Sunday, January 25, 2015

‘AMERICAN SNIPER’ BOILS UP THE DREGS OF US FOR GREATER BOX OFFICE

By Dominique Paul Noth

During filming  of "American Sniper" and before
 controversy, Bradley Cooper and director Clint Eastwood 
Politics – not Hollywood politics but global politics – have intruded on the Oscars in a way that forces to the surface a particularly ugly profile: The meager brain power of a segment of the American moviegoing public who may be spending way too much time playing video war games and misunderstanding the dimensions of patriotism, courage and real blood.

If news reports and box office explosion are to be believed, “American Sniper” has released a new wave of anti-Muslim hatred --- to the degree that both director and star have been urged to step in and speak up. Routinely they have defended the film as just a portrait of men at war and the price they pay, which is proving a simplistic interpretation of what their methods have engendered.

 “War is ugly and no matter how bad those guys might be, Clint Eastwood makes sure the audience knows Americans don’t take lives out of any motive other than self-defense.”  That was the advance sales pitch.  But those darned details of how we justify self-defense seem different in the movie’s ambivalences, since dismissive slurs or doubts about the mission happen even as Iraqi families and children are steered into the dispute. These are wrinkles too many in the audience run right past.

The result has been a new fever– I hope mainly from adolescents and right-wing stooges – to use more firepower to rid the world of what the twitter feeds describe as towel-headed terrorists. 

The derogatory terms are both subtle and inflammatory, and we can also indict as co-conspirators those members of Congress who complain that Obama didn’t use Isis or Al Qaeda or particularly their favorite slur on Muslims -- “radical Islamic terrorists” -- in his State of the Union speech. They hoped the president would cave in to their limited view and fears of the current beheading movements (and elevate those passing movements in self-importance) rather than Obama’s realization that the fight is against terrorism whatever the source or methods.

Now Americans seem to be doing the same dance of the veiled perspective, misinterpreting “American Sniper” – with some unintentional collusion from director Eastwood -- as a glorification of bloodlust and sniperland. But note how it is only glorified when it is American. The snipers on the other side are portrayed as evil personified.

Even current and past survivors of battlefield conflict understand better the complexities of ferocious attacks and question mightily the cutout images that the non-draftable current moviegoing youth seem to be obsessed with, in their veteran eyes. 

Eastwood made the Olympic trained Syrian sniper on the other side a hated comic book figure because he is killing American soldiers while all Chris Kyle on the American side is doing is killing Muslims (and interesting how media describes them as Muslims – are protesters in Ferguson described as Christians?). They are Arabs trying to kill the American invaders he is assigned to protect, and from cheering for his success we seem to have moved to embracing the entire Mideast concept. 

Kyle in his memoirs did proclaim a religious war and call the enemy “savages” (imagine what they called him as soldiers stormed through villages) and said he was only killing unrelenting evil lowlifes as the sheepdog protecting the American sheep from the Arab wolves. So what if some offended or too young to understand Arab sheep get caught in or participate in the wartime crossfire.

Eastwood stayed away from Kyle’s statements, a decision many criticize.  But others apparently brought to the movie this Chris Kyle publicized view of Arabs in general and Muslims in particular, ignoring that most of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world are quite different and that terrorists,  as they did in American sects of Christendom or in Irish sects of the IRA, will hide behind any weird veil of religion that allows them to recruit and kill their enemies – and that,  in times of war , military leaders go out of their way to paint the enemy in the ugliest terms.

One of the distinction of America is the value we put on all human life even when dealing with cults that don’t, so I think Eastwood meant better than to inflame xenophobic passions.  But he has.

I thought audiences would more appreciate the internal moments of doubt and the finesse of self-denial that actor Bradley Cooper brought to the portrayal of Kyle.  I even credited Eastwood with dwelling in that denial when he clearly didn’t have to and seemed moved by growing evidence of the impact of killing on the caring solider, regardless of what Kyle wrote.  I thought that -- as horribly embarrassing an improviser in front of the Republican convention as he had been – his ridiculous side tended to disappear in his professionalism behind the camera where he knows how to explore characters as well as manipulate reactions in an audience. In my naiveté I may have underestimated that he intended to play a double game from the start – several colleagues now think I was foolish to believe him more mature than that.

Cooper set his sights on getting under
Chris Kyle's skin.
Eastwood, who has thrived by playing onscreen with the lone gunman image, at least had sought moment after moment to suggest that the military indoctrination reinforced Kyle into over demonizing the enemy, that his acts on the battlefield and his suggestion that he would willingly “face my Creator and justify every shot” were contradicted by what we saw of his internal doubts and growing mental disturbance, a good ole American boy carried into near dementia by the battlefield.

I thought audiences would grasp that if even Eastwood that right-wing libertarian was ambiguous, they should be, too. Sure he’s suggesting we need sheepdogs, but sheepdogs really stand there in case wolves don’t back away. That’s quite different than recruiting for more sheepdogs than manageable or issuing hurrahs when they are turned loose. After all, it was a war-infected veteran that killed Kyle at a shooting range.

So I thought what would resonate was Eastwood’s deeper moments of arguing we need warriors but pay a huge price in humanity for having them.

Apparently not, judging by the press reports and judging by some now outrageous attacks on Eastwood as a genocidal anti-Muslim, which I don’t think true.  But by golly, a large portion of the public is cheering what I thought they would question and I worry that Eastwood was shrewder about the audience than I was and knew they would react thusly for his box office glory as his career winds down.

I took it as acceptable license – all these films are individual fictionalized interpretations of history and generally deserve that freedom -- that Eastwood didn’t dwell on Kyle’s postwar behavior, his controversial self-glorification, and claims that he killed truck hijackers, punched out Jesse Ventura or shot looters during Hurricane Katrina, none of which has any proof.  But by then he may have been suffering PTSD and certainly was suffering from delusions of grandeur in his tales about his exploits -- furthered by the realization that he could make a lot of money and attract conservative speech dates by elevating his appeal as drawling two-fisted cowboy war hero. 

In the film he acts somewhat sheepish over hero-rizing by fellow soldiers. Apparently true, though he was certainly never comparable to Gary Cooper’s Sgt. York as the reluctant pacifist killing machine of World War I. Yet too many are rushing right  by such  nuances of the movie  to simplify Kyle as either a kill-happy psychopath or the kind of American macho man we need in times of trouble. Pitiful petty minds exist on both the left and the right.

In my review I did worry that Eastwood was for commercial reasons trying to have it both ways – reveling in the fury of war while exposing the horror. I thought the blurring of the battle scenes, so that we sometimes can’t tell who is being mowed down so indiscriminately, was a comment on the blindness on both sides. Instead it seems to have created a patriotic battle cry at the box office – proving if I ever had any doubt that there is a portion of the movie audience that reacts out of upbringing and Fox News simplicities rather than the contemplation that good movies are supposed to create even through their emotional peaks.

I don’t think that reaction should be the measure of “American Sniper,” but now the idiocies it encouraged from its largely male  audiences – and looking back some such reactions were encouraged – and its  interpretation of patriotism have to be factored in to any evaluation.  The shame is that Cooper’s portrayal is spot on and it is mainly the director’s plot compressions, twists of emphasis and battle elongations that are causing the anti-intellectual outpouring. 

To be fair, there are similar problems on the other side of the political landscape  that I want to discuss in a review of “Selma.” But right now the reactions surrounding “American Sniper” are far more damaging.

“Selma” is at least overstepping in the cause of moral justice and individual rights.  “American Sniper” is being used to return to the cartooning needed during World War II that I thought we grew out of – you know, portraying yipping “Japs” and goose-stepping “Krauts.”  But today it’s radical Islamic "ragheads."  This box office outpouring may even be manipulated into a political tool to invite further invasion and more sniper and killing machines to protect ourselves in advance of actual attack  (which is, need I point out, historically un-American in our values) and to hell with the effect on the American psyche. 

When or if we go to war  is an issue worth debating, but rather than “American Sniper” stirring thoughtful debate,  it seems to be kicking up the least thoughtful devils within us.

Original American Sniper review.   Other reviews: Whiplash, Wild, Into the Woods, Unbroken, Boyhood,  Theory of Relativity, Birdman,  Imitation Game, Foxcatcher

Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.