Welcome to 2016! With a New Year, a chance to settle back into some old routines now the Xmas decorations are packed away and (most of) the chocolate is eaten, we got our first proper movie night over the weekend. American Sniper has been sat on top of the TV stand for a few weeks now, passed over in favour of lighter and then festive fare. It was one of those movies that felt like it would be a harder watch, and much of the publicity I recall about it was vaguely (if non-specifically) controversial, although at the same time well reviewed, and that sort of added to the unease. However I'm generally well-disposed to Clint Eastwood as a director, and so it became the movie to start the year with.
We've now had a few war movies about the War on Terror, and it seems the same narratives seem to swirl around them. Like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty before it, American Sniper is a serious, thoughtful work that eschews much in the way of discussion about the war itself in favour of discussion on the impact of war on it's (American) participants. This straight bat approach is, of course, not an apolitical stance; "I'm not getting into it" can be read as quiet complicity, and three movies I've mentioned so far have been accused of that, especially given the strong anti-war tradition of most post-Vietnam war films. Eastwood is also a well-known Hollywood conservative, and that association is hard to avoid in a film so wrapped up in lives of servicemen.
That said, the straight-bat approch is in line with Eastwoods general tendancy as a director and in that sense American Sniper feels of a piece with his excellent Iwo Jima duology, Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers, both of which focus on the experience of war and how to survive it (physically in the former film, mentally in the latter). Here again we have a dramatised true story of the most successful sniper in US military history, focused around his four tours in Iraq and loosely structured around his pursuit of an insurgent sniper over those tours. It counters the sand- and blood-soaked streets of Iraq with his increasing distance from the home front, and even dabbles in a bit of pop-psychoanalysis around his childhood at the start of the film.
Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle early on in closer to the usual manic Bradley Cooper manner, falling just short of irritating whilst protraying a thrill-seeking, devil-may-care redneck who was always, the film seems to say, looking for a cause. That cause becomes the Navy SEALS, and following the attack on the World Trade Centre and the invasion of Iraq he finds his calling as guardian angel with a Sniper Rifle in the drawn out urban warfare that follows. As the film progresses, the performance dials down, and down, as Kyle hollows out - haunted (in his own words, I guess from the book the film is based on) by all the failures, and finding little relief in the lives he can save. It's only the films final (post-Iraq) act that brings him back to life, and its a genuniely affecting performance that roots the film.
As you'd expect from what is, at heart, a war movie, there are a number of stark and sometimes brutal set-pieces that play out through the film. The brutality and confusion of counter-insurgency warfare is laid out in stark fashion; all very street level, in keeping with the perspective of the lead character. Kyle doesn't seem to care why he's in Iraq, or what he's fighting for - he's here to protect his comrades in arms, everything else is irrelevant, and so you don't really see anyone above the rank of Sergeant, and certainly never get any sense of Iraqis other than as targets or victims. In some ways that feels like a deliberate choice; or at least representative of US service personal's attitude to the local inhabitants.
After putting it off for so long I'm glad we got to American Sniper in the end. It's a powerful portrait of a single soldier at war, and toll that takes on him and those around him, but I think the audience will bring their own context with them. The prevailing mood of war movies around Iraq and Afghanistan seems to be very much pro-serviceman, but shifty about the rights and wrongs of the war itself, steering away from the political and staying close to the personal, and this is especially true here. It doesn't bother me too much - and within that context American Sniper is a powerful and effective character study.