People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
Back in 1979, reviewers liked to point out that Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now was so plagued with difficulty and confusion (the star suffered a heart attack during shooting and a devastating typhoon destroyed all the sets) that the making of the film paralleled the reality of the Vietnam War itself.
A similar observation might be made of Clint Eastwood's American Sniper about Iraq. Like the Iraq War itself, Eastwood's movie begins by exploiting a historically inaccurate delusion and, then, sustains itself for two hours on the mission to protect US soldiers against the insurgency that arose in opposition to the US invasion and occupation based on the initial delusion.
The film opens with a black screen and a muezzin chanting the Islamic adham, or call to prayer, from a minaret. The words "Allahu Akbar" are very distinguishable in the chant. Islam is very much in the news, especially after the Charlie Hebdo killings, and the phrase "Allahu Akbar" is by now familiar with popular US audiences. Such a subliminal opening felt ideologically heavy-handed to me, intimating an unseen evil lurking in the dark. The narrative quickly sketches in Chris Kyle's introduction to hunting animals, his recruitment and training as a Navy SEAL and how he met his future wife, Taya, at a bar. This leads to an emotional scene of the two lovers watching on TV as the twin towers are knocked down. Then -- wham! -- we're in Iraq and sniper Kyle is confronted with the dilemma of having to shoot a mother and son to protect an advancing Marine platoon.
Any honest skeptic equipped with even a cursory understanding of the antecedents to the Iraq War will see what's going on here. It's not a debatable issue: We know now for sure that Iraq had absolutely nothing -- nada, zilch -- to do with the downing of the twin towers in New York. Dick Cheney's persistent claims to the contrary, the secular Muslim Saddam Hussein, once our ally, was a bitter enemy of al Qaeda. But in 2014, the film's producer, writer and director decided on a clean and efficient plot line that hinges on the highly emotional image of the towers falling. The real Chris Kyle may have absolutely believed in this fictional connection, but a protagonist's delusion is not a defense for emotionally perpetuating such a costly fiction (many call it a "lie") in a narrative film about the war. But, then, that's what "popular" filmmaking is all about, and Eastwood is, if nothing else, a maestro of popular American storytelling. Whether or not one respects such a corrupt decision, the fact is American Sniper is an extremely well-made movie.
Following spaghetti western acclaim, Eastwood, now 84, moved on to Dirty Harry movies; the first entry is a classic made by director Don Siegel, who was known for manly, efficient filmmaking. Eastwood picked up this style and became famous, himself, for directing movies effectively and fast. Cut the crap; shoot a scene and move onto the next one. Over the years, he has honed this very masculine style and become a popular film director exploring the American psyche mostly from the reactionary right -- though his films are always a dialogue with issues on the left. American Sniper is no different with its limited contrapuntal theme of PTSD and homefront family adjustment.
All that storytelling talent is on the screen in American Sniper. Like the war itself, the film is aggressive, masculine and highly kinetic. The film's sound effects are rich and thundering in the theater; its camera work is direct and bold. There's a real "shock and awe" feel to the piece. MRAPs roar out of the FOB with a menacing hugeness. Any sense of reflection is missing, and historical and political context are willfully left out of the story. When confronted with leftist criticism suggesting the film got the Iraq War wrong, producer and star Bradley Cooper reportedly said, "It's not a film about debating the war; it's a character study."
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