Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Thoughts on American Sniper

My reaction when I heard the slate of Best Picture nominees was “UGH FINE I will go see American Sniper.” Mark and I try to see all the Best Picture nominees every year, and while some of them are a challenge, we had no excuse for missing this one. It’s going to be in theaters well into February. So last night I bit the bullet (ha ha) and went to see it with a couple friends (Mark, who was working, promised to see it later).

There is probably a very good movie to be made about the life of Chris Kyle, the titular sniper, and it would cover the space between two scenes about 125 minutes into this 134-minute movie. The story of overcoming the impact of spending the better part of a decade in Iraq killing people to come home and adjust to normal life is a fascinating one, and maybe even more so when you’ve become exalted as a hero as Kyle was. To put it another way: most of “American Sniper” should have been the five-minute prologue to the movie about Chris Kyle.

The faults of the movie have been well documented: it’s very loosely based on an autobiography that was factually questionable to begin with (though perhaps not so much about his actual tours in Iraq). It ventures into the comic-bookish realm with an invented villain who might as well be named “Drill-Man” and an enemy sniper who was barely mentioned in Kyle’s account of his own life but who becomes his main foil. It shows a lot of violence–yes, in a movie about the guy credited with more kills than any other sniper in U.S. military history, you expect to see gunshots and violence, but the violence here is fetishized to a disturbing extent. The U.S. involvement in Iraq is painted in broad black and white strokes: Kyle is there to protect “our boys” from the “savages,” and while there are occasionally Iraqis who (reluctantly) help Kyle, the motivation of the people he’s fighting is never explored. Kyle’s wife is introduced as a strong woman who shoots down (sorry) a guy trying to pick her up, only to fall for Kyle’s charms; she spends the rest of the movie begging him to come back to his family.

It is the worst Best Picture nominee I can remember seeing. I’ll give Bradley Cooper credit for his performance; other people have criticized it because his natural charm and exuberance are leashed, but I admire him for being able to slip into another character that way. Technical awards, sure. It’s a beautiful movie in many places and I give them a lot of credit for never losing Cooper among all the similarly uniformed soldiers. The action scenes are filmed tautly and are easy to follow, and the sound is terrific. No, the nomination that bothers me the most is for its dull, mediocre screenplay. Stealing from Mark Harris of Grantland in his review of the Oscar nominations, it is stunning to me that this was nominated over Gillian Flynn’s screenplay for “Gone Girl.” That was a well-written, gripping film (and written by the author of the source material; maybe part of the reason for the snub is that she’s not a career screenwriter, while Jason Hall is at least an actor and has two other screenplays to his name); this was basically a war piece that verged on propaganda, and not even clever propaganda.

So anyway. If you’re an Oscar completist, go ahead and see the movie. Otherwise I don’t think most people reading this blog will care much for it.

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