Wednesday, March 4, 2015

American Sniper

When does Superman sleep? I mean, say you're out there, putting in a 16-18 hour day, saving Lois, stopping runaway trains, thwarting evil geniuses, and you get home, and lie down. Eight hours later you wake up and some maniacs have flown airplanes into some buildings, or a tsunami has killed a couple hundred thousand people, or maybe taken out a nuclear reactor.

When do you sleep? How do you sleep? When Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man put the "with great power comes great responsibility" line into the pop culture, I thought it would be interesting to have a story about a regular person who slowly becomes a superhero, focusing on the physiological and psychological effects it would have. (Right now, superheroes are basically our version of the Greek gods. All the power, but otherwise just like us in their trivial ways.)

American Sniper is as close as we may get to a movie about what would really happen to someone who got superpowers.

Our hero is Chris Kyle, who comes from an upbringing where his dad tells him there's three kinds of people: wolves, sheep and sheepdogs. Wolves are bad, and he ain't raising no sheep. It's in one of these father-son moments that Kyle discovers his superpower: killing things from far away.

By the way, these early scenes of father-son bonding: the stern patriarch, the gun lessons, the hunting, are by far the most shocking thing about American Sniper. In my lifetime, these scenes would be the backstory of a racist or a serial killer, not a hero. I suspect this jarred a bunch of people right out of their seats and into the lobby for jujubes.

As far as superpowers go, though, "killing things from far away" is not a very useful one, at least not until September 11th, 2001. Then the ability to kill from far away becomes synonymous with saving hundreds of lives. And Kyle—the sheepdog, remember—takes his responsibility seriously and goes to fight. Then he comes home.

But here's the catch: The war is still going on, and he's not there helping out. When does Superman sleep? In this case, he doesn't sleep, not well or for long, and before you know it, Kyle's back overseas, saving lives by killing. (This is the messy part of reality you don't see much in superhero movies, which makes things Dark Knight profoundly silly.)

Not only that, there's not one but two super-villains around killing troops and innocent civilians: The Butcher of Baghdad and Iraqi Chris Kyle. The Butcher was a guy who went around butchering people who weren't sufficiently anti-American. The guy I'm calling Iraqi Chris Kyle was just that: An excellent sniper raining hell on American troops.

But despite this comic heroic analogy, American Sniper resembles movies more like The Hurt Locker than Lone Survivor: Though much of it takes place on the front, a whole lot takes place back home. The toll that the being home takes on Kyle is not dissimilar to the toll that Kyle being at war takes on his wife.

I guess that's the odd thing about this "war" movie: The drama comes from his time at home. And it's all done very well indeed. You care about this guy as a person, and supporting players are imbued with an uncharacteristic (for a war film) depth and reality (perhaps because they are based on real people).

But for all that, the scenes of Taya were the ones that just tore me up. This story—of a kind of jaded and heartbroken modern woman who is won over, maybe even transformed by a simple love—is really the centerpiece of the movie. First she doesn't believe he's for real, then she falls in love, then she loses him to war, then when he comes back, she still has lost him to the war, a cycle repeated over and over again.

Poignant stuff. Being a superhero has consequences beyond catching Lois when she gets shoved off the top of the Daily Planet building.

It's expected to hear talk of Eastwood retiring—though I wonder how much stock to put in that, given that he had two movies this year (the underrated Jersey Boys being the other). If he does retire, he could do worse than to go out on this film, which will break the top 200 all time box office (adjusted for inflation). I don't think it'll pass Hunger Games or Guardians of the Galaxy, but it could. Not too shabby. (BEFORE POST UPDATE: Actually, it's looking like it will be the #1 box office film of 2014.)

Bradley Cooper does a great job as Kyle (we've noted here that he can really act when he wants to and has a demanding role), and Sienna Miller (whose work I've seen but never much noticed) broke my heart as I noted. It won't win any significant Oscars, of course.

The Boy loved it, and the Flower liked it, though added (as she almost always does), "It was no Gran Torino". I'd put it in my top ten for 2014, but not my top five.

And we learn something: Being a superhero in real life is hard, and when you die, you don't get to come back for the sequel.

OK, that's my review. Now about the kerfuffle.

As always happens when I'm the last to see a movie, when I finally do get to see it, I think "What the hell movie did YOU watch?" Seriously, the assessments on both sides of the trumped-up, fake-outrage-y argument are way off.

Clint Eastwood is about the story. He's not really political (empty chair gag notwithstanding), he's not trying to make a statement, he's just telling a story. It borders on insane to say, for example, that Million Dollar Baby is pro-Euthanasia. There's a particular story there, and we're given to empathize and understand why it happens in a particular case. Generalizing from a fictional story to real-world policy shows a detachment from reality.

The idea that there's anything pro-war or glorifying about this is nonsense: This movie shows the awfulness of war. To the extent that there's anything good about it, it's that people can rise above the terrible things they must do and still be decent.

At the same time, it's not rational to say Chris Kyle, was not a victim of the war. He clearly was, with a bad case of PTSD and survivor's guilt. And ultimately the war claims him, long after he's out of it. (Assuming genuine PTSD on the part of his killer and not some other insanity or evil.)

Kyle is a guy with a bigger mission than you or I. Just like the Machine Gun Preacher, he's someone who took responsibility for something huge. I'm sorry if that makes you feel inadequate. But if everyone could do it, we wouldn't call it "heroism".

The film was popular in Iraq, if controversial, it really should be pretty uncontroversial here.

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