Friday, January 16, 2015

"American Sniper": brief review

Poorly made war movies and horror movies often have one element of badness in common: the jump moment. This is a way of keeping the audience in suspense: we all know the moment is coming; we don't know exactly when it's going to occur, but what's certain is that we'll jump when the moment arrives. This psychological trick is about as sophisticated and mature as a jack-in-the-box, which is why good horror films and good war films tend to stay away from jump moments, e.g., the best friend who suddenly loses his face to a rifle shot, the mine that suddenly explodes when no one expects it to, the enemy who suddenly pops up after everyone thinks he's been killed.

So let me spoil the suspense for you right away and say that "American Sniper," directed by Clint Eastwood and starring a beefed-up Bradley Cooper and lovely Sienna Miller, has almost no jump moments in it. Eastwood and the story writers actually use a suspense-building technique that was commonplace on the TV series "24": they put our hero in the middle of a deadly moral dilemma, turn the camera on him, and watch him sweat his way through it.* More than once in the film, US Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Cooper) has an Iraqi child in his sights, and he wonders whether, in the next ten seconds, he's going to have to blow the kid's head off if the kid fails to drop his weapon.

"Sniper" is based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, a soldier credited with over 160 confirmed kills, making him the deadliest sniper in US military history. As the film progresses, Kyle is nicknamed "The Legend," and the enemy even places a huge bounty on his head. Kyle has a counterpart among the enemy: a Syrian sniper known only as "Mustafa." Much of the film is devoted to the hunt for both Mustafa and "The Butcher," Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a man who favors power drills as an instrument of torture and interrogation. Like Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," "Sniper" follows Kyle as he bounces between several tours in Iraq and married life in the States.

While I was watching the film, and Bradley Cooper's understated performance in particular, I kept wondering how an equivalent war movie would have been handled in a Korean context. There were several moments in the film where Cooper's character could have gone full-on Korean—bellowing, raging, banging on glass windows, weeping uncontrollably after liquoring up. Fortunately, Cooper is a good enough actor to hint at what must have been going through Chris Kyle's mind without ever fully giving us the goods, and his performance is better for it. Flying spittle and tears would have added unnecessary melodrama to a situation that was already fraught with tension, fear, anger, and loss.

One reviewer said that Eastwood, with this film, managed to "out-Bigelow Kathryn Bigelow." He may have, at that, but the film still bears all the marks of an Eastwood movie: deliberate pacing, slow but smoldering buildups of tension, bursts of violence that are brutal without being overly bloody. Eastwood showcases his impressive ability to stage urban battles; the action remains clear to us even when there's a full-on sandstorm blowing through the city. There are moments in the movie when Eastwood could easily have fallen into cliché, especially the cliché of the messed-up, self-destructive vet, but he steps back from that cliff to give us a Chris Kyle who, upon his return to the States, chooses to put his time and energy into something constructive.

If you know Chris Kyle's story but haven't seen the film, you already have an idea how the affair is going to end. I won't spoil it for those of you with no idea. In all, I found "American Sniper" to be well worth seeing—a fitting tribute to American military stoicism and brotherhood, and a salute to one tough soul who went to hell and back.

*Amusingly, many cast members in "Sniper" actually had major and minor roles in "24." I saw several familiar faces.


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