by Jason Hall (based on an as told to autobiography of the patriotic Navy SEAL), directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper in the title role.
Up until the finals days of Kyle’s life, he never seemed to waiver from his beliefs in not just everything he did, but perhaps more importantly, everything his country did. He never doubted, he never had second thoughts. His job was to get the bad guys and save his fellow soldiers, to protect his country and prevent the enemy from coming to Santa Monica (or some city like that, I can’t remember which location he actually stated in the film), and to be true to his personal beliefs.
And all that he did.
Early on, when Kyle is but a barefoot boy with cheek of tan, his father tells him that there are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs, and that sheepdogs are supposed to protect the sheep from the wolves. It’s obvious that the inference here is that Kyle is to be a sheepdog.
And somewhere about here, I started thinking: How nice it must be to know, to just know. To be so sure and to never have any of those doubts, any of those second thoughts. To just know, even if others don’t.
And to always be invariably right as well, right about who the sheep are, who the sheepdogs are, and most importantly, who the wolves are. And to know that there are never any grey areas and that wolves are always and absolutely wolves (or savages, as Kyle constantly calls them), never anything but, and that the three types never bleed into one another, just on one another.
To be so…so certain about everything. How nice that must be.
There’s a significant scene somewhere in the middle of the story where one of Kyle’s fellow soldiers asks Kyle about the Bible he always has with him. The buddy asks whether Kyle just carries it to stop bullets or whether he has ever actually looked inside it.
Kyle deflects the remark with a joke and the Bible is never referred to again.
But I had to think what a perfect metaphor for Kyle’s life. He carries around his beliefs about America, the war, his duties as a soldier, but I’m not sure he ever looked inside them and really tried to grapple with what they mean.
The movie never even deals with the irony that Kyle is proud to be involved in a war to take on the enemies of America (those who are threatening to come to Santa Monica or whatever city it was), even though he is fighting against a country that wasn’t responsible for the event we used as the excuse to invade them.
Even when Kyle accidentally runs into his younger brother (one of the sheep) and finds him devastated by his experience, and his brother says to him, “Fuck this war”, Kyle is not challenged, just puzzled. (Interestingly enough, we never see this brother again.)
And when he returns home, the war over for him, as he’s suffering the aftershocks, his issues are never existential. His PTSD is purely physical. Again, he never has any second thoughts about anything he has done.
He’s ready to meet his maker and stand behind every life he took.
I don’t know what to make of all of that except to say, once again, that I found it all rather…disturbing.
Not about what he did. As far as I can tell, he really can stand before God and account for the righteousness of every shot.
What I find disturbing is the lack of any reservations or qualms or inner-existential conflict he has about it.
I mean, even Jesus had second thoughts in the Garden of Gethsemane about being crucified.
So I just don’t know what to make of a person like Kyle.
As for the movie itself, Cooper gives a very solid and creditable performance, often disappearing into this good old boy of a character. There are moments when you look into Cooper’s eyes and he just seems to the Alamo born.
The story is well told and easy to follow and it’s never boring. The set, costumes, background all feel incredibly authentic.
And there are some exciting and well done second unit scenes of battle. Perhaps this is the film’s strongest aspect, the clear dramatization of the day to day life of a soldier in Iraq. No matter what else the movie may be, it definitely feels incredibly real.
The screenplay did seem to have some issues finding a solid through line to tie the whole thing together with. In the end, it settles on Kyle’s need to get a sniper on the other side, the mysterious Butcher, who is just as deadly and deadly accurate as Kyle is.
Once our hero does that, he can finally start to let go of the war and go home.
I admit it feels a little forced and Hollywoodish, but it does help give the movie a backbone to hang everything else off of.
The weakest aspect of the film is the portrayal of Kyle’s better half, Taya (Sienna Miller). She seems a bit too familiar, a bit too much of the stereotypical “those also serve who sit and wait” wife who never seems to have a life of her own in films like this and often seems more a construct than a real person.
Though this does give more interest to a scene in Iraq in which The Butcher is preparing to go to “work” and his long suffering wife just sits there with their little baby—women are women, and wives are wives, and they’re always the same no matter what country you’re from in a movie.
Eastwood’s direction is pretty much what is always is, mainly invisible. I’ve always felt he never really brings much of anything to the films he gets behind the camera on except to get it done. I’ve never found much of a personality to his films (and I’ve never understood why everyone gives him so much praise for his directorial work).
At the same time, I’m not necessarily saying that this is a bad thing. It does tend to let the screenplay do more of the work (and there are times when I wish more directors would emulate Eastwood’s approach).
And because of this, since this is one of his better screenplays, I do think this is one of his better films, up there with Letters from Iwo Jima.
But I think in the end, how you feel about the movie will depend on how you feel about Kyle himself and the film’s somewhat neutral approach to telling his story.
If you have no issue with his certainty principle outlook on life, you may find the movie thrilling, riveting and profound.
But if you are more like me, I think you might find it all a bit more…well, as I said, disturbing.
With Jonathan Groff of Glee and HBO’s Looking as a war vet who has lost a leg.