How do you solve a problem like jingoism? American Sniper

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Gosh, I did not like American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s latest entry in his ongoing cinematic efforts to celebrate war heroes of every stripe.

And if you’re the kind of reader who’s going to tell me I’m not a good “patriot” because I don’t like this movie, just move along … right now. Or, better yet, check out classic film The Mortal Storm, about a culture run aground by totalitarianism as certain citizens dare to challenge the propaganda being shoved down their collective throats (that society in question would be Nazi Germany, BTW).

If the intent of this Oscar-nominated film American Sniper is to reveal the horrors post-9/11 warfare has had upon its participants, there have been much better, much more nuanced, much more sensitive cinematic efforts in that regard: JarheadZero Dark ThirtyStop/Loss.  If the intent of this film is to rally the Lee Greenwood-loving “Proud to be an American” contingent, then count me out.

With that said, Bradley Cooper in the title role does yeoman’s work, communicating a world of hurt and confusion and well-intentioned if misused patriotism. With just his eyes, Cooper gives us a Chris Kyle (one of the most successful snipers in US military history) haunted by his actions and what appears to be a sneaking suspicion that his particular talents have been misapplied in a world gone mad. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the film Eastwood is intent on making.

At times (chiefly during the interminable scenes set in Iraq), I felt I was watching a WWII-era propaganda film blurred into one of those single-shooter video games where jackbooted soldiers blow away any flesh-and-blood creature identified in big, bold font as ENEMY. Has Eastwood finally regressed to his cowboy roots, with a simplistic white hat/black hat approach to world affairs, totally disregarding our messy connectivity – technologically, economically, socially? Sure feels like it.

Sienna Miller as Kyle’s long-suffering wife Taya does her best Kate Beckinsale impression, running the gamut from slightly worried to really worried to slightly worried again. She has a thankless role, and does her best, like Cooper, to offer layers that the script doesn’t provide. Miller is a crackerjack actor, and her scenes with Cooper offer a glimpse into the film’s potential. Her exasperation with his dedication to duty and country versus her hopes for his potential as husband and father are rich territory to explore; sadly, the film spends more time in Iraq than at home, with Miller relegated to bringing whatever flavor she can to one-sided cell phone calls.

Chris Kyle killed 161 men, women, and children in the Middle East in his career, all in an effort to spread liberty across the globe. However you may feel about the war effort, making a compelling movie about a soldier who sits on rooftops all day long picking off insurgents is a tough sell. I’m not downplaying his contributions, but I would like to see a film that helps us better understand the why and the what of his activities in Iraq, especially since his life took such a tragic turn when he finally came home for good, shot at a rifle range as he was trying to rehabilitate a fellow veteran. Was that devastating price worth the wartime outcomes? Perhaps, but I’m not sure I got that from American Sniper.

I’m unclear as to the intended audience for this film, but I suspect it isn’t yours truly. I felt profoundly uncomfortable during the lengthy 2 1/2 hour running time, as if every jingoistic button I do not possess was being pushed and prodded: the inflated sense of American superiority; the fetishization of firearms; the paranoid survivalism (better conveyed I might add in the superior Prisoners); the notion that life (be it animal or human) must be sacrificed for our ongoing prosperity. I don’t buy into any of that, and I never shall.

I don’t mean to be glib, but I feel that at some level this film may be recklessly misinterpreted by a red-blooded, fist-pumping audience looking for simplistic villains that just don’t exist in the modern world. If you want to watch people being heroic and making the world safe for their fellow man, I suggest you check out Selma. Or Paddington.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

29 thoughts on “How do you solve a problem like jingoism? American Sniper

  1. glad we are in agreement with dislike! Could have been much better if the focus was just a little different.

  2. Havent seen it, but ur last two paragraphs sound exactly like what i think when i read other reviews of the film. Its a shame, Eastwood had made sone terrificly nuanced films. But it sounds like he got so much love after talking to that empty chair that he wanted to give back to that crowd.

  3. Bradley sometimes ooks me out…and BTW you forgot to list the elephant man on your resume??? but Bradley recently singlehandedly made me hate that thing when earnestly discussing his “craft” of a broadway turn as “ellie” revisited — with Charlie Rose…puke and so did the lady who removes her bodice…gabfest about a very odd topic…adopting a cicus freak and how grandly noble that all was…$$$$$$$$$$$$– all of these years later? and clint is not my cup of…coffee around any old outwest campfire…a Beverly Hills lifeguard turned Italian cowboy via really purid cowboy boob tube turns. go ahead clint and make my day…and … go away! but I love this review! fat chance however that I will fight the bunches of goof-ass bubbas to stand in line to waste ticket money on cowboy/soldier soap opera crap! war is hell and not necessary.

  4. hey, thinking I ought to correct my typos? 😉 here goes..”Susie Sexton oh..and…one more thing…Bradley sometimes ooks me out…and BTW you forgot to list the elephant man on your resume??? but Bradley recently singlehandedly made me hate that thing when earnestly discussing his “craft” of a broadway turn as “ellie” revisited — with Charlie Rose…puke and so did the lady who removes her bodice…gabfest about a very odd topic…adopting a circus freak and how grandly noble that all was…$$$$$$$$$$$$– all of these years later? and clint is not my cup of…coffee around any old outwest campfire…a Beverly Hills lifeguard turned Italian cowboy via really putrid cowboy boob tube turns. go ahead clint and make my day…and … go away! but I love this review! fat chance however that I will fight the bunches of goof-ass bubbas to stand in line to waste ticket money on cowboy/soldier soap opera crap! war is hell and not necessary.” I feel better now!

    • You nailed it. They are all such posturing, silly, preening fools. I’ve grown very tired of Bradley Cooper, and I never much cared for Clint Eastwood. And as for the elephant man, I am as embarrassed about that on my resume as anyone else. Live and learn

      >

  5. this is a tough one. i’m pretty non-violent by my very nature, and it is hard for me to rationalize killing. war movies generally make me very sad and upset, but if the message is anti-war, it is much easier for me to swallow. hard to have a war movie without killing and violence and hard for me to imagine being in the shoes of those who choose soldiering as a profession.

  6. However nuanced one might like to believe life is, and it is on many levels, you can basically categorize people in one of three groups. The great majority of people are like sheep: they are passive, they want to get along with everyone and go about their quiet lives without bothering anybody else. A few people are like wolves: they prey on the sheep, because sheep are easy targets and cannot defend themselves against the more powerful and ruthless wolves. And then there are the sheepdogs, the members of society who choose to train themselves so that they can stand between the sheep and the wolves. The sheepdog is generally not appreciated by the sheep; he looks a lot like the wolf, after all, he’s bigger and stronger than the sheep and has fangs. No, the sheep don’t really like the sheepdog. But when the wolf shows up, it’s a different story. Those of us who volunteer to become sheepdogs, as Chris Kyle did, accept this and go out there to protect the sheep anyway.
    A lot of the sheep are starting to understand exactly what the sheepdog does and why he is, unfortunately, necessary in a world that will never be without wolves. Some sheep, though, simply can’t see beyond their own sheep-ness and will never like or appreciate the sheepdog. Until, perhaps, the wolf comes to their own particular pen.

    • Thanks, David, for sharing. I didn’t buy that allegory in the film, and I don’t really buy it here, but I do appreciate you adding into the conversation. My problem is that it assumes a patriarchal command-and-control and a limited set of roles that I think don’t necessarily reflect the true complexity of our world today. Regardless, thanks for sharing, and best of luck with your book. Looks like you have a similar thematic approach to this genre. Keep writing!

    • Iraq had no connection to 9/11 and no active wmd program. Oh and Saddam hated Islamists and had totally crushed any who even tried to operate in Iraq. Then the coalition invaded, killed Saddam plunged the country into chaos and made it a hotbed of terrorism.
      Daesh/ISIL/whatever is so powerful, that their leader literally talks about Al Qaeda with the kind of amused condescension that people reserve for bumbling relatives who try really really hard, and we created them.
      The leadership met each other in a coalition prison and became hardened radicals as a direct result of what they saw go down in Iraq and their treatment by coalition forces.
      So a country that was no threat has now produced the most powerful terrorist group that the region has ever seen and it’s as a direct result of the Iraq War

      How did the sheepdogs protect us again?

  7. It’s fashionable today to blame the rise of ISIS on the Iraq War, which of course can be blamed on Bush, as if everything was peaceful and quiet in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East before March 2003. The reality was, as we know, something different. It is estimated that Saddam executed some 600,000 of his own countrymen during his reign. Another half million or so died in his war with Iran. Besides Iran, Saddam launched attacks on four other neighboring nations, including Kuwait, which he occupied completely. Amnesty International reported that among other atrocities, Iraqi troops caused the deaths of 300 premature Kuwaiti babies by stealing incubators. One can argue all day about the justification of the 2003 invasion, but anyone paying attention to Middle East history should know that Saddam was not going to go quietly into the good night, one way or another. There is also the matter of the 9/11 attacks, which occurred well before the US invasion of Iraq. That strike was the culmination of a long campaign by AQ against us. After 9/11 we finally began to fight back in a way more effective than lobbing some cruise missiles against camps that were usually deserted by the time they arrived. To say that ISIS leaders became “hardened radicals” as a result of their incarceration and alleged mistreatment at the hands of US-led coalition forces is, to be polite, incorrect. Again it implies that these guys were just peaceful Iraqis and Syrians and whatever, leading quiet lives until the big bad Americans marched in and threw everyone in jail.

    • I think it is safe for me to say that the film fails in its inability to address any of this complexity. Yet, many Americans feel it does. As a piece of cinema, it’s too flat and too simplistic. Thanks to both of you for visiting my blog

      >

  8. Here’s the problem, neither David nor anyone else knows what a post -Saddam Iraq would have looked like if we’d left domestic Iraqi political structures to work on their own. What we do know, is that we attacked a country that not only had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11, but that was a no go zone for Al Qaeda and other Islamist group operatives. We destroyed every single major institution that existed and then acted surprised that the place collapsed.
    The argument that Iraq might have descended into anarchy on its own is no kind of defence of the invasion. On that basis, we’re entitled to invade any country with an unelected, corrupt or weak ruler, bad economy, multiple ethnic/religious groups or political difficulties with a neighbor.
    As for Saddam’s brutality, yes, he was an animal and he and his monstrous offspring deserved everything that they got. But what about the innocent civilians that died? What about the rise in infant and maternal mortality, the reemergence of preventable disease and the actual decline in average lifespan? Why do we get to decide that those things are a price well worth someone else paying, for something that we wanted?
    I’ve lived in a dictatorship before (actually, one in Asia one in Africa and one in communist Eastern Europe) and there are some things that I very quickly realized.
    1) Indigenous dictators still need to be supported by a great deal of the population. If they aren’t, they very quickly get overthrown.
    2) People may not like their dictator, but they despise the idea of foreign soldiers and administration a lot more.
    3) Most people seem to value safety and freedom from hunger, want and poverty, far more than American notions of abstract freedom.
    4) Making a people feel humiliated, always triggers a great deal of violence.

    I could go on, but this is long enough already. Suffice it to say, once you invade a country, a very large proportion of the population is going to resent it, and it’s very easy for random militants and crackpots to harness that resentment.

    Oh and thank you Roy for a thoughtful review, I very rarely feel moved to participate in online discussions, but you definitely sparked my interest.

    • thank you so much, Andrew – I appreciate the kind words and encouragement about the blog. it’s a labor of love for me, made that much more special when thoughtful folks discover and comment on it. I love the way you think and your insight – I hope you visit often!

  9. Gentlemen, I appreciate the civil give and take we’ve enjoyed, which is rare in online forums these days. I will close my part by agreeing with Andrew that yes, the Iraq occupation was certainly mismanaged. The joyous reception our troops received in Baghdad didn’t take long to dissolve once the people saw that we really had no plan to help them govern themselves. I also agree that Saddam and his boys were thugs and as Andrew said, they deserved what they got. I should point out, though, that they got it only at gunpoint, and those were American guns. As a student of history and someone who has also lived and traveled abroad, I also must point out that the post-WW2 experiences of Germany and Japan may serve to put some of Andrew’s points in question. Those were examples of occupations that were relatively well-managed and worked, even after those nations were subjected to more destruction at our hands than Iraq was by several degrees of magnitude. Be that as it may, history will be the judge of what happened in Iraq in the early years of the 21st century. I have a feeling a hundred years from now the historians may have a different view than what many of us have today.
    Roy, I like your blog and will visit again. My son is an aspiring filmmaker (Cream City award-winner at the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival) and perhaps some day you’ll be reviewing one of his films!

    • Yes, I agree totally David, history will be the ultimate arbiter. I should also stress that I do not think military power/interventions have no part to play in American foreign policy.
      It’s fair to say that I believe the initial invasion was a mistake. Even then, once it was done, we absolutely had to take heed of Colin Powell’s warnings. He and many in the State Department as well as the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office saw what we were getting ourselves (as well as the Iraqis) into. It isn’t even a case of hindsight, there are numerous videos of administration officials saying that the so called experts didn’t know what they were talking about.
      In Germany and Japan, the Allies had learned from the stupidity of the post WWI settlement. They were willing to commit the necessary manpower, money and time for nation building. We didn’t destroy the German/Japanese police, military and civil service, so order was maintained or at least restored very quickly. In Iraq, there was a deliberate rejection of the very idea of nation building, whereas in Germany/Japan, nation building was exactly what we did. That’s bearing in mind that Iraq was a far less cohesive state in the first place. Oh and then there’s the general perception of the U.S. government that’s prevalent on the “Arab street”. Rightly or wrongly, they don’t trust us at all and so do not take any explanations or statements from the U.S. govt at face value.
      I respect anyone who’s willing to think about complex issues and address them thoughtfully, so thank you for your explanations of your position. All the best to you and your son.

  10. I haven’t seen this film yet, so I hesitate to comment. But I wonder if you actually are the targeted audience for this film, Roy. The only reason I wonder is because of Clint Eastwood’s earlier work on Million Dollar Baby. In that film especially, he seemed to be challenging the conservative population in the country to face a truth it’s uncomfortable acknowledging. In Million Dollar Baby, the truth was a lot more ‘in your face,’ so perhaps I’m wrong, and Eastwood is not that subtle. He did speak at the Republican National Convention, afterall…But maybe he was hoping to make his audience uncomfortable.

  11. It’s really refreshing to read a review like this which offers a really subjective perspective on film. It is easy to get caught up in the “hoopla” around a film and let that cloud your vision when you watch it, but when we look at American Sniper as a movie at base value it really does fall short. Cooper was OK, Sienna Miller was, as you say, doing some sort of strange damsel impression which really was distracting.. And Eastwood made some really below par decisions. It is a nice way to kill time but really thats not what an Oscar nominated flick should be.

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