American Sniper [2014]

It was perhaps inevitable that an American film about an Iraq veteran would end up being described as divisive at best and propagandist at worst. I’ve been reading a lot of thoughtful reviews that focus on a kind of political reading of the film. My favourite excoriation came from Rolling Stone:

It’s usually silly to get upset about the self-righteous way Hollywood moviemakers routinely turn serious subjects into baby food.

But to turn the Iraq war into a saccharine, almost PG-rated two-hour cinematic diversion about a killing machine with a heart of gold (is there any film theme more perfectly 2015-America than that?) who slowly, very slowly, starts to feel bad after shooting enough women and children – Gump notwithstanding, that was a hard one to see coming.

Read the whole thing – it’s terrific fun, and probably in the majority view from critics. Some liked it, with the Boston Globe musing on whether it was the greatest American war movie ever, because of it’s bare-bones and stripped back approach. Uncompromising seems to be the key buzzword in favour of the film. Well, Reel History gave it a D- for accuracy, so I think we can see that aspect of the film as just as much so much wish-fulfilment – it’s as compromised as you could ask for, just not in the usual way.

What I haven’t seen yet is a genuine discussion of American Sniper as a film – as a cinematic/artistic creation.

When a film with absolutely stunning cinematography and a genuinely dazzling flare arrives on the scene, we do tend to sit up and take notice. Recently I’ve been amazed at Interstellar [2014] and Birdman [2014] – love or hate them, there is a level of skill in the construction of the mise en scene, in the colour palette, and in the artful movement of the camera, that makes them aesthetically pleasing even if you find the characters repulsive and the stories boring. If we are looking for a close genre companion for American Sniper, I think we’re looking squarely at The Hurt Locker [2008]. I’ve even read one review (which, alas, I can’t find again) that claims for American Sniper that Eastwood “out Bigelows Bigelow” in its portrayal of the environment.

The Hurt Locker isn’t my favourite piece of cinema, but it is visually/aesthetically interesting and challenging. It’s basic aesthetic is the hand-held semi-shaky camera, intended to convey a sense of intimacy, often mistaken for a “documentary” style. The close camera-work is intended to make people feel like they are in the scene, if not as participants then as uncomfortably close witnesses. It also focuses your vision in a way more traditional fixed-perspective cameras don’t – moving with the subject of the gaze is inherently structurally positioning that subject as more important than the surrounds. In a fixed view, a moving object is in a wider context, in a moving view it is the context which shifts. Taken to extremes, this becomes disorienting and confusing, because in real life our gaze is more stable than film-makers sometimes seem to want. Paul Greengrass in particular makes films I can barely watch because of the dizzying zooms, pans and shaking.

American Sniper in contrast uses Eastwood’s familiar simple and direct gaze. Point a camera and let the actors speak. This peculiarly suited his original genre of choice, the Western, because the Western is inherently about stillness. The two iconic scenes of the Western are the entrance of the gun-fighter into the saloon and the show-down between two (or three) gunfighters. The wide-shot still gaze of the camera for the saloon shows how the entrance affects the ambience. You see activity, and then the change which silences it. A modern “documentary” shaky-cam picture following the gunfighter into the saloon will only see the end point of his entry, leaving the audience to guess what it looked like before. Similarly, in the iconic show-down scene is a scene based around the potential for action. The point is precisely the stillness that exists before the decisive and explosive moment. The greatest gunfighter movie, The Quick and the Dead uses a clean and simple perspective on every fight except the last. Raimi stomped heavily on his innovative and energetic camera work because that was a virtual requirement for genre. (Even there – braver film-makers will often cut the scene as a two-shot, highlighting the stillness through changing perspectives on the confrontation. In the extreme cases, a fully cinematic point of view can work even better than stillness. Witness the crazy spiralling of the climax of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly or the semi-aerial panoramic in Seraphim Falls)

This stillness and simple directness can suit a sniper movie very well. Enemy at the Gates uses long and controlled shots of people simply waiting, and the tensest scene for me in The Hurt Locker is when the bomb disposal team is hunkered down under fire. Bigelow conveys the absolute rigid discipline required to simply stare through the scope for hours on end. The comparison between sniper-fire and explosives is made clear, and both are terrifying. She does this through the simple expedient of having her camera simply watch them for long periods. Stillness, control, and discipline. Even Tony Scott was able to direct this well, showing the sniper in The Taking of Pelham-123 willing to let a rat crawl inside his clothes rather than lose his total focus on his target. What Eastwood does in American Sniper is just the opposite – Kyle’s accompanied by a marine who’s simply chatty and relaxed. Kyle is barely in position when the action unfolds. The one scene where the discipline becomes apparent is early in the piece where a trail of urine is left when he leaps up when relieved – but instead of the cramped, fatigued, wasted soldiers we get in the Hurt Locker, Kyle looks like he’s ready to go on and party. In one of the worst scenes of the film, he gets frustrated in over-watch and goes down to help with the door-to-door entries, telling his marine guard to come with or disappear. Bradley Cooper is getting a lot of praise for toning town his usual over-the-top hyper-activity for this role, but when I compare his Kyle to the great snipers of cinema, he still seems irrepressible and frenetic.

Sniping is inherently impersonal and distant. The sniper forms no connection with his target – a figure simply falls over at extreme range. This is the basic premise of One ShotJack Reacher [2013] – the sniper hides a specific murder amongst an impersonal act of random-seeming mass killing. Often, the sniper is totally invisible to his target, and the great confrontation in Enemy at the Gates [2001] is resolved by a disgraced officer sacrificing himself to allow Vassili to see Konig and take that crucial shot to win the duel of the snipers. Kyle perpetually seeks to bridge the gap between himself and his victims by getting physically closer to them. Killing at a distance does not suit his temperament. The film ultimately endorses his personal perspective by creating a nemesis, Mustafa. There is a lazy reliance here on the most basic adversarial mode of storytelling that is basically at odds with the distant and impersonal nature of sniping. This worked in Enemy at the Gates because the entire fabric of the film was built around the duel, where in American Sniper the highly episodic and disjointed nature of the narrative makes this feel like a kind of formulaic-fulfilment. Dr Kermode suggested that had Spielberg directed rather than Eastwood, there would have been a stronger counter-perspective from Mustafa’s side. This would have been moving the story further in the wrong, conventional, direction.

The Hurt Locker – Bigelow’s film really drove home the aleatory nature of war as an expression of how futile, pointless, and destructive it is. American Sniper tries to take the same material and through a single-minded focus on its putative hero and his super-patriotism, make his actions heroic; hence the divisiveness. What I think a focus on this political aspect fails to really appreciate is how poorly structured the storytelling in the film is. There is a simple and basic failure in the film to communicate an emotional reality to the audience, or to create a meaningful statement about either american patriotism or the costs of war. In other words, the highly episodic nature of the film combined with “nuts and bolts” direction, left me feeling slightly bored and disconnected throughout. The emotional stakes and consequences from any given scene were usually opaque to me – just a random sequence of events happening for no particular reason. This lack of a particular reason mustn’t be confused with Bigelow’s pointed meaninglessness, which is a hugely important aspect of the war in Iraq.

C’s convincing counter-argument to my problems with the film as an artistic construction is simply that when the subject material reaches a certain critical level of inherent incendiarity, you don’t need to do much with it because it speaks for itself. It sounds a bit like the people behind Selma [2014] are encountering that response from critics too – it’s such an important story that critics want audiences to see it even as they can’t agree it’s actually a well-made artistic product. In which case, I think that the enormous financial success of the film speaks very directly to the current mass-psychological needs of the USA. After a decade of casualties and apparently futile conflict, it seems that the american people en masse need to feel like there are heroes in this story, and that it did mean something.  If it wins Best Picture, then I think we need to think about what this reversal of focus implies, after The Hurt Locker‘s victory only 5 years ago. The greater interest in the glory of war compared to the late emancipation of the black population of the USA is sad indeed.

Dr Kermode ended his review of American Sniper saying he wanted it to be more ambivalent. I want the opposite – I want it to be more anything, rather than the boring, plainly shot, simply acted, and totally episodic nothingness that it is.

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