Sunday, March 01, 2015

American Sniper

We finally got to see American Sniper today.  I was really looking forward to it after hearing and reading so much about the movie.  Some things lived up to the hype but other things did not.  

First, the good.  Bradley Cooper is phenomenal.  Cooper is a bit of a pretty-boy with delicate features, but for this movie, he bulked up 40 pounds of pure muscle and became a beast of a man.  He learned to speak with a true Texas accent.  Most importantly, he brought depth to the role.  Even his silences, or the way he would throw a glance, told volumes.  He became Chris Kyle.  Cooper showed how Kyle got to be the way he was, he showed you the stress that being a sniper can put on a man, and he made you understand the difficulty that warriors can have in adjusting to normal, everyday civilian life again.  This was world-class work.

Sienna Miller did an excellent job Taya, his wife.  Her role in the movie was to bring out the stress in adjusting to civilian life.  I thought that Sienna did very well with what she had to work with.

Unfortunately, I thought the script didn’t do the story much justice.  Granted, this was a biopic that covered many years (with a focus on 11 years, from Sep 11 to the day he died), so it required a lot of things to be addressed.  But the result was a movie that was a mile wide and an inch deep.  Cooper brought a lot of depth to Chris, Sienna brought some depth to Taya, but everybody else was just a 2-dimensional figure, a stereotype of “SEAL officer”, “Iraqi woman”, “kid”,  “random friend”, and so on.  Chris would have an emotional reaction to people getting shot in combat, or saying something important at home, but as a viewer, I had no emotional connection to those other people at all.

There was a lot of hype about how everybody involved in the movie wanted to get the details right.  Bad news: they didn’t.  There were quite a few eye-rolling moments for me.  Even things as simple as driving a HumVee around a base were obviously Hollywood ideas of how HumVees move.  Helicopters don’t fly around bases in real life like they do in the movie.  Soldiers don’t do mission briefs that way.  Failures like that are distracting.

Finally, the script created an insurgent sniper as a foil to Chris.  In reality, there was no comparable sniper.  Yes, there were insurgent snipers and they killed a lot of good people, but the idea of a master sniper in conflict with Chris was a storytelling creation.  And, for me, it didn’t work.  The real conflicts provided enough combat drama for dozens of Iraq War movies.

I thought the movie really missed a golden opportunity in addressing the difficulties that warriors have in re-adjusting to civilian life.  They touched on it enough to show that Chris had a hard time.  Normal events like a van coming up behind him in California, or the rip of a pneumatic drill, or even a blank TV screen, could take Chris back to the battlefield.  And the viewer will understand why that is.  But they did it just enough to say “Chris had a hard time adjusting at home” and then quickly moved on.  I think that a whole movie could be built around this concept.  In fact, it should.  

We’ve seen three other war-related movies this year: Fury,The Imitation Game, and Korengal.  All were better films than American Sniper.  The first two stripped their story down to the important bits and let their characters develop to where I cared about them.  The real-world story of Chris Kyle, the real-world story of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the real-world stories of veterans trying to adjust to peacetime American society, are more important stories than that of a fictitious tank crew or a genius fighting bureaucracy, but this movie didn't tell them very well.  Korengal is a documentary that explores the men who fought at a remote outpost in Afghanistan.  Not only is Korengal’s story equal in importance to American Sniper, but it makes you really understand the effect that war has on men.  Particularly the young men who bear the brunt of the fighting.  

So I was a bit disappointed in American Sniper.  It was a good movie, but not nearly as good as it could have been.  For me, the best war movie of the year was Korengal, then Fury, then The Imitation Game, and finally American Sniper.

But I really, really want to see a well-done film that explores the difficulty of readjusting to civilian life.

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