Oscars 2014 Best Picture Review: American Sniper

American Sniper appears to be the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) but it's a lot more.

American Sniper appears to be the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) but it’s a lot more.

If you think that this war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong. You can only circle the flames so long.

It’s easy to dismiss American Sniper as a pro-war movie at first. Especially when you see the attitude of its protagonist. However if you watch it from beginning to end you will see that it’s a lot more than a tale of a sharpshooter and may not be as pro-war as you think.

The film begins in 2003 during the Iraq war where US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle sees a civilian woman pass a huge grenade to her 8 year-old son and is about to shoot. Before he pulls the trigger, we flash back to an 11 year-old Chris who impresses his father with his ability to shoot a deer from long range. His father teaches him about the three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Chris decides to be a sheepdog, especially to his lamb-like younger brother. In his early 20’s, Chris decides to be a rodeo cowboy until a bullriding accident leaves him with injuries he can’t recover from.

While sidelined, he witnesses on the TV news an incident that will change his life: the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by al-Qaeda. It’s then he decides to become a Navy SEAL. At first they were reluctant to accept him but agreed upon being impressed with his shooting skills. During his training he bumps into Taya Renee at a bar. Taya is not interested because her sister dated a Navy SEAL and he ended up being a complete asshole. Nevertheless he impresses Taya to the point she dates him. Soon after, 9/11 happens. Chris marries Taya soon after and is deployed as a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq during the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It’s there where it really begins.

At the beginning of his first mission comes the mother and son as seen at the beginning. Kyle shoots the son first only to see the mother take the grenade and carry on. He has to shoot her, causing her to throw the grenade while shot causing an explosion. The experience of shooting the two leaves Chris upset to the point of tears but he has to continue his duty. Kill after kill earns him the nickname ‘The Legend’ by his US comrades. It also makes himself a target of al-Qaeda’s where they offer for $80,000 for anyone who kills him. Al-Qaeda even have a top sniper of their own in Iraq after him and he uses and SVD. During his first mission, he is given the mission to hunt for an al-Qaeda leader named al-Zarqawi and hunts house after house for information leading to him or his second-in-command nicknamed ‘the Butcher.’ A father and son give helpful information but plans go chaotic as The Butcher locates the father and son and drills into their heads leaving them for dead. Chris was unable to defend because of sniper fire, overheard by a pregnant Taya during a phone call, preventing him from performing any action of rescue.

Chris returns to Taya in time for the birth of his son Colton. Chris tries to be a family man at home but Taya notices he’s distraught by the memories and even watching bootleg videos of marines shot in battle. Taya tells him she wants him to commit to his family. But Chris feels he has to serve again where he’s now promoted to Chief Petty Officer. This time he’s involved in a battle with The Butcher. After killing him, Chris returns home to Taya, Colton and his newborn daughter. However it’s obvious the war has affected Chris with his hostile reaction in the maternity ward when her daughter’s crying. Chris becomes increasingly distant with his family. He leaves for a third mission and his brother Jeff is also part of it too. However Chris is hugely affected by the injuries sustained by one of his US comrades part of the unit. The mission continues but Chris witnesses his fellow SEAL shot to death in the gunfire.

Chris returns home but not to his wife and family. He returns for the funeral of his fallen SEAL. Much to the heartbreak of his wife, Chris feels he has to return again in his fellow SEAL’s honor and complete the mission. During the fourth mission, the team learns the alias of the al-Qaeda sniper after them and Chris: Mustafa. Chris is assigned to take him out and is placed on the roof of a building in enemy territory. It’s very risky since killing Mustafa could put Chris and his comrades in enemy firestorm. Nevertheless Chris must do it, especially since a sandstorm is sensed from miles away. Chris spots Mustafa from almost two kilometers away and shoots. It’s a hit: the eighth-longest sniper kill of all-time ever recorded. But the enemy gunfire occurs just as the sandstorm approaches and while Chris is talking to Taya. Right during the sandstorm, Chris struggles to jump on the jeep but succeeds in time and tells Taya: “I’m coming home.”

Chris’ mission is completed. His military efforts of 255 kills, 160 confirmed, Kyle is officially the deadliest American marksman in US military history. He returns home trying to adjust to home life but it’s apparent the war is still affecting him mentally. Even Taya lets him know that. Upon the advice through psychiatric help, he volunteers his time to help veterans return to home life and overcome their own post-traumatic stress syndrome. After five years, Chris is well-adjusted and has successfully become a family man to his wife and children. The movie closes to the last morning of Chris’ life where he leaves for his volunteering with veterans. He would be killed by a veteran he was helping that day. The movie ends with footage of his funeral.

From beginning to end I had to watch it with a very observant eye. I wanted to see what types of messages it would be sending and if it was a pro-war stance or anti-war. I personally cannot see it as a pro-war movie. Sure, you see Chris’ attitude about patriotism and his determination to think that those he shot were soldiers, not people. Even seeing video footage of the funeral of the real Chris Kyle with those saluting his coffin as he went by, funeral held in a stadium and his casket covered with medals would cause some to impulsively think the film is trying to make Chris a hero. But oddly enough I don’t think it’s trying to make Chris a hero. Instead I think it showed Chris’ weaknesses as well as his strengths. We see how Chris was taught the values he held by his father including being told to be a ‘sheepdog,’ we see how he becomes hostile as he sees his newborn daughter crying in the maternity ward, we see how the death of a comrade only prompts Chris to extend his ‘duty’ despite how much his wife can’t take it, we also see it as Chris is about to punch a dog at a birthday party.

Recently I came across a quote from Clint Eastwood: “The biggest anti-war statement any film can make is to show the fact of what it does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did.” I feel that American Sniper does just that because I sensed right from the start, this movie actually looks at war and Chris Kyle’s hero status through a cynical eye. I felt that as the film first shows a young Chris being taught about: ‘lambs, wolves and sheepdogs.’ Then again as Chris goes to war with the Bible he stole from church and admits he never opened it. Other scenes that added to the suspected cynicism were his hostile acts at home and even that scene as he sees a therapist and says his guilt is not at all because of the people he killed but because of his fallen fellow soldiers he failed to save. That scene had me wondering if Chris really did feel that way or if it’s because he felt that’s the way he’s supposed to think, especially upon remembering he was in tears after he shot that little boy at the very beginning. Even that ending scene where they show video footage of Chris’ funeral with people lining the streets waving the American flag as his hearse passes him, the stadium where his funeral was held filled, and his casket covered with military medals made me think Clint was putting Chris’ hero status and a common belief in the United States that ‘soldier = patriot’ on the hot seat. I really sense that.

As for what it does for the family, you can bet there’s a lot of focus on that in the film, especially in scenes involving Taya. The first scene that has to send that message has to be when she’s on a phone conversation with Chris but a shootout ensues. Chris drops his phone on the street as the shootout happens with Taya listening on the other ends. Taya’s distraught crying as she’s hearing the bullet fire on the other end has to be the scene that sends that message. Even in conversation with Chris, Taya is the one reminding him how stressful and hurtful it is to her every time he goes back off. She even reminds him about how he’s not the same ever since his fighting: “You’re my husband, you’re the father of my children. Even when you’re here, you’re not here. I see you, I feel you, but you’re not here.” Even outside of Chris and Taya, we get this message at the funeral of the soldier shot during Chris’s first mission. That scene where the officer gives the mother the folded flag from his casket and the tears in her eyes also sends that message. It doesn’t matter if it’s World War II, the Vietnam War or Operation Iraqi Freedom, a lost child is a lost child and the family will hurt for a long time about it, if not for the rest of their lives.

Even if it isn’t about war and how it hurts the soldiers and their families, it also gives a cynical look at the war itself. We see it in Kyle first ever shooting during the war. A woman that looks like a civilian with her son passes him a big grenade. As terrible as it was to see them shot, Chris knew both had to be shot. That scene sends the message that this war is not your typical war. This is a war that can take everyday civilians and turn them into players. Even that scene where a young boy picks up a grenade launcher and appears to fire shows that even children are not immune. We should also remember this is a war where soldiers will either disguise themselves as civilians or even use them as human shields. This is a war where people from the ‘enemy’ side will torture people who give secrets away. That scene where an ‘enemy’ soldier drills into the heads of both the father and young son shows just how ugly and brutal this war is. Sure, it may not have the same total number of fatalities as Vietnam but it’s ugly enough and unpredictable enough.

Clint Eastwood does it again. If you notice one thing about his movies over the past two decades, it’s that he approaches his stories by putting certain subjects on the hot seats. We see it again here where he puts the labels of ‘man’ or ‘patriot’ associated with a soldier in war. This comes especially remembering what Clint’s character in Gran Torino, a dying Korean war vet, said: “You wanna know what it’s like to kill a man? Well, it’s goddamn awful, that’s what it is. The only thing worse is getting a medal… for killing some poor kid that wanted to just give up, that’s all. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it, and you don’t want that on your soul.” Clint’s directing of the story was dead on and will get you thinking. A lot of people talk about the violence in the movie. I feel what’s said and done outside the warfare says way more. Kudos to Jason Hall for adapting Kyle’s memoirs. I believe Jason too sensed something about Kyle through reading his memoirs and adapted into what he thinks is really the situation and through an equally cynical eye.

As much as it is the product of Clint and Jason, I give high praise to Bradley Cooper for making Chris into the three-dimensional depiction they intended. He delivered an excellent performance and also appeared like he had ideas of his own about what Chris Kyle was like. The only other role in the movie that was of major significance was that of Taya Kyle but Sienna Miller did a great job of portraying the wife caught in the middle. She made Taya the one who could best settle the score with Chris. She was the one who was best at getting him back down to Earth. She was also very good at epitomizing what most ‘war wives’ go through with their husbands in battle. Right at the wedding, Taya appeared happy to be married to a Navy SEAL like Chris. It’s during the war and after she found out exactly what she had to deal with. I feel Miller’s performance was one of the most underacclaimed performances of the year. The other supporting actors were also very good, even though there were many roles that could have been developed better. Also I feel it was a smart decision to have the movie with as little musical score as possible. It adds to the realistic depiction of the war throughout the movie. Even that scene of the bullet that kills Mustafa wasn’t too much of a distraction to the story.

American Sniper is not your typical war movie. It goes above and beyond your expectations and shows you an outlook on both Chris Kyle and the war you might not have thought of before. Whether you consider Chris a hero, villain or victim is all up to your own judgment.

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One response

  1. […] American Sniper – This movie is one that went beyond a lot of people’s expectations. Including mine. Also it presented a very provocative message which Academy members usually like. However its late buzz in the year could hurt its chances for Best Picture. I don’t think it’s as pumped or as awarded as many of the other movies to win Best Picture here. Even though I wouldn’t mind at all if it did. […]

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