10 Days of Oscar #1 – American Sniper (2014)

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Welcome everyone to the 10 Days of Oscar! 10 Days with 10 different reviews in lieu of the day that the Oscars will be aired and we will know the results. Since there are only 8 movies nominated for best picture, two new movies have to be chosen for this select slate. So, the two movies with most nominations and that haven’t been nominated for best picture, will be reviewed. Another clarification: this is not a series that directly relates to the Oscars, this is just an opportunity that I take to talk about the movies that have been most talked about in 2014, at least in some circles. This is my chance to give my voice a reason. So, the posts will go out in the alphabetical order of the films themselves. Hope you enjoy, read, comment and debate!

by Jaime Grijalba.

There aren’t many problems with ‘American Sniper’ (2014) the film, while there are many problems with The American Sniper, Chris Kyle, a certainly demented character that took pride in the killing of people, a man who not only wrote a book about his record in terms of people killed under his sniper gun, but lied profusely about certain creepy and downright psychotic passages of his life, like when he told in his best selling book that he was appointed to shoot with his rifle to unarmed civilians that tried to pillage during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While Clint Eastwood, more intelligent than ever, obviates those certainly more painful and downright controversial elements of the biography in which the book is based, and at the same time changes the personality of Chris, by making him an unassuming guy, with problems with his family due to his experience and certain addiction to war combat. He converts this hero for the right wing into a human being that could certainly be relatable for the mass audience, and whether the mass audience that made this movie a hit is entirely right-wing or they were attracted by the conventional story of a hero who managed to save people from his own troop, they were both suckered into a narrative that while not exactly compelling, it avoids the more important issues that would give this movie an edge that would justify, in more than one way, the whole talk that it has initiated.

Instead, the movie decides that it needs an arch, to explain why he is where he is (some sort of origin story like with a super hero, but here played through a conventional flashback that tells us about what happened when he was younger and how he ended up where he is at the start of the film: pointing and shooting a kid and a woman). It also decides that the film needs an antagonist, another character with the same skill sets than our boy Kyle, but in the opposing band of the conflict in Iraq, as if to create some impression in the viewer that “this is a power that could be used for wrong and for good”, when truly there’s just wrong from a power that is solely used for killing people that are against you in a war that was a lie from the get-go. So, does this movie condone the war in Iraq? The atrocities commited? The fact that this movie portrays the killings of Iraqis and there’s never a kind word for them is a picture of the ideology of the director or just a fair portrayal of “what actually happened”? In a way, as some people have said, portrayal is not endorsement, but at the same time there’s a fault in the way that Clint Eastwood proposes this biography or condemnation or whatever the hell he is doing here.

And with that final phrase I think I finally understand what my problem (and I’m willing to say that it’s my problem and not the movie’s fault) is with ‘American Sniper’. I don’t know what it wants to be, and I don’t think Clint had any idea what it wanted to be either, and that’s not me trashing a great director like him (I have a history of defending most of his films as a director, and among them are a couple of personal favorites and great genre works that have always moved me beyond any other film could), but maybe in a way with the work he did here he actually managed something major, with the whole confusion about what he wanted to make he might as well made a masterpiece, but I really can’t see it. What I’m trying to say here is that while he may condemn the brutality and the abhorrent behavior of someone like Chris Kyle and the war in Iraq in general by carefully and sometimes masterfully putting on screen all that violence, the hatred, the confusion and the brutalities committed, and that’s all fine by me, but in the other hand, Clint made his work harder (if, as I said above, that was his intention) by omitting the worse acts and parts of the personality of Kyle that could’ve been taken from the book. He wrote them, this is an official adaptation of the book ‘written’ by Kyle, so the actual portrayal of those events and his personality traits that could’ve been deducted from his personal appearances in media and with interviews with people who knew him (and I don’t say this post mortem, the film was in the works way before his death).

If Clint Eastwood’s intention was giving his personal views on how bad the war in Iraq was, how abhorrent and damaging to others was the experience of Kyle in his constant rounds to war, he could’ve had it so much easier. Instead what we have is, in my opinion, a tribute, made evident by the final scenes of the movie: he is killed by a veteran who had PTSD, an affliction that also could be pinpointed towards Kyle, and we could’ve had an amazing moment in which someone just like Kyle kills our protagonist, that would’ve been a shock and also a relieving statement: “look what could’ve happened to Kyle, but maybe he just had a family that supported him better and thus he didn’t go to the extreme of killing an innocent person (even though he claimed he did in his book, but whatever, people don’t have to know that unless they read the book)”. But no, Clint decides to fade out, they don’t show us how he dies, how he is killed in cold blood by someone who had a similar experience. Now that’d make for an emotional experience, and hey, I may’ve even liked the movie a little better.

A film can be extremely patriotic and loving of a country like United States and still condemn and be cynic about certain elements of the whole thing. Many Clint Eastwood films do that, and using a not-so-loved example of this, let’s take a look at ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ (2006), where Eastwood doesn’t shy away from the controversy and the problems and even the PTSD that at times erupts into violence between the soldiers, though in a different time and war, but still compelling in the way that portrays the problem while still finding time to honor the men who did the deed in WW2.

‘American Sniper’, for me, it’s not a good movie in the ethical sense, or moral sense, or whatever you like to call it. It is a good movie in terms of filmmaking, it’s lighted in a decent manner and the acting is also quite decent, but then comes certain moments of clumsy editing or just signs of “I really don’t care” from Eastwood, like the use of a really fake baby in one scene that has become a meme in itself (just the other day I saw a Mexican soap opera that used two different babies in scenes that were longer than those in this film, now I’m not going to compare the rules of using babies in Mexico and the way that they are shot in comparison to the way Clint may make his films, but hey, I don’t think it would be too hard, and the thing about continuity? Who cares? All babies look the same, and you don’t have to show their faces, since they obviously didn’t show them in the scene either). It is a weak movie in terms of how tense it can make you, and about the portrayal of the “enemy” in terms of how it needs to use a methodical and classic approach to the way that battles and enemy confrontation works.

Some people call attention to Clint’s style and call it “the last classic filmmaker”. I mean, that’s the style that I was taught in film school, with dialogue beats and even Clint is one of the filmmakers that we were taught in terms of how he perfectly captures that rhythm and how he uses it to bring forward the emotion. So, you have at least five generations of Chilean filmmakers that can shoot just like Clint Eastwood. Care to invest?

6/10

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