In spite of Seth Rogen’s assessment, American Sniper did not remind me of the Nazi propaganda film in Inglourious Basterds, and unlike Michael Moore it didn’t fill me with the irrational urge to verbally shit on the very institution of sniperhood. Leaving the theater, I didn’t feel as though I’d been shown some sort of sort of pro-war propaganda film based on Donald Rumsfeld’s Call of Duty fan fiction. I just felt like I’d watched an average at best movie with a below average script.
I don’t have a side in the whole controversy over Chris Kyle’s record that broke out last month. From what I’ve read I get the impression he was fairly racist and engaged in some shady conduct overseas, but he also saved countless American and Iraqi lives and dedicated himself to helping injured veterans. I went in with no opinion, expecting to see a movie about the inner conflict between the two sides of this fascinating figure. But that's not the kind of story this movie was interested in telling.
American Sniper consists of mostly three types of scenes: Scenes where Kyle shoots people in Iraq, scenes where Kyle is nonresponsive to his wife’s pleas for him to stop going to Iraq, and scenes where people tell Kyle how great he is. The Marines he’s protecting call him “Legend,” passers by stop him so they can tell him he’s a hero, superiors, squadmates and even medical professionals keep him updated on how prolific his kill count is.
Chris Kyle doubtless received considerable (and well deserved) praise from the people he protected, but as far as the plot of the movie is concerned, these scenes don’t go anywhere. American Sniper is littered with moments that indicate that Kyle is being deified by the enlisted men around him, and I wanted to see him grappling with the mythic status thrust on him. Instead he shoots people, or doesn’t talk to his wife, or politely demurs when told how great he is.
The story of what Chris Kyle represented to the people he served with, and how he tried to reconcile his human failings with that image, is a story that I’d really love see. It was frustrating to watch American Sniperknowingly turn away from any real complexity to just keep serving up stuff that feels good.
The closest we get to a peek into Chris Kyle’s psyche is a lesson from his father a few minutes into the movie, which establishes that Kyle is compelled to defend the weak from bullies. When he sees news of al Qaeda embassy bombings in 1998 he scowls at the television and dramatically stands up, apparently signifying his decision to spend the next 15 years fighting terrorism, in a moment that feels cribbed from The Young And The Restless. In Iraq the camera lingers lovingly on the Punisher skulls Kyle and his squadmates have stenciled onto their armor and Humvees. Kyle’s PTSD manifests primarily in a couple of scenes where he sits alone in his living room brooding, and appears to be magically cured after a doctor reminds him that he’s killed 160 people and sends him on a shooting trip with some disabled veterans.
This movie isn’t a biopic; it’s a tribute to Chris Kyle. A good biopic presents both sides of a person’s character – the light and the dark – and leaves the viewer to do the messy work of making their own decision.American Sniper presents Kyle’s light side as a protector, a loving husband and father, and proud American but stops short of addressing the controversies that came with his battlefield notoriety. I think that made this a much weaker and less interesting movie, but I'm also not really who American Sniper was made for.
I love my country in spite of its endless faults and I’m thankful for people who serve in the military, because that’s something I'm not brave enough do. But I also grew up pretty well removed from military culture and hadn’t heard of Chris Kyle before I saw the first trailer for this movie. I was no more the target demographic for American Sniper than for Madea Goes To Jail or Step Up 2: The Streets. Chris Kyle is revered among people who have served and their families, friends, and communities, and this movie is a celebration of his best qualities, because it’s made by and for people who care for him strongly.
And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Judging by how muchAmerican Sniper is raking in at the box office, Chris Kyle’s story is inspiring to a lot of people, and that's great. That's exactly what the movie was meant to do.
But American Sniper shouldn’t be nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, because American Sniper simply is not that good of a movie.
No, it’s not a bad movie, but it’s also by no stretch of the imagination one of the eight best movies of the year – it doesn’t hold a candle toBirdman or The Grand Budapest Hotel, or movies like Interstellar, Foxcatcher, and Gone Girl that didn’t even get a nomination. And the screenplay, which at times feels like it was adapted from a lengthy email forwarded by someone’s grandmother, is such a trainwreck of clumsy characterization and on-the-nose dialog that it’s kind of insulting to see it considered against Paul Thomas Anderson’s script for Inherent Vice.
I don’t have a problem with Clint Eastwood simplifying details to make a compelling tribute to Chris Kyle; I have a problem with him getting Oscar nominations for it. In directing this tribute he had to make a lot of artistic choices that make the movie less challenging, complex, and innovative than others – so why the hell are we nominating it at the award ceremony that’s supposedly there to recognize movies that make bold artistic choices and advance the art of cinema?
American Sniper succeeds at painting a glowing portrait of Chris Kyle and fails at just about everything else. I don’t say that because of my politics or Clint Eastwood’s politics or the illegitimacy of the Iraq War; I say it because I’ve seen a lot of good movies in my life and this was not one of them.