Number One with a Bullet
Clint Eastwood's second film of 2014 (mind you, he'll be 85 in May, and his earlier film was the musical, Jersey Boys) is the adaptation of Iraq war vet Chris Kyle's memoir American Sniper, which details Kyle's four tours in Iraq and his subsequent struggles with PTSD. It's as far afield as a movie about The Four Seasons can be and shows off the versatility of Eastwood's directing career, even as the man sticks close to his guns in the way he work, economically and bluntly (both David O. Russell and Steven Spielberg were attached to direct before budget constraints and studio nerves over box-office engineered the more frugal Eastwood to be hired).
Since its opening weekend, which garnered a lot of money at the box-office—far more than any other film about the Iraq war—there's been a lot of heat from both the left and the right, but not an awful lot of light. Frankly, the commentary has been pretty dumb, and neither side has been able to think outside of their own agendas. But, Eastwood tends to do that—he can't be pigeon-holed by either side (unless someone isn't listening or is merely cherry-picking what they want to hear), so he'll take flack from the right for Million Dollar Baby and J Edgar (and Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) and from the left for Heartbreak Ridge and Gran Torino. So, he must be doing something correctly. Certainly, he isn't playing it safe. Or playing to the crowd.
Bradley Cooper plays Kyle—he bought the book, shepherded it through production and did considerable research and physical bulking up for the role. From the beginning, Kyle is a man of few words, laconic and spare with his feelings. He sees a task and does it, no questions asked, no second thoughts—as Jimmy Stewart used to say in movies "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do...so he does it." His call to action is when he sees a televised news report on the attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. "Look what they've done to us."
Right from the opening, American Sniper sets up the conundrum: "Shoot, or not shoot." Kyle is perched on a rooftop, scoping the surroundings—a marine convoy is coming down the street, and he sees an Iraqi native on a balcony talking on his cell-phone. We've seen this before in Kathern Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. Is he reporting troop movements or is he talking to his girlfriend? Shoot or don't shoot? The issue is compounded when moments later, a woman and boy walk out of the same building and approach the convoy. Kyle takes aim, trying to put together what's likely—she's not swinging her arms, she must be carrying something...but what? Shoot or don't shoot? There's not enough evidence to suggest that she isn't merely a civilian walking down the street in a bombed-out, occupied section of town with troops coming down the street in her direction, so he doesn't shoot, and his spotter tells him that if he makes the wrong decision, he'll be hung out to dry for killing civilians.
Back in 1987, Stanley Kubrick made Full Metal Jacket, about a morally righteous man (Matthew Modine), who still goes down the road of professional soldier until the point where he kills a sniper—a woman—after she has shot up his troop. It shows the dehumanizing aspect of war—if one is playing it cynically and smart (and doesn't particularly want to die) you end up doing things completely apart from who you are...just to survive. There is no room for sentimentality, as it's said in the film "It is a hard heart that kills." And in a scenario of live or die, it is kill or be killed. And as the line goes in Inherent Vice: "Don't worry. Thinking comes later."
The film back-tracks to Kyle's childhood, of hunting, of being told there are three types of people in the world—sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Sheep believe there is no evil in the world, wolves are predators and believe evil does not exist in their actions, but sheepdogs are aggressive and brave and protect the balance from evil. The movie goes through Kyle's attempts at being a rodeo rider, sees that footage and joins the Navy to become a SEAL. During training, he meets Taya (Sienna Miller), courts her, wins her, and on their wedding day, he gets word that he is being deployed to Iraq.
Back to the rooftop. Kyle eyes the woman and boy. She uncovers a metallic cylinder. There is no question. He fires. She drops. The boy picks up the grenade and runs towards the convoy. Kyle shoots and he collapses, the cylinder clanking to the ground. "Nice shooting, Tex!" says his scout. "Get the fuck off me" he says through grit teeth (the language is appropriately salty).
Kyle is constantly reminded of the people he's killed, but he's stoic about it. "I'm prepared to answer for every life I've taken. I just think about the ones I couldn't save." As bodies fall around marines from unseen vantage points, his reputation among the troops grows. He becomes "the legend," unseen but present in the damage done. A guardian angel for those on patrol, he's a devil for the Al Qaeda warlords. But it's not enough. His rifle-scope also lets him see Marines being carried out of action, wounded, missing limbs. So, he abandons the rooftops and joins patrols as point man in house-to-house searches, throwing himself in harm's way.
He's never not there; although the Marines consider him "the over-watch," in Iraq he has a bounty on his head, particularly from a "player on the other side" named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik...no, really), a former Olympic marksman who travels the rooftops, setting up blinds the same way Kyle does, unseen, but his presence known only by the damage done. Even at home, Kyle is not safe, watching the war on TV, seeing it continue without him, the casualties mounting, and withdrawing from his wife and children. He's compelled to go on a second tour, then a third, then a fourth.
By the end of his fourth tour, he has to go to a bar before he goes home, more in fear of that than going into the field. The accumulation of the day-to-day combat leads to a crippling PTSD...that he can't talk about. A measured, reluctant "mm-hmm" is all he'll offer as acknowledgment. Like the earlier The Hurt Locker, this segment may be tough for audiences to understand, but for anyone with a loved one or colleague who has gone through red-zones, whether in combat or from some other deep trauma, it is heart-breaking and Cooper nicely underplays, not being obvious about it, but keeping it buried deep underneath his already established portrayal of Kyle, blunting it, restraining it, only betraying it in a dullness in the eyes.
In his own book, Kyle made some claims that could not be confirmed, and the screenplay takes many, many liberties on its own—"Mustafa" was a rumor, and although there was a bounty on snipers, it was not just Kyle who was singled out, and there is an Iraqi war-lord mentioned named "The Butcher" that never existed that is there to illustrate the pressures Iraqi citizens have with the non-American, local, insurgents. One should not have to be reminded that this is a movie (and I'd be hard-pressed to name any dramatic presentation that followed everything to the letter*), dialogue is invented, actors are cast, etc. To expect absolute truth is disingenuous whatever ideology one clings to for comfort. Even the line that haunts me ("Look what they've done to us"—indeed) is a fabrication—Kyle didn't join the Navy due to those attacks—it was always his intention, but injuries from his rodeo days kept him from serving, until the Navy reversed its decision.
It is not gospel (and is gospel "gospel?"). But, as an illustration of the soldier's march and the perilous aftermath having to deal with "what must be done," it's as eloquent as any I've seen on the subject of wartime PTSD, and as much as official circles have spent decades denying it, that is very much real, and the further legacy of the horrors of war...and why it had better be pretty damned important—and provable—to incur the damage that such arcane tribalism in inflicts on everyone.
* Given that, I've had a long-in-the-works review of Jesse James (paired with The Return of Frank James) that is such a bold-faced white-wash from beginning to end that I should probably re-write the thing with less of a slant on its veracity (practically none) and more on what's there. I can be accused of expecting the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That's not merely being disingenuous, it's being pretty damned stupid.