Movie News & Reviews

Carla Meyer: ‘Sniper’ debate comes down to character – Kyle’s and Eastwood’s

Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper.”
Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper.” Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

“American Sniper,” a box-office sensation that earned a surprising $107 million over the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, involves guns and the Iraq war. So it is not surprising that Michael Moore, who makes anti-gun and anti-war movies, alluded to it negatively on Twitter. Or that country stars responded to criticism of the film by reaffirming their support for the military.

Moore never will change his stripes, and country stars will reaffirm their support for the troops on a monthly basis for eternity. They know their audiences.

So does Eastwood. His audience sees his films because he takes traditional ideas of masculinity and patriotism seriously. In an Eastwood film, such ideas are not to be mocked, or played broadly via comic-book-style action.

But they also are not to be swallowed whole. Although Eastwood talks to chairs at Republican conventions, his movies avoid showy statements and absolutes. The kinds of easy aphorisms that look so sexy on Twitter and have fueled the current debate regarding “Sniper.”

Eastwood’s films respect and explore conservative ideals without promoting them. His 2006 film “Flags of Our Fathers” followed three of the men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima and later were unsettled by the government’s bid to market them as heroes.

Eastwood himself now is being accused of jingo-ism, with “Sniper.” But that’s not his filmmaking M.O. “Sniper” is not jingoistic, but rather a complex character study of a combatant, and of how violence insinuates itself into one’s soul – an Eastwood topic of interest since at least “Unforgiven.”

I gave “Sniper” a positive review when it opened Jan. 16. But many friends and colleagues have seen the film since, and wanted to talk about it further, in light of the controversy. So here are some more thoughts. To me, it all comes down to how the film presents the character of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper).

“Sniper” isn’t pro-Iraq War, but it accepts that some people fought in that war: Scenes of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) shooting insurgents – one from a nearly impossible distance – skirt the line of glorifying war but do not cross it. Kyle goes to extremes because he believes his cause – protecting Marines being attacked by insurgents – is the just one. And also, because it is his job. Even if you do not believe in the Iraq War, people still had to fight in it, and Kyle was one of them.

But the film does not present the war as clean or righteous. It seems overlong and un-winnable, with soldiers’ psyches the collateral damage.

The lead character is a troubled guy: The single-mindedness that makes Kyle such an effective sniper eventually becomes stubbornness and denial. He’s absent from his family and shrugs off suggestions he has PTSD.

He’s eager to get back to war, not just to fight insurgents, but because he feels worthless when he’s not in Iraq protecting the troops.

Eastwood did not include the real Kyle’s reported tendency toward tall tales. But it is not too hard to extrapolate that the movie Kyle – a guy who goes back to Iraq for a fourth tour despite his wife (Sienna Miller) begging him not to – was psychologically wobbly.

War’s hell follows its combatants: In “Sniper,” Kyle finds purpose after he finally returns from war by helping former vets in need. His reaching-out underscores his commitment to his military brothers but also results in tragedy. The final lesson of “Sniper” is that war, justifiable or misguided, reverberates in its participants.

Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

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