Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 9.02.13 PMThis will be an abbreviated weekly report with just some thoughts on Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and a few more recent releases. I’ll bring back the usual bells and whistles next time. 

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is all business, but doesn’t have much on its mind
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One of the best scenes in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper occurs on the home front, where Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) attempts to adjust to civilian life between tours in the Middle East. As he sits with his son at a body shop, Kyle is recognized by a disabled veteran who informs him that he saved his life many months before. Despite the unfiltered gratitude being displayed in front of him, Kyle is unable to maintain eye contact and is made visibly uncomfortable by the situation. He has already had a difficult enough time separating his combat self and his home self, and directly engaging with his actions in this way is not something he feels like doing at this moment. He makes it clear that he does not regret his actions, nor does he choose look for any deep meaning behind them. He’d rather just do his job.

Unfortunately, this mentality also extends to the way Eastwood directs the material of American Sniper. He clearly has a fascination for this story, but whenever an opportunity presents itself to explore something deeper, the film is quick to (metaphorically) break eye contact and stare at the ground. This film has become something of a lightning rod in the past week, thanks to a massive opening weekend at the box office and a suddenly vocal faction of conservative supporters claiming the film as their own. However, American Sniper did not strike me as a particularly political movie one way or the other, and that is more to its detriment than its credit. If it was a hardcore conservative film about Chris Kyle’s story, it would have at least had a more distinct point of view. Instead, the film simply goes through the motions without breaking much of a sweat, and if viewers can find any larger meaning behind Eastwood’s work—one way or the other—they may be giving it too much credit.

Even so, the story the film tells while in the Middle East is far too convenient, and more than a bit naïve. Eastwood is able to create some genuine tension in several combat scenes, but the film errs badly by giving Kyle an overarching journey to go through over the course of his time in country. Antagonists like The Butcher (Mido Hamada) and Olympic-caliber enemy sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) are miscalculations of the highest order, giving Kyle’s time in the military an almost video game-like structure and simplicity; it’s all nothing more than a series of challenges (and “bosses”) for him to overcome. All this severely hampers claims that Eastwood’s film is supposed to be character study, since it avoids any complexity whenever Kyle is actually in a combat situation.

Things get a little more interesting during Kyle’s few trips home, and Eastwood finds some truly clever ways to illustrate Kyle’s discomfort with civilian life in between tours. None of it is surprising or terribly original, but these are the only times when there is any engagement with Kyle as a person. He is so focused on performing his job that he’s unable to think about anything else, including his family. However, when he actually gets a chance to do his job, the film loses course.

The lameness of the combat scenes also winds up hampering Bradley Cooper, who gives a genuinely spectacular performance as Kyle. Even in the film’s worst moments, he hints at a far more interesting film that explores his character’s personality and wartime record. It feels like a lived-in performance that’s more subtle than showy, and it’s all the more powerful for it. That’s why it feels like such a misstep when the film abandons any sense of reality altogether in favor of dramatic shortcuts and a general disinterest in the story’s meatier themes. Even the subject of film’s tagline (“The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History”) is only alluded to a few times, and you don’t really get a sense of Kyle’s place in the overall American psyche until the closing credits. (And even that feels like an oversimplification.) It’s all just a little bit too clean, and that leaves American Sniper feeling like a regrettably incomplete picture of a potentially complex subject.

Other new releases
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–Michael Mann’s hacking thriller Blackhat was swallowed whole by the American Sniper behemoth this weekend, limping to a 10th place finish at the weekend box office. It’s a shame, because this is a solid film (albeit a silly and minor one) that operates on a much higher level than most January thrillers. Still, it doesn’t come close to any of Mann’s best films. Feel free to watch one of those instead.

–Marion Cotillard’s Oscar nomination for her performance in the Belgian film Two Days, One Night, written and directed by the great Dardenne brothers, was something of a surprise, but once you watch the film you know it’s utterly deserved. She plays Sandra, a woman with one weekend to try and save her job, and the film is a fascinating human drama that doubles as a tour through various degrees of human empathy.

–Mike Leigh’s biopic Mr. Turner is a long, rich, wonderful film that follows 19th-century artist J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) through the second half of his life. It isn’t the first film about a brilliant creative type who was also something of a bastard in his personal life, but Leigh fills each scene with so much wonderful detail that the picture it paints (no pun intended) is unusually rewarding.

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