Sunday, February 8, 2015

I Kill Therefore I Am: Clint Eastwood's American Sniper

A number of the recent Academy Award-nominated films – all based on true stories – have come under a lot of heat regarding their historical inaccuracies. While the argument of fidelity goes without saying when it comes to documentaries, it's often understood, if not explicitly stated, that a good drama can be based on true events rather than literally depicting them. (Did anyone ever really quibble over whether The Life of Emile Zola or Lust for Life were truly accurate portraits of their subjects?) Most of the squabbling over the recent Selma, The Imitation Game, or Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, though, comes with more political baggage than the nature of Van Gogh's rivalry with Gauguin. This kind of partisan bickering also does more to obscure whether or not these movies are actually any good.

The Imitation Game, which is based on the life of British cryptanalyst Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) who helped crack the Nazi's Enigma code during WW II, has been attacked for either diminishing Turing's homosexuality, or overemphasizing it, or inventing fictional characters and perhaps altering historical events. Of course, there are alterations made, but they don't diminish the story, or harm the picture, which is one of the strongest dramas made this year. In one sense, The Imitation Game succeeds in accomplishing more believably what Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (which really played fast and loose with the life of John Nash) failed to do: illustrate how our genius is sometimes inseparable from our pathology. In the best male lead performance I've seen this year, Benedict Cumberbatch brings a brittle intensity to the story which invokes the desolate isolation that lay buried in Turing. His relentless pursuit of perfection (in creating a computer prototype) comes to reflect a deeper personal loss that he's been carrying within him from his youth. Turing's interplay with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and their fragile tone of intimacy and empathy, also has the quiet rapture of a kindredness arrived at by necessity, rather than by choice. Screenwriter Graham Moore probably put it best in a recent interview with The Huffington Post when he was asked about the question of historical accuracy, "You don't fact check Monet's 'Water Lilies.' That's not what water lilies look like, that's what the sensation of experiencing water lilies feels like."

Most of the arguing over Selma also seems to be centered on its historical accuracy which, to my eyes, is only one of its many problems. Director Ava DuVernay turns President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) into her straw man so that she can keep Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) on his iconic pedestal, and it's compounded by the fact that the picture, despite the power of its subject, has no dramatic clarity to support that decision. Unlike The Butler, which was roundly and unjustly ignored last year, Selma doesn't even capture the exultant and defiant tone of the Civil Rights struggle that was garnered from the strength of the gospel music coming out of the black churches. In Selma, where the story is conceived in the most basic forms of melodrama, the dramatic tension emerges from watching people march in a state of dread just waiting to be beaten and stomped and murdered. And even if DuVernay got more of the facts right – including the troubled, but steady, alliance between King and Johnson over black voters' rights in the South – it wouldn't have improved the film because the storytelling is painfully prosaic. (Lyndon Johnson's "We Shall Overcome" address which was the finest, most eloquent, plea of his Presidency is reduced in the end to a concession speech.) The events in Selma may be stirring, but the picture isn't.

This brings me to American Sniper, depicting the life of military marksman Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the deadliest shooter in U.S. military history who had 255 kills while serving in Iraq, and a movie about his life that has drawn more bullets for its jingoism, as well as for its factual issues. Based on the memoir by Kyle, with Jim DeFelice and Scott McEwen, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History (William Morrow, 2012), Clint Eastwood's drama doesn't have the incendiary chauvinism of a Rambo – in fact, it barely has the potency of drama. As a director, Eastwood's biggest weakness is in providing the kind of dramatic motivation that is coherent, let alone engaging. Yet unlike his lugubriously inconceivable Mystic River, or his equally improbable boxing drama, Million Dollar Baby, American Sniper has a clear blueprint for a cogent tale of the making of an American hero who just happened to be its most lethal killer. But rather than provide a psychological subtext, or a dramatic conflict that lies beneath a man who can justify his special gift as a killer, Clint Eastwood's story (based on Jason Hall's screenplay) simply boils down to: I Kill Therefore I Am. Eastwood stays outside the inner dimensions of the main character and instead presents the episodes from his life. His conflicts are only defined by the trauma of having not protected enough men while serving in Iraq. If Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2008) took us pretty far inside how a skilled bomb disposal soldier (Jeremy Renner) got addicted to the mortal danger of war, American Sniper shoots nothing but blanks by never calling into question the moral precepts that shaped Kyle's character.

Sienna Miller as Taya Renae.
Those principles are delved into in the opening scenes in Iraq where Kyle is trying to decide whether to take out a young Iraqi boy in the street who may be carrying explosives. Just as he decides whether to shoot, the picture flashes back to Kyle's childhood where his father has taken him deer hunting. After downing the animal in one shot, the father soon defines at the dinner table his world view. He sees the planet as divided into sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Making it clear that he doesn't care to raise sheep (and he backs it up with a slap from his belt on the table), or aggressive wolves, he sees his son as the sheepdog who protects the flock. A real artist would question that logic (as Martin Scorsese did in Taxi Driver by not defining the vigilante Travis Bickle as the "sheepdog" who saves Jodie Foster's teenage prostitute from the "wolf" pimp played by Harvey Keitel), but Eastwood does use it to frame Kyle's heroism which robs 9/11 and the Iraq War of both its tragic and political complexities. It deprives Kyle of his tragic dimensions, too, because the trauma he endured during his four tours of duty (which would end with his murder when he was shot and killed by a troubled veteran on a firing range back in the U.S.) actually flies in the face of the territorial imperative his father instilled in him.

Despite the impersonal aspects of American Sniper, however, Bradley Cooper gives one his most personable performances yet on the screen. Unlike the mannered scene-chewing he did in American Hustle, The Place Beyond the Pines, and Wedding Crashers, Cooper is relaxed on camera here and he shows some of the laid back humour he once displayed as the genial journalist on TV's Alias. His scenes flirting with Taya Renae (Sienna Miller), his future wife, in a bar have some of the casual comic foreplay that Eastwood himself had with Rene Russo when they played Secret Service Agents in Wolfgang Peterson's 1993 thriller In the Line of Fire. In those brief moments when American Sniper lets its guard down, as in that scene in the bar, Eastwood does some of his best directing. But when he tries to show the strain the war is putting on their marriage, Eastwood doesn't make much dramatic sense of the spiritual vacuum they share. While Cooper's Kyle is reduced to blank stares while watching a TV screen, Miller is saddled with banal scenes of fretting (featuring equally tired dialogue on the order of "I won't be here when you come back"). All we see is a repetition of the same scenes over and over with no sense of how they even saved their marriage. One psychiatric session seems to magically cure Kyle of his inner demons, which would probably come as a huge surprise to returning veterans still grappling with ghosts. (At one point, Eastwood even blows a potentially harrowing moment when the pregnant Taya is leaving the hospital and she hears her husband in the middle of a battle over the telephone. As she breaks down crying in terror, nobody in the background of the hospital entrance seems to notice her distress, or comes to her aid.)

Director Clint Eastwood with Bradley Cooper.

All the acclaim Clint Eastwood has acquired from both critics and the public over the years is due, I think, to the fact that people like to believe that they've been watching a former action star who has now evolved into a great dramatist. But the problem is that Clint Eastwood has never brought the nuances of great drama into his movies despite their subject matter. Eastwood's 'serious' pictures suffer from the same basic moralism of his Dirty Harry films, which is why, in American Sniper, he can't see the underlying flaw in Chris Kyle's stoicism, which is the blinkered parochialism he learned from his father. It's also why Eastwood can only turn up the dramatic heat when he introduces a doppelgänger for Chris Kyle in the form of Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), an equally effective sniper for the insurgents, who gets reduced to the kind of brutal serial killer that Dirty Harry used to wipe out. (When Kyle finally gets his man, it's in a typical Eastwood "make-my-day" moment.)

While American Sniper isn't a strong enough drama to earn all the controversy it continues to attract, there's no question that Clint Eastwood is maybe getting payback for his empty chair stunt at the Republican Convention a few years back when he turned the President of the United States into an invisible man. The irony, of course, is that the man in the director's chair has been more invisible in his work than the Commander-in-Chief. American Sniper may be about a man who always knew how to find his mark, but the director has yet to acquire the aim needed to deliver his.     

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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