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Monday, January 19, 2015

"American Sniper" Virtuosic Filmmaking

War movies are not my genre of choice. I am a romantic comedy fan. "American Sniper" is such an excellently made film that it demanded my full attention and earned my esteem. This is a violent, bloody, war movie with a sad ending. The film is so expertly made I left the theater exhilarated. Such is the power of art.

It is astounding that this film was made by a director, Clint Eastwood, who is in his eighties. "American Sniper" is fast-paced, gripping, suspenseful, and the most truly contemporary film I've seen in a while. It addresses what we are all thinking about: the West's confrontation with violent Islamists. The film feels as if it was peeled out of our brains during our nightmares. There is no elegiac feeling here. No nostalgia, no backward glances. It is all now, now, now, now, with the forward motion of a locomotive at full tilt. With "American Sniper," Clint Eastwood has outdone himself and set the bar very high.

Bradley Cooper is flawless. His commitment is one hundred percent. This is a performance for the ages.

"American Sniper" tells the true story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in US military history. The film depicts him as having been taught to hunt by his father. His father also taught him that there are three kinds of people in the world: wolves, sheep, and shepherds. It is the shepherd's job to defend the sheep from the wolves. Kyle became a rodeo bucking bronco rider.

After terrorist attacks, he decided to join the military to defend his country. He was sent to Iraq, where he did four tours of duty. He covered soldiers moving into urban combat zones in cities like Fallujah. He would lie on rooftops, survey surrounding areas, and shoot at suspicious characters, including women and children assigned to bomb troops. Interspersed with his tours in Iraq, Kyle married his wife and fathered two children. After his return to the US, Kyle aided returned veterans who suffered from PTSD.

"American Sniper" follows this story in a completely straightforward, unadorned fashion. You can't help but think of other war films when watching "American Sniper." The flamboyant operatics of "The Deer Hunter," the heavy-handed, manipulative, almost propagandistic politics of "Coming Home," the graphic combat of "Saving Private Ryan." "American Sniper"'s style is almost no style. The movie simply meticulously recreates what Kyle did and saw. There is a scene where American soldiers raid the headquarters of The Butcher of Fallujah. There are shelves on which human body parts, including at least one severed head, are stored. The camera does not linger on this hideous and telling sight. The moviegoer sees these body parts for only as long as the soldiers running through the headquarters sees them.

There are no White House scenes, no Pentagon scenes, almost no scenes of reporters commenting on the war. There are no lingering shots of gas stations hint hint – petroleum caused this war! One soldier does begin to question; he dies. Kyle attends his funeral. A mourner begins to read a document questioning the wisdom of the Iraq war; she cannot finish. The three-volley gun salute drowns her out.

The movie soundtrack begins with an ominous male voice intoning "Allahu akbar." Characters who are obviously Arab and Muslim are shown doing very bad things, including one very brief but disturbing scene of a man torturing a child to death in a hideously inventive way, in front of the child's father. American soldiers are shown being dedicated and trying to avoid civilian deaths.

Politically correct moviegoers will decide that what is missing from this movie is the heavy hand of an interpreter reaching in and telling you that the war was a mistake, that it was all about petroleum, that the American soldiers were all racists, that the Arabs were merely attempting to defend their homeland from invaders, that truly evil men like the Butcher of Fallujah were the products of failed US foreign policy.

I found "American Sniper"'s minimalism to be an incredibly courageous and innovative stylistic choice. Eastwood must know that every moviegoer enters the theater with his or her own opinion about the Iraq War, about the West v Islam, about terror. We know that Fallujah is now under ISIS control. We know that another war looms.

This isn't the viewer's movie. It isn't the politician's movie. It is Chris Kyle's movie. The movie veers wildly from scenes of incredible tension and horror in Iraq. Kyle goes on leave and is back in the US. Suddenly the biggest issue is getting a collie to behave at a family barbecue in Texas. Kyle sits in front of an empty TV screen, reliving Iraqi battles. The film delivers no lecture about PTSD. It just lives Kyle's PTSD with him.

"American Sniper" is a gripping, suspenseful, involving, virtuosic film. I am glad it is getting the Academy-Award nominations and record-setting box office and audience it deserves.


  1. My husband and I are planning to see this movie. We have not spent money on a movie since 1982. I am so glad to read your review. I value your opinion and am looking forward to experiencing this myself. On the way home this evening we heard Sean Hannity, we normally never listen since he's on later than we have the radio on. Evidently he was discussing this movie and the callers were, one after the other, outraged that it was getting such good press. "Why? Why? Why elevate this man when John Kerry was villified?" Wow! Good job Clint.

    1. Gemma wondering if you saw it and what you thought.