Check it out... if you're interested in a startlingly brutal, honest war film, that contains social commentary on the value of conflict and the patriotic self-worth that is imbued within modern American and Western culture
Skip it... if you seek a war film which honours and seeks opinion from both sides of the American-Iraqi conflicts, or detest the simplistic and rough visceral style of Clint Eastwood
"Eastwood most certainly captures the dark and gloomy vibe of the characters effectively, and delivers perhaps the most emotionally resonant film of the year."
Contemplate the conflictions occurring all over the planet. Contemplate those who are dying in the name of a higher belief; in defense of their liberties and freedoms; in defense of their own being. Now try and answer, with crystal clear conviction, the following question:
Where is the line between good and evil drawn?
Clint Eastwood's second 2014 feature film, after the disappointing and highly underdeveloped Jersey Boys, seeks to answer this difficult and oft-times morally insensitive query. And whilst it initially greets us with characters, especially our central protagonist, who believe the world is black-and-white and only contains good and evil, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Dean Hall seem far less biased in their standing. Whilst patriots and those who seek to supposedly defend the honour of the great nation of America would vouch for the description of virtuous, righteous and ethical to belong to their homeland, and detrimental, immoral and malicious to belong to its enemies; namely Middle-Eastern citizens, Eastwood and Hall understand that there is both good and evil on each side of any war, conflict or disagreement. Despite our own prejudice, it is hard to deny that there is both upstanding individuals and immoral people that lie on both sides of any military action. That's why the Eastwood flick American Sniper is so poignant; despite our own protagonist's one-sided view of the world, the film shifts its perspectives constantly, allowing us to see the brutality of both American soldiers, those who the film follows, and their enemies, those including members of the famed terrorist organisation Al Qaeda and various civilians drawn into the engagements by force.
The film depicts the life of Chris Kyle, a real life American sniper who is currently accredited with the "honour" of being the deadliest soldier of such position. We see the various moral dilemmas he faces throughout his time during the Middle-Eastrn war, post 9/11, and the various struggles he puts his wife through as she worries for his mental stability, as well as his physical being. Eastwood and Hall take a simplistic story, and shift it into a tale of distorted camaraderie and patriotism. For those with half a brain who can decipher the idea that whatever the characters may be doing is not necessarily condoned by the filmmakers and actors, American Sniper will undeniably be a harrowing glance into the uncompromising dedication and partiality that is common all throughout not only the ranks of American war forces, but war forces from all over the planet. It's a slow-burning, mentally-demanding escapade that contains both heart, emotion, drama and brutal action.
When we first meet Chris (chronologically), he is a child, being taught to defend himself by his father. That if anyone is to mess with him, he is to fight back; to defend not only his physical being, but the honour of himself, his friends and his family. Chris is taught from an early age that if someone enacts first, then it is his duty to retaliate. When Chris feels compelled to join the American military forces as a sniper, his reasoning beckons towards his misled and patriotic upbringing; one that many a child goes through. That their country is the most prosperous, giving and beautiful country that the world has to offer. He believes that Middle-Eastern militants are the instigators of the war to come, and that it is his duty to put them down. He cares not for their individual stories, nor does he hold a grain of sympathy for their situations. Whilst he is, to an extent, morally ambiguous in relation to the killing of a child, one that was threatening to kill a group of marine officers, he understands why he needs to do this, and supports his own hard but understandable decision. That child was threatening to undo what he would consider good work by his men; his brothers in arms are far more valuable than the child which has a grenade in his tiny, insignificant hands. So he shoots. He fires on men, women and children. He gives the impression to his fellow soldiers and officers that he is mentally adept. That his mission and kills were all in the name of the great nation of America.
Underneath this exterior though, a shallow one at that, what we witness is a man conflicted by his own actions. Every time he pulls that trigger and takes the life of someone, Eastwood and Hall emphasize it. They don't dress up the situations and individual kills as anything glamorous or honourable. Chris' comrades accredit him with being "epic" or "badass", but we understand that he shuns these titles. He holds distaste for the designation of "legend" that he is gifted. Part of this inner-detriment is gifted to us thanks to the performance of Bradley Cooper; a performance which one can very easily herald as one of the strongest of the year. It has heart and quiet at its core, the loud and vehement battles and firefights contrasting against Cooper's quiet and emotional performance, one which never seeks to draw attention to itself. Whilst there are moments where Cooper's dialogue is completely indecipherable thanks to his heavy slur, for the most part, what he provides here is the anchor for this incredible picture. Also constituting to this character is the aforementioned screenwriter Hall, who is never overtly sentimental with his writing, the character of Kyle never truly malicious but always somehow hostile. Whilst we feel the characters pain, turmoil and tribulations deep in our heart, and we root for Kyle to succeed in his endeavors and for him to make it back to his family after each individual tour, we also witness his hostile and dangerous attitude towards those who he determines the enemy. The "evil", if you will.
Going back to that question from earlier; where is the line between good and evil drawn, except in the context of Chris Kyle?
For Chris, it's very clear; the admirable lifestyle of the American way needs to be protected from the vitriolic damnation that the enemies of his nation threaten. It doesn't matter your individuality; if you're an Iraqi and you're in Kyle's way, he doesn't care at all for your being. It is all about protecting his brothers in arms, and ensuring their progression throughout the brutal war that entails after the dreadful 9/11 attacks. Strangely enough though, the thing that Eastwood taps into most of all throughout the running time is the distressing feeling that little to no progression is physically being made. As Kyle and his units advance through blocks of housing estates, clearing out both good and bad, we never get to see any drastic development in terms of the war on terror. There is a cliched central antagonist at the middle of the film; a rival sniper who seeks to take out Kyle, but he feels like a diversion from the true reality of the picture, that reality being that no matter how many Al Qaeda members Kyle shoots down, two more will pop up in that person's place. A child will grow up without a father, and the hostility formed towards the country responsible will be irreversible.
What about another question? Where is the line drawn between self-defense and slaughter?
As Kyle and his comrades make their way through the dusty, atmospheric streets of various Middle-Eastern cities (these streets expertly concocted thanks to the gorgeous production design and location scouts on offer), they eliminate hundreds of men, women and children. They seldom contemplate the gravity of their decisions, rarely reflecting on their actions, and more so focusing on the next time they may be forced to pull the trigger. Could you claim called self-defense if you show hostility towards a body of men, various armored vehicles and a tank that are headed towards your front door? None of them appear to be your own nationality, and they all hold weapons. They're threatening yourself, your neighbors and other countrymen of your like. As much as we want to believe that our first world soldiers are the heroes, the civilians who have to endure the warring around them undoubtedly differ from that opinion. These Western soldiers only bring pain and destruction, all of such straight to their door. Can we call it self-defense that we go over into a foreign country to hunt down members of a terrorist organisation, but kill and destroy the lives of random civilians who appear threatening from first glance all the same? As upstanding human beings, should we consider this morally acceptable?
American Sniper never definitively answers these questions. All Eastwood and Hall give you is Kyle; a man of great ambition, whose simplistic outlook on life, nationality and patriotism is somewhat infuriating but understandable. At least by the end of the film we get to see a changed man; someone who understands the destruction the push of his finger can cause, both physically and emotionally. That comeuppance is refreshing, and provides satisfaction for both the casual and thinking viewer.
On a technical front, American Sniper is adequate, if not polished in a number of key areas. It is edited with little finesse, and the final action sequence of the film is largely incoherent, not only thanks to the use of dust implemented, but by the increasingly incomprehensible editing. In other scenes, the cutting between two individual shots is either late or slow; for example, Kyle fires his gun, but the individual who is shot goes down seconds later, which happens to be an awfully long time for a man only five or so metres away from Kyle at the time. It's distracting, and that constitutes a blatant negative. That said, whilst both the editing and the cinematography, the latter being very dirty and constantly moving, are lacking in overall technical prowess, they do perform their job with a certain amount of proficiency and effectiveness. It's not the most elegant of films in terms of its look, but for a film set in the places it is, that may be for the best.
American Sniper also runs into problems in terms of its poor portrayal of time passage; an issue which was found within The Theory of Everything as well. Over the duration of the picture, it is estimated that nearly a decade and a half passes. Eastwood never truly establishes this time passage in a discernible and natural way, and only through subtitles do we get a grip on how long each tour lasts, or how long Kyle spends at home. This coupled with a romance which is prominent within the first forty-five minutes that develops at an immensely fast pace leaves the viewer feeling confused as to what has occurred and what hasn't in a single duration of time. Other issues arise in terms of the score for the film, primarily composed by Joseph S. DeBeasi, which contains little more than dull, thumping synthetics and shallow brass, both of which contain absolutely no imagination. There has to be a better way to build tension than applying "music" which contains no more than ambiance and electronics, all of which are consistently looped to provide no variation.
All of that said, Eastwood most certainly captures the dark and gloomy vibe of the characters effectively, and delivers perhaps the most emotionally resonant film of the year. Every second of American Sniper has something of value, whether it be the relationship formed between Chris and his wife Taya, the war efforts in the Middle-East, or the inner-conflicts that occur within Chris. This is a rough, brutal and honest film, and one that suitably depicts Chris in a harsh but realistic light. It's easy to "honour" an American hero by painting him in colours that resemble little of what he or she was actually about, his beliefs obscured by what the producer or studio believes will connect best with the viewer. Eastwood and Hall could've gone the route of providing an artificial, heroic protagonist; one that contained a universal sense of morality. But what they actually do is far more respectable to the individual in question. They deliver his story with sincerity, whilst also throwing a light upon the misled attitudes of many that inhabit the first world today. American Sniper is a cautionary tale that warns us against blindly rushing into the battle without individual thought or understanding; know that those you face are not just stereotypes, and that you understand the gravity of murder.
So answer me one more time, with all this in mind; where is the line between good and evil truly drawn?