“American Sniper” No Bueno, a Short History of Sniper Films

by Hanajun Chung  @hanajun.

Clint Eastwood is a skilled filmmaker, responsible for some of the best American classics. Personally, I think “Unforgiven” is his masterpiece, the ultimate love-letter to the Westerns of yesteryear, a genre that Eastwood himself help nurture and popularize. He’s made several great films since “Unforgiven,” but right around the time he made “Changeling,” Eastwood’s films began trending from mediocre to outright bad. For one thing, they all look muted, lacking of any color or visual personality. He primarily stays within dramas, despite featuring genre elements of war, boxing, political thriller, etc. There is a sheen of prestige that screams Oscar nomination, almost to the point of self-parody. He especially lost me with the abomination that is “Gran Torino.”

So it was to my absolute surprise when I heard “American Sniper” is poised to be the highest-grossing film of 2014, assuming “Mockingjay Part 1” doesn’t find a late-minute surge in ticket sales. I found reading the wide spectrum of debate and criticism far more interesting than the film itself, with some reactions online being downright shocking. Everyone’s entitled to his own opinion regarding the politics of the film — but let’s be honest — to say “American Sniper” doesn’t take a stance on it’s subject matter is wrong. It is how effectively the film presents its stance that is questionable.

Because to  work, “American Sniper” should fundamentally shine as a film. It is competently made, but that’s all there is to it. It adds absolutely nothing new to the genre and is ultimately a missed opportunity. “The Hurt Locker” doesn’t do anything new in the war narrative either, but  that film had impeccable direction in the set-pieces to make it stand out and memorable.  That film’s only shooter sequence outdoes all of the sniping scenes in “Sniper.”

I’m not out to pinpoint the politics and the message of the film, since many journalists, opinion writers, and cultural theorists far more qualified on the subject have eloquently debated both sides. A simple search would yield those results. Instead, I’d like to identify the  crucial elements that make“American Sniper” just another mediocre effort by Eastwood.

WHILE EASTWOOD WON’T STICK TO EXACT SAME AESTHETIC, HIS MOST RECENT FILMS CONVEY HIS VISUAL STAGNANCY.(PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY HANAJUN CHUNG

WHILE EASTWOOD WON’T STICK TO EXACT SAME AESTHETIC, HIS MOST RECENT FILMS CONVEY HIS VISUAL STAGNANCY.(PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY HANAJUN CHUNG

Weak war narrative, weak character

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN (RIGHT) IN “THE DEER HUNTER.”(EMI FILMS / UNIVERSAL PICTURES)

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN (RIGHT) IN “THE DEER HUNTER.”(EMI FILMS / UNIVERSAL PICTURES)

There have been war films and action movies about snipers.  Prior to “American Sniper,” they existed separately with the exception of one film that I’ll get to in a bit. Between the two, the war narrative is much more prevalent in cinema.

As a war film, “American Sniper” doesn’t offer anything new, even to the BASIC beats that make the soldier’s narrative:  1.) Life at home before the war 2.) Enlists with certain perceptions 3.) Horrors of War 4.) Further dehumanization 5.) The changed return.

Some of the best war films either play with these conventions (e.g. “Saving Private Ryan,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Platoon”) or embrace them in telling a complete story (e.g. “The Deer Hunter”).  “American Sniper” follows these conventions to the teeth, but only as a check mark. In fact, I’d argue that the film loses the chance to be truly compelling when it omits the death of its main character, Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper.  Instead, it’s relegated to a line of text and stock footage.  I echo  many critics  when I say it would have made a greater impact to show the “reality” of what happened. Kyle’s family might have been shaken to see that reenacted, but that’s the point. Eastwood could have used his camera in smart, yet creative ways to have Kyle’s condition represent something much more. Any film can show a character snapping at his family when he gets back, but the image of an empty stare as a soldier points a gun to his own head is incendiary.

“Fruitvale Station” isn’t a war film, but it’s similar to “American Sniper” in the way it ends. “Fruitvale Station” also ends with text and stock footage meant to outrage the viewer. However, the anger is justified in “Fruitvale Station,” since we as the audience receive enough information about the character, making  his killing an organically experienced ending.  In “Sniper” it  amounted to little more than a letdown.

Weak sniper film

JUDE LAW (ABOVE) AS VASILLI IN “ENEMY AT THE GATES”(PARAMOUNT PICTURES / MANDALAY PICTURES)

JUDE LAW (ABOVE) AS VASILLI IN “ENEMY AT THE GATES”(PARAMOUNT PICTURES / MANDALAY PICTURES)

In a film called “American Sniper,”  I was hoping for something deeper pertaining to the act of sharpshooting,  sniping or, at the very least, an all out snipe-fest. Other than one flashback to his childhood, it’s primarily glossed over. Sam Mendes’ “Jarhead” was about boredom between U.S. soldiers during Desert Storm, but the film used Gyllenhaal’s rifleman status as window to the psychology of the soldiers — how a job requiring absolute patience and discipline would affect a person, especially if they’re made to wait for their entire tour.

The best sniper movie in my opinion is “Enemy at the Gates.” It’s mostly sold as a cat-and-mouse action film that takes place during the WWII, but it’s able to be much more than that. It uses two snipers as representations of the David and Goliath dynamic.  The Russians are ill-equipped compared to the Nazis.  Jude Law’s sharpshooter character, Vasilli,  boosts the morale of the Russians who prior to Vasilli, were LOSING. Much like “American Sniper,” “Enemy at the Gates” opens with a flashback: a young Vasilli and an old man (presumably his grandfather) are in a snow-covered forest, as the boy’s scope focuses carefully on a wolf instead of a deer. Even as a cheesy metaphor, the wolf works for “Enemy at the Gates,” since it also foreshadows a later character.

In “Sniper,” Kyle’s opening with the deer only conveys he has experience with a rifle. That’s it. It’s not representative of the whole prey, predator, and justice mentality passed down by his father, since the father and Eastwood explicitly state it to the audience and young Kyle.  “Enemy at the Gates” has a big bad wolf though, in the form of Ed Harris’  Major König, The Butcher.  König and  “Sniper’s” Mustafa are supposed to be the bad, evil villains in their respective films, but only one truly earns the description.

 

“Bad” Villain

ED HARRIS AS MAJOR KÖNIG IN “ENEMY AT THE GATES”(PARAMOUNT PICTURES / MANDALAY PICTURES)

ED HARRIS AS MAJOR KÖNIG IN “ENEMY AT THE GATES”(PARAMOUNT PICTURES / MANDALAY PICTURES)

While there are enemy soldiers in “American Sniper,” the characters chase after one mysterious, deadly sniper named Mustafa. To show how evil he is, the character wears black and hides in the shadows, picking off American soldiers at oddly specific moments when they talk about their families back home. What a bastard! And shame on the enemy for sending their “best” sniper against America’s “best.” What were they thinking?!

Sarcasm aside, the film doesn’t really do much to make the audience dislike him. Admittedly, The Butcher does more than Mustafa, but the film ditches the former pretty quickly. The rivalry could’ve been interesting, but I’d argue Kyle’s character could have easily prevented the death of one his fellow soldiers if he wasn’t so bent on vengeance.

Going back to “Enemy at the Gates,” it may seem cheap to have an audience dislike a character because the man is a Nazi, since cinema has used Nazis as villains countlessly in the past. But the film  works to create character. Ed Harris’  Major König is brought in as a reaction to Jude Law’s character, Vasilli.   It’s strategy, and it’s valid, a believable cause-and-effect plotting that helps the story as well.  König and Mustafa are killers of the opposing side, but is it enough to do one’s job to create hatred from the audience?  For Harris’  König, the character is evil because his heinous actions stem from uncontrolled pride and ego. As a result, he comes off not only a terrible person, but an adversary whose defeat is wholly justified and desired, especially after he lies to a child informant, resulting in the kid’s hanging.

Based on everything I saw in “American Sniper,” is it farfetched to guess that Mustafa’s narrative is equally bad? You wouldn’t know, because “American Sniper” just puts a sign around his neck and wants the audience to blindly follow.

Fake Baby

BRADLEY COOPER AS CHRIS KYLE HOLDING THE CHARACTER’S CHILD IN “AMERICAN SNIPER”(WARNER BROS. / VILLAGE ROADSHOW PICTURES)

BRADLEY COOPER AS CHRIS KYLE HOLDING THE CHARACTER’S CHILD IN “AMERICAN SNIPER”(WARNER BROS. / VILLAGE ROADSHOW PICTURES)

The fake baby is simply inexcusable. If this were a flat-out genre film, then maybe it could work, but here — with an A-list star, director, and budget — UNACCEPTABLE.

I understand that hiring children or having babies for a production may not be the easiest task. Online, executive producer Jason Hall came out and said that the first baby was ill while the second baby didn’t show, therefore Eastwood just grabbed a doll. Let’s just say either the Prop Master or Assistant Props did the best they could, why would Eastwood obscure the baby in an earlier scene, but let that plastic doll be completely visible in the longer take? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but even though the later Twilight film failed to convincingly feature one of cinema’s oddest baby characters through CGI, at least it tried.

“American Sniper” isn’t a stage play, and to have this happen (with cuts and close-ups) during the film’s more emotional sequence is jarring, and removed me from the scene entirely. It distracts from an otherwise good performance by two leads, the only source of emotion in an otherwise bland and empty narrative. One could cut around that, and from what I remember, there was a scene in a nursery that had plenty of babies. I’m not Eastwood, and I’ll be lucky to ever have a fraction of his resources. That said, it was bad decision. You can’t ignore the baby, because it’s a living breathing character that an actor will play in later scenes. I’ll suspend my disbelief for any film, but to constantly adjust it as the film progresses is distracting, and it’s indicative of a film struggling to tell a story.

The piercing stare by Cooper in the above image is far from humorous, demanding to be taken seriously. But look what he’s holding. Now, he simply comes off crazy in the worst possible way.

In Conclusion

It’s not a complete loss. The acting is somewhat decent.  Sienna Miller and Bradley Cooper do a good job as the married couple, but their relationship is surface-level at best. The way the soldiers interact in private rings true to life, down to the team using The Punisher logo as the groups banner. The rooftops of Iraq are marvelously framed, despite being washed over in dusty and cement-colored grays. Chris Kyle as a hero isn’t false. There may be conflicting accounts to what’s real or embellished in the film, but it’s irresponsible to diminish what he and the people who serve the United States go through.

That said, “American Sniper” is an uneven war film —  even for an action film — that doesn’t do the conflict,  soldier or even the characters justice. Audiences can take whatever message or emotion they obtain from the film, since the relationship between a film and a viewer is subjective, but still sacred. I’m all for Americans using their wallets to tell the studios and production companies the type of movies they want to see, even if it makes a minimal shift away from the trend of remakes and reboots.

I was just hoping they would do it for a better movie.

 

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This entry was published on January 12, 2015 at 5:12 pm. It’s filed under Opinion, Reviews, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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