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Film Review

American Sniper

Surely one of our greatest living American directors is Clint Eastwood, who made the leap from acting to directing over 40 years ago, while continuing his career as an actor. And did I mention his record as a producer? Eastwood has directed over 35 films in as many years, often playing the lead role. Many of his films are now American icons. After the TV series Rawhide (1959-65), he first became famous for his roles in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns (1964-66), such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Then came a torrent of now classic films. To name only a few: Dirty Harry (1971), The Eiger Sanction (1975), Pale Rider (1985), The Unforgiven (1992), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Flags of our Fathers (2006), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Gran Torino (2008), J. Edgar (2011) and Jersey Boys (2014). His films are powerful and accomplished, with a very American quality to them, meaning American settings, with dark, difficult themes and troubled protagonists, typically confronting evil. But these are not Rambo films; his stories are nuanced and ambiguous. He often composes the music for his films, something very rare in the movie business. Eastwood seems to have produced some of his finest work in the 2000 decade. He is now 84, and continues to turn out good films and write music. His latest film is American Sniper, based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, a legendary Navy SEAL who served in Iraq.

American Sniper open with the sounds of a tank engine, and the camera watches an American tank cautiously moving down a devastated Iraqi street, supporting an infantry patrol. We're looking from a roof top. The camera pivots and we see a soldier with a grey sniper rifle watching the patrol and providing cover from enemy snipers. A woman and boy emerge from a house, she apparently carrying something under her cloak. The sniper must decide immediately if she is a threat to the American patrol, and if so, shoot her. Then the film does a flashback to the sniper as a young boy, perhaps 10, who is out hunting with his father. The boy fires, and a buck drops. His father is clearly proud of his son: "you have a great gift", describing his son's marksmanship. Back at their house, while eating dinner, the father gives a lecture to his children: "Everyone is either sheep, wolves, or sheep dogs". "You are a sheep dog", he says to his son. The flashbacks continue as the son, now older, competes and wins in a rodeo.

The son is Chris Kyle, who served four tours in Iraq as a sniper and had 160 confirmed kills, with an additional hundred more quite likely but unconfirmed. Kyle, well played by Bradley Cooper who really muscled up for this part, watches the Twin Towers collapse on TV, and decides to enlist. It doesn't take the military long to realize that he is an excellent shot and an inspirational leader. The film follows Kyle through SEAL training, with many washing out. Kyle prevails, and in an evening off, meets an attractive woman, Taya, who is sassy and good with comebacks. Then we are in Iraq again while Kyle is protecting troops, and whose skill has caused jihadists to put a big price on his head. A particularly skilled insurgent sniper, who is taking a heavy toll of US troops, is also trying to kill Kyle. The film is structured with periodic flashbacks while Kyle is in combat, and shows him becoming affected by the seemingly endless war. When home with his wife, he is unresponsive to her but hyper alert to sounds and other normal things that seem like threats only to someone suffering from PTSD. His wife says "You are not the same person whom I married", and indeed he is not. However Kyle, who learned stoicism from his father, denies anything is wrong.

American Sniper is essentially a two character film: Kyle and his wife, Taya, played by Sienna Miller (Foxcatcher). Both are excellent, bring a believability to the screen, and look astoundingly like the real characters who are shown in the coda. Minor characters, especially Kyle's fellow soldiers, are well drawn, although to this vet's ears, the language sounded sanitized. The combat scenes seemed realistic, and often filmed with unusual camera angles. The military must have assisted substantially in this film because of the amount and sophistication of the equipment, including aircraft, tanks, mine resistant troop carriers and individual equipment. Pacing is typically Eastwood: fast, with little let up, and nearly constant tension. Cinematography is excellent, and the street scenes, filmed on location in Morocco, seemed all too convincing. Late in the film Kyle begins to visit veteran hospitals to help wounded vets. Eastwood, to his credit, shows the cost by using real vets with lost limbs, and the cost to the families. It seems significant that Eastwood titled his film American Sniper, rather than American Hero because "sniper" has a darker meaning. Is this a guy film? Not necessarily, but it is violent and upsetting. And it should be upsetting, given not only Kyle's story but the larger picture.

Eastwood, a staunch Republican (and a former mayor of Carmel, California), has directed what at first appears to be a conventional war film about a genuine war hero, but as the film proceeds, Kyle's comrades express their skepticism and contempt for the war, and predict it will continue forever. Kyle remains convinced in the rightness of the war, but begins to recognize the toll, especially when each time he returns to Iraq, discovers that friends of his have been killed. Still, Kyle is a believer and justly proud that he helped save Marine lives. To this reviewer, Kyle seems also to be a metaphor for the feckless decisions that led us into this war of choice for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were all convinced that it would only be a matter of months, and we would have reordered Iraq into a vibrant democracy. That was in 2003, and we remain mired in our longest war ever. Further, with the ending of the draft in 1973, our armed forces are entirely volunteers. This has isolated the American public from the armed forces, and visa versa, with bad consequences. It is easier politically to go to war because the President and Congress do not have to worry about children of the middle class coming home in boxes. It explains the weakness of the anti war movement on campuses, because students are no longer at risk. Basically, one percent of Americans are defending us and putting themselves at risk. The rest, while supportive ("Support our troops") of the military, tend to ignore the war and are along for the ride. And even with that, Congress cannot seem to appropriately fund and oversee VA services for veterans. This is a scandal and we should all be ashamed. None of this is healthy for a democracy. Risk should be shared regardless of socio economic class.

I was very moved by this accomplished film and think it will become a classic. In some respects it reminded me of the Hurt Locker, but American Sniper is a more complex and better told story. Just opened and playing widely in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Running time: 132 minutes. Definitely a big screen film.

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