Monday, May 25, 2015

The Unknown Soldier – ‘American Sniper’ and the Legend of Chris Kyle

Earlier this year, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper was a source of considerable controversy. An adaptation of the memoir by Chris Kyle, the movie dramatizes Kyle’s career as a Navy SEAL sniper while on tour in the second Iraq war. As depicted in the film, Kyle achieved the greatest number of confirmed kills in the history of the United States military but he suffered from post-traumatic stress when he returned home. American Sniper landed on a cultural fault line with some calling the movie war propaganda and others praising it as a tribute to the troops. Just enough time has passed to comment on the movie without the social media rancor and with the arrival of Memorial Day (and the release of the film on home video) it’s worth trying to parse out the complicated relationship between this film and reality and its value as a motion picture.

Any attempt to disparage American Sniper’s cinematic merits is disingenuous. American Sniper is one of the most visceral war films since Black Hawk Down and the climactic battle in which American soldiers must hold off insurgents amid a sandstorm is one of the best action sequences in the recent history of combat pictures. American Sniper is also accomplished in its dramatic moments. The depiction of post-traumatic stress gives the film an unexpected emotional impact and Bradley Cooper’s performance as Chris Kyle has been universally praised.

So why the controversy? Part of the problem is rooted in the source material. It is known that Chris Kyle fabricated stories about himself. This is beyond dispute. Specifically, Kyle lied about shooting looters in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and he fabricated an incident in which he punched former Minnesota governor (and fellow military veteran) Jesse Ventura in the face during a bar brawl. Ventura sued for defamation and won, which was a surprise given the difficulty of proving defamation in court.

That Chris Kyle went about embellishing his official life story presents the filmmakers of American Sniper with a compelling problem: is it possible for someone to simultaneously be a war hero and a liar?  Imagine what a filmmaker of Eastwood’s considerable skill could have done with that question. But instead of seizing the opportunity, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall took the easy way out and ignored Kyle’s lies, omitting the disputed episodes from the film. But, as Amy Nicholson points out, “When a film erases the fact that its subject was a fabricator, then that itself is a lie.”

This leads to another problem with American Sniper. The filmmakers have fundamentally changed the character of Chris Kyle. It is one thing to alter immaterial details for narrative expediency or dramatic necessity. (The historical inaccuracies in Selma are an example of filmmakers operating well within the boundaries of dramatic license.) It is quite another to distort the subject into something that he never was.

The Chris Kyle portrayed in the movie American Sniper is a guy who joined the military in response to the September 11th attack. He is a humble man who only seeks to do the right thing and he agonizes over the lives he has taken. This is not the way Kyle described himself in his memoir. According to his own account, Kyle joined the armed forces to prove he was up to the challenge. He also wasn’t torn up by what he did in Iraq. The book includes numerous passages in which Kyle beams about his kills, wishes he had killed more, and says that if it weren’t for his family he would still be in battle.

The goal of a dramatization is not to recreate a person or an event with every nuance and detail. A drama is intended to create an impression of a person or an event. It’s a qualitative approach, one that frequently drives historians nuts. In the case of American Sniper, the changes to Kyle’s demeanor and the omission of his fibs distort our impression of what kind of a man he was. That makes American Sniper at least misleading if not outright dishonest.

So why would Eastwood do this? The answer may be found in the director’s roots in westerns. American Sniper lends itself to that genre. Before joining the military, Chris Kyle was a cowboy and while in Iraq he lived out a Wild West fantasy. The Iraq of American Sniper is a lawless desert town populated by non-white people who Kyle refers to as “savages,” not unlike the depiction of Native Americans in classic westerns; here the scalping knife has been replaced by a power drill. In one of the film’s major departures from the book, Kyle and his allies are preyed upon by a villainous insurgent sniper who, just like the classic western television shows, dresses in black and threatens caravans that our hero must defend.

One of the last great westerns by the one of the greatest directors of the genre was John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The movie concerns a man (played by Jimmy Stewart) who has enjoyed a life of fame and fortune since shooting an infamous criminal. When it’s revealed who actually fired the fatal shot, a newspaper reporter refuses to publish the facts. “This is the West, sir,” he says. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

In telling Kyle’s story, Eastwood followed the Liberty Valance rule. American Sniper is pure mythmaking and in many respects the film completes the task that Chris Kyle started. In the book, Kyle recalls his fellow soldiers referring to him as “legend.” (In fact, the Forged website sells Chris Kyle merchandise and apparel with the word “legend” on it.) Kyle’s lies weren’t fabricated for their own sake. Rather, they were about elevating his legendary status so that it would stand alongside the western characters played by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and (of course) Clint Eastwood.

Legends are, by their very nature, larger than life. Exaggeration in legendary stories is not only expected, it is inescapable. And when real life figures are mythologized they become two dimensional. They have width and height but they do not have depth. That leaves no room for doubt or self-examination.

This is one of several ironies about American Sniper. Based on the content of his memoir, the real Chris Kyle did not possess the intellectual capacity for self-reflection. He was a very skilled triggerman but he was unable to ask why he was in Iraq and uninterested in the answer. (In that way Kyle is an appropriate symbol for a war initiated by fellow Texan George W. Bush, a man who was also incapable of sophisticated thinking.) However, the cinematic incarnation of Chris Kyle does have some degree of psychological depth. His post-traumatic stress is inconsistent with the mythological character that Kyle sought to create for himself nor is it compatible with the history of the stoic western hero. Try to imagine the grizzled characters played by John Wayne and Chuck Norris suffering from PTSD. It just isn’t conceivable. Because of that psychological depth, the movie American Sniper is not quite the piece of war propaganda that many of its detractors insist that it is. Acknowledging PTSD is to acknowledge the morally complex nature of warfare and that is inconsistent with war propaganda, which always seeks to simplify the conflict.

As a legend and as a symbol, Chris Kyle and American Sniper have been coopted by various groups attempting to use him and the film as a prop to support political and ideological positions. This has only served to further distort the matter. A lot of those writing about the film, whether positively or negatively, do so on the basis that the motion picture is a representation of reality. Memes have circulated in social media juxtaposing the image of the real life Chris Kyle with the film’s detractors, such as Michael Moore, usually calling the former a hero and the latter a loser. These memes exemplify the problems with the debate around this film.

American Sniper has been a tremendous success in part because of the controversy around it but also because it reimagined Chris Kyle as exactly the kind of figure that many Americans yearn for: a classic western hero who embodies America’s imperial power. The character on the movie screen represents two things: the patriotism, self-sacrifice, and competency we admire about the troops but also a belief in the rightness of the Iraq mission. Those two things have gotten flung together and so the fight over American Sniper has involved critics, politicians, and bloggers criticizing or defending the mission by attacking or defending Chris Kyle and then confusing the fictionalized movie version of him with who he was in real life.

When it is all said and done, American Sniper did not tell us very much about the Iraq conflict nor did it really tell us anything about Chis Kyle so as a piece of historical filmmaking the movie is a failure. But American Sniper does have value for aesthetic reasons and as a depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder. Just as Coming Home helped to dramatize the experience of returning from Vietnam, the home front portions of American Sniper playout the struggles of American service people transitioning to civilian life. That is the value of the content of the movie. The conflict around American Sniper has been pretty empty and it never really reached a conclusion in part because it was unclear just what we were all arguing about. But the confusion over what American Sniper means will make the movie a defining cinematic artifact of these partisan times.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Most Important Thing About ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

There has been a lot made about Mad Max: Fury Road and for a movie that mostly consists of car chases, crashes, and explosions, the film has given us a lot to talk about. Critics have, justifiably, gushed about the practical special effects and others have latched onto the movie’s sexual politics. Those are all relevant topics and worthy of discussion but there is one thing most outstanding about Fury Road: it is a summer movie spectacle that maintains the voice of its creator.

There is no shortage of movies dominated by chases and explosions. Traditionally confined to the weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the summer movie season is expanding to include April and March (see: the April release of Furious 7) with a brief respite before the holiday season which now mixes Oscar-bait dramas with family friendly spectacles (see: the upcoming December release of Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens). But even though about half of the year is full of big budget action movie releases, what is most overwhelming is how generic these movies have become.

A few years ago Jimmy Kimmel Live! broadcast a parody trailer for Movie: The Movie, which crammed together a bunch of celebrity cameos and utilized all of the clich├ęs of motion picture trailers.

More recently Red Letter Media did something similar with the online video “All Trailers Are the Same!!!” which cut together content from actual trailers to show how repetitive and unimaginative movie marketing has become.

Aside from what these clips reveal about the way trailers and television spots are produced, they also reveal something about the state of movies, especially the big budget tent pole productions that major studios seem increasingly interested in (at the expense of everything else).

Consider the major film franchises active at the moment: the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the X-Men, The Fast and the Furious, Transformers, Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Hunger Games. If you hadn’t seen these movies before and an image or clip from any one of these titles was juxtaposed with an image from another, unrelated title, would you be able to tell the difference? Probably not.

Movie fans, especially of the sci-fi and horror genres, often complain about digital visuals but get enthusiastic about practical effects. A lot of that is rooted in nostalgia but whether the image is created on set or in post-production should not make a difference. After all, the CGI Gollum of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is far more convincing than some of the practical puppetry in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Focus ought not to be on holding onto traditional methods but in utilizing whatever techniques create the most convincing results, meaning that the illusion overcomes our disbelief.

And yet the problem in contemporary Hollywood spectacles does seem to be directly linked to the use of computer generated images. The movies produced in the heyday of the practical effects era, which include the original Star Wars, Star Trek, and A Nightmare on Elm Street movies as well as Blade Runner, Alien, Evil Dead II, Brazil, The Fly, and The Thing, contain images that are unique to that particular film. These movies were made by filmmakers who were able to cultivate and retain a signature visual style. That meant that each time viewers went to the movies we were treated to radically different images even when the subject matter was quite similar (see: 1984’s The Terminator and 1987’s Robocop).

In today’s marketplace of epic superhero movies and rebooted sci-fi classics, the look of the films has been homogenized. The visual style has flattened across Hollywood and the imagery of different movies in different franchises made by different people for different studios all look the same. Why that’s happening is unclear. It could be that because so much is done in post-production the look and style defined by the major computer graphic shops (Industrial Light & Magic, Weta Workshop) has been imitated by everyone else. It may also be pressure to duplicate success, which is why virtually every sci-fi epic since 1999 looks like the Star Wars prequels and every sword and shield fantasy movie released since 2001 looks like The Lord of the Rings. But whatever the reason, the more we go to the movies, the more it seems like we’ve seen it already.

This brings me back to Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s plenty in it that is familiar from both the Mad Max series and from other post-apocalyptic movies as well as from action cinema in general. But the style of Fury Road is distinct. It’s recognizably George Miller’s movie. That, along with the care that Miller and his crew have put into the art direction and staging the set pieces, makes Fury Road stand out in a crowded field of Hollywood spectacles.

There was great concern last year that people weren’t going to the movies. 2014 had the lowest number of ticket sales in nearly two decades. It wasn’t that people didn’t want to go to the movies. But what incentive do they have to go to the theater and shell out for ever increasing ticket prices only to see unimaginative rehashes of movies they already own on DVD? But let the artists off the leash—or at least give them a responsible amount of slack—and encourage them to use their creativity and they can make something that has novelty or at least gives viewers a reboot or a sequel or a remake that is truly better than the original.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Film Reviews: May 10, 2015

Here is a summary of the films reviewed on today's show:

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a satisfying popcorn tent pole release and viewers could do far worse in their pursuit of summer movie thrills. But there is also no denying that the film is merely just good enough. There is very little about it that is surprising or memorable.

Adult Beginners has some good stuff in it, especially the performances by Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne, and Bobby Cannivale. But the filmmakers lose their nerve in the ending and so it is a compromised movie that disingenuously tries to be uplifting.  

A Most Violent Year is a very good film, one that presents the audience with characters and situations with nuance and complexity and it tells a tense story of honor, ambition, and integrity.

You can find full text of every review on the Sounds of Cinema Review Archive.