Wednesday, January 21, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER makes its most compelling statement an afterthought

When I first finished watching AMERICAN SNIPER, I'd probably have given it two stars out of four. There were a couple isolated good scenes, but it felt episodic and often dull. Worse, I really hated the ending. Like, HATED.  I wasn't sure I wanted to write a review where I focused 90% of it on a footnote at the end. If you want a review of this film in total, check out Drew McWeeny's take, which more or less aligns with mine.

As it happens, AMERICAN SNIPER is from a particular brand of film that makes you angrier every time you consider it. It's like an onion, the more you peel it back, the more it stinks. Because the problem with the ending is really a gangrene that infects this entire putrid piece of superficial filmmaking. There is a truly fascinating movie that could be mined from Chris Kyle's story and it's utterly ignored here.

I don't know how you make this film and NOT make PTSD a major, integral component.

Chris Kyle was "America's deadliest sniper," with more confirmed kills than any other marksman in U.S. history. He served four tours in the Iraq War. What that means is his time was up, but he kept going back for more - despite having a wife and two children back home who needed him. Kyle's wife in particular is perplexed by his need to keep going back there. For me, that makes her the most sympathetic character in the film. It's a lot easier to understand her fear of losing her husband than the compulsions that keep sending him into harm's way.

In one of the film's first scenes, we see a tense moment (depicted in the trailers) where Kyle has his scope trained on a kid who might be carrying a grenade. His other lookout can't confirm and so it's entirely his call to take the killshot. If he shoots and he's wrong, his ass will be fried. If he lets the kid go and he DOES have a grenade, a dozen or more soldiers could be killed.

That's a day at the office for him. And that's the movie I wish I saw more of. It's easy to imagine that self-preservation instincts will kick in and make it okay, but Kyle's not in the heat of battle. He's watching from a safe perch - he'll be fine either way, but his job demands he not only shoot a kid, but be damn sure it needed to be done. And he has seconds to make that call.

Live through four tours of that and you're going to be dealing with some serious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's estimated that it affects about 11-20% of all combat vets from the Iraq War. We see a few symptoms of this in Kyle, though it's not called out as such until the last ten minutes of the film. There's one point where he returns to the States and doesn't go home or tell his wife. Instead he goes to a bar and she's hurt and confused when she learns he's back in America.

Chris Kyle was a guy who needed help. And this movie could have been a great way to explain PTSD to a wide audience that doesn't understand it. This film made over a $100M this past weekend alone. Think of all the minds that could have been woken up.

In real life, Chris Kyle seems to have been a seriously troubled guy. The movie doesn't deal with some of his more outrageous claims (such as that he went to New Orleans during Katrina and picked off looters with a sniper rifle from the top of the Superdome.) I can understand why the incidents considered unlikely to have happened were not adapted. And yet, doesn't the sheer fact that Kyle made such overblown proclamations point to the fact that the guy was dealing with some pretty major stuff? The movie pulls back Kyle's trauma to the point of defanging the tragedy of what war did to him.

In the final years of his life, Kyle worked with other soldiers suffering from PTSD. We get a taste of this in the film, but not nearly enough to make this land. And then comes the unforgiveable footnote. Kyle's fate - like Turing's in THE IMITATION GAME - is delivered via on-screen captions.  Except here, the fact and circumstances of his death are far more relevant to the film than in IMITATION GAME.

Because Chris Kyle was killed by another vet he was trying to help. A vet suffering from PTSD.

I don't think it does Kyle's memory much good to pretend that his four tours in the Iraq War didn't do incredible damage to the man. I don't think it honors the men who went over there and are still dealing with that to sweep the full scope of their trauma under the rug. This movie could have been a wake-up call to a nation - a call to arms for us to not abandon our soldiers and their medical needs once they've served their time.

It should be impossible to dislodge the contributing factors to Kyle's murder from the rest of his life. You cannot talk about Chris Kyle without talking about his final fate, because it paints an incomplete and erroneous picture of every thing that led up to it.

Throw out the politics of the film, throw out the repugnance of the fact that Eastwood overuses the device of Kyle weighing a killshot against a kid (it happens twice - SERIOUSLY), and ignore some of the uncomfortable racism. Give a pass on on those things that bother a lot of viewers and you're STILL left with a movie that misses the forest for the trees.

The PTSD story is right there and this movie is too dumb to see it. It's like doing the Magic Johnson story WOLF OF WALL STREET-style, showing him sleeping with hundreds of women and then tossing up a caption at the end saying "Oh, btw, Magic got AIDS."

Hell, it's like doing WOLF OF WALL STREET and ending after he's smuggled his cash into the Swiss Account, only to reveal via captions that he eventually got nailed by the FBI and turned informant.

I usually try to stick to the "critique the movie you're presented with, not the one you wish was made" style of criticism. In this case, the movie walks right up to pieces that would make it a much better film and just stands there. It's filmmaking malpractice to leave such rich dramatic material on the table. That the rest of the movie isn't all that good is pretty much a side note.

I did not enjoy AMERICAN SNIPER. I do not recommend AMERICAN SNIPER. That is not a judgement on Chris Kyle as a person or on veterans in general. I've seen a lot of idiots respond to criticism of this film by shouting something like "Chris Kyle was a great American! See this to support our boys! If you don't like it, you're a libtard Commie pinko!" A movie about a great man isn't necessarily great.

You want to support our boys? You want to honor Chris Kyle? Give to the Wounded Warrior Project or to Disabled American Veterans.

12 Organizations working to raise PTSD awareness.

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