Dear Professional Film Critic,
does the movie American Sniper really “glorify a killer?”
Well, gosh, you put it that way, it sounds pretty terrible. But some outlets and individuals are using that term to frame the movie, so…
Anyway, here’s the thing. American Sniper does take the war in Iraq at face value, as in it was a war and that the United States was within its right to wage it and all that. And, you know, in a war, the body waging it sends soldiers, and one thing soldiers do, one of the main things soldiers do, some would argue, is kill. Killing is something every soldier is trained to do, I think. You know, I bet even the nice chaplain played by Leon Ames in Battleground is probably trained to kill. I doubt that he’s encouraged to kill, but he probably knows how to do it, and can if necessary. What the hell do I know about the military, I was 13 when they ended the draft and too old to enlist by the time people (none that I knew, though) would tell you it was the patriotic thing to do. Although come to think of it the Army might have made a better career than the one I’m enjoying now. But enough about me. In any event, given that Special Forces operative Chris Kyle, the subject of the movie, was trained and employed as a very specific kind of soldier, one who pretty much did nothing BUT kill, and because he did a pretty good job of it, by both the official record and his own accounting (which many have taken issue with, although the official record is apparently acknowledged as solid), and since the movie doesn’t really take issue with the notion that Kyle was what is generally referred to as a “war hero,” then yes, I guess the movie CAN be seen as “glorifying” a “killer.” But there’d have to be a lot of, what are they these days in sports records?...asterisk?...next to “killer” if you’re gonna go that route. I mean it’s not like he did all this killing in Iraq and then came home to face charges. It was all, like, state-sanctioned killing. Seems a little unfair to get all up in his face for that, no?
Dear Professional Film Critic,
what’s the deal with the robot baby in the movie?
Did that bother you? I mean, I kind of noticed it when I looked specifically for it and yeah it was a little goofy but I don’t know. Frankly I’m a little bugged when real newborns get explicit exposure in movies. In the battle between verisimilitude and lobster-red naked infants squirming uncomfortably before cameras and lights I’m something of a conscientious objector. Although the tradition does go back quite a ways: I was surprised, watching King Vidor’s 1928 classic The Crowd again recently, to see that the birth of its hero John is handled with not just a real live baby in full view of the camera but a real live baby in full view of the camera if you know what I’m saying etc. In any event, word from the film’s screenwriter is that the movie’s first live baby showed up with fever, the second was a no-show, and that’s when director Clint Eastwood called in the prop department. Eastwood’s a real git-er-done kind of director. Here he explains that it was Don Siegel who taught him this, so complain to Don Siegel, you philistine: “Don knew exactly which shots to shoot. But he wasn’t rigid. He could add or change a shot at the last minute. I’ve worked with directors who are completely pole-axed if you suggest a change in a scene. I bumped my head while we were shooting In The Line Of Fire. To hide the bruise, I asked Wolfgang Petersen whether I could enter a shot from the right rather than the left. Wolfgang had a lot of trouble reorganizing the scene, because he’d imagined it all from the one angle. A detail had changed and it threw him off balance. This was never the case with Don. Sergio would have taken time to think and probably have said OK, but Don wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid. He believed that there were no rules, or if there were rules, they were made to be broken.” That’s from a piece by Eastwood in the invaluable collection Projections 4 ½ (in association with Positif). You should check it out. I trust I don’t have to explain to you who “Sergio” is.
Dear Professional Film Critic,
does the movie view/portray the Iraqi people as irredeemable savages?
This is kind of a tough one. I would say “no,” but I will admit that the movie frames Iraq within severely straitened circumstances, circumstances specific to the condition and the mission of its lead character, the aforementioned Chris Kyle, an American sniper. The title of the movie, we may recall, is “American Sniper,” not “American Ambassador” or “Civilian Outreach Guy.” Inasmuch as there even was such a thing as civil or civic society in Iraq after we were greeted as liberators there (and again, for reasons explained above, I myself cannot claim any direct experience with respect to any of this, thank God), from what accounts I’ve read it was pretty, um, fraught, and the U.S. Special Forces weren’t really sent to places that weren’t particularly fraught. And so on. Not to drag Boyhood into this, but remember the second stepdad in Boyhood, Jim, before he’s the stepdad and he’s just a student of Patricia Arquette’s and he seems kind of not an asshole and he’s telling the story about one of his tours in Iraq and the differences between the approaches of different squadrons when entering Iraqi territories and interacting with civilians? Right, well, that’s a whole movie right there. And the experience of a special forces operative, I think—and this goes back to the first question—has to do with touching down and securing areas wherein and from which you are only supposed to kill. Notice I’m not saying “kill bad guys.” I’m not here to make judgments. But, no, it’s true—the movie doesn’t feature many Iraqi nice guys or even recognizably regular Iraqis. There’s one who’s particularly holy-shit-inducing in his malevolence, and is pitted against a very fearful native of the country who has cooperated with the Americans. These depictions, to my eye, are conceptualized toward conveying the mind-melting hell of violent conflict that is the everyday working world for the title character, rather than a programmatic attempt to get the audience hissing at an entire race of people as villains. The perspective is, I admit, narrow, but as someone who likes the film, I want to believe it’s necessarily so. A friend who disagrees is reminded of Alan Dershowitz’s heinous 2006 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece titled “’Civilian Casualty? That’s A Gray Area.”