By W. TIMOTHY SUTTON. Sutton is a member of the Maryland Libertarian Party executive board. He hosts the Non-Aggression Principle Thursday nights at 8 pm on Free State Radio.
While the rest of the country watched the Super Bowl, my wife and I finally saw American Sniper. It is not a good movie. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad movie. It is wonderfully executed and wonderfully directed, but the sum of the parts are much greater than the whole. Let me explain.
The final five minutes of the movie are some of the most powerful five minutes ever put on film. The scenes of Chris Kyle’s funeral procession and the memorial at Cowboy’s Stadium are haunting. If you are not welling up, then you are an unemotional robot. In fact, it was the second time I had welled up during the movie, the first being during Marc’s funeral. But here’s the thing, the end footage wasn’t part of the movie. That was real life. It was numbing, but it wasn’t part of the narrative presented by Eastwood, Hall, & Cooper. That was a disjointed mess.
The filmmakers tried to do too much with the movie and didn’t do enough. We see Kyle as a kid protecting his brother. We see him before he gets the inspiration to join the navy. We see him in BUDS school. Do we really need to see all of that? Wouldn’t the movie have worked better if it had started when he met Taya? All of this other stuff is not necessary. Maybe the part when he was young with his brother for the sheepdog story, but that’s it.
By having that other stuff in there, the movie lost focus. Was it An Officer & a Gentleman? Was it Full Metal Jacket? Was it Enemy at the Gates? Was it the Best Years of Our Lives? There wasn’t enough of an exploration of the Chris and Taya relationship. At one point in the movie she says if he redeployed she would leave him, but he left and she was still there when he came back. No explanation. No mention. Just ok, this is how it is. He comes home and goes to a bar. The next scene of the two together is years later. This is the biggest flaw in the movie. I wanted to see the last fours years of Chris Kyle’s life. They spent the entire movie destroying his psyche. Showing just how not right he is. They skip right over the part of how he got right. One scene in the hospital and one on the range just didn’t cut it.
As for the battle scenes. Beautiful. Exquisite filmmaking. But perhaps this is where I should point out that I knew the end. I knew how Kyle died and knew he was in no danger on the battlefield. The battle scenes lacked tension because of that and because we didn’t really care about the enemy. Yes they were evil men. Yes they were savages. But the butcher was killed too easily and Mustafa lacked any development at all. They were ciphers. Stock characters. They were not worthy adversaries for the legend. A great hero needs a great villain. Batman is nothing without Joker. The butcher and Mustafa were not great villains. The butcher story itself seemed out of place. It was a diversion on the road to the final shot. The whole movie needed to build up to that moment. The moment Kyle sent a bullet 1900 meters. 1.19 miles. It didn’t.
Kyle walks through the entire movie oblivious to the world. Oblivious to those around him. The focus of all attention. Bradley Cooper was not up to the task. Sienna Miller and Luke Grimes vastly outperform Cooper. At no point in the movie did it feel like I was watching anything other than Bradley Cooper play pretend. I couldn’t see it for anything other than that. Perhaps because so much of the focus was on Cooper’s character, this is to be expected. Perhaps, this is actually truly great acting because that is how the character is supposed to be played. With emotional detachment. It just came off as disingenuous.
The movie played as a series of vignettes. A lack of cohesion hampered the emotional impact. The two big deaths before the end of the movie, those of Mark and Biggles, show this. Like I said above, the death of Marc and his funeral were emotional. But that was because he was the conscience of the movie. He was the one saying war is bs but that they just shot our buddy in the face so let’s get them. Biggles died off screen with Kyle back in country. His death, the one that is supposed to be avenged by killing Mustafa, lacked any emotional impact.
The tour-home-tour-home-tour nature of the movie contributed to the lack of cohesion. Maybe this was purposeful. Maybe this was done so that the viewer felt like Chris Kyle. Felt disoriented and out of place in the home scenes. That would be a good trick, but it was poor storytelling. The worst part is that the audience didn’t see how he became oriented again. It was two scenes in five minutes. Rushed and not at all satisfying.
That is perhaps this movies biggest sin. It was not satisfying. A movie based on a true story where the protagonist dies in the end may have trouble being satisfying, but this movie suffered more. We saw the descent into hell but not the climb out. That climb would have been brilliant. Without the climb, overall the movie was a B-.
With the review out of the way, let me say something about the controversy surrounding the film. First, let me state that it is my belief that this movie is unequivocally an ANTI-WAR film. The words of Taya and Marc are unmistakable. Chris says he is protecting Taya by fighting but Taya points out that as they are stateside while he is halfway across the world, how is that protecting them. Marc questions the war. Openly. Fervently. With vigor. And he gets a round in the chest for his troubles. The other major point on the side of the anti-war ledger is the change in Chris. The war and the horrors of it nearly destroyed him. In the end they were responsible for his death. The film really questions if we should be sending our men into these situations. Ultimately, it seems to say that war may be necessary but we need to have a strong discussion before we reach that point and there better be a damn good reason if we do decide to send our people into these horrors.
That’s why the criticism the movie has received as propaganda and glorifying violence is kind of shocking. Kyle explains it perfectly. He was merely protecting Marines. There was no greater mission. No worse motives. He wasn’t killing anybody for freedom. He was killing them because they were going to kill his friends. He didn’t kill them because they were savages, he killed them because they were going to kill his friends.
Sometimes war is necessary. Sometimes it is not. We have an obligation to make sure that when the decision to send our young men and women to war, it is done with thoughtfulness, purpose, and clear heads. Chris Kyle was an American hero. So were the others who lost their lives in Falujah, Ramadi, and Sadr City. It doesn’t really matter if they were fighting the right war. We have to hold those that sent them there accountable, but not just for the just cause but for the loss suffered by those left behind, those that came home, and those that came home draped in flags.