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.
Weak war narrative, weak character
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
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.
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.
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.
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.