Jan 272015

American Sniper is classic Clint Eastwood. Dirty Harry vs the bad guys, and the bad guys all look like ‘them.’

American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood. At cinemas around New England.

A scene from "American Sniper."

A scene from “American Sniper.”

By Paul Dervis

War is Hell.

Hollywood has been telling us that for the last, what? Close to a hundred years. As if we wouldn’t know it without Tinsel Town’s assembly line of violent, two-hour infomercials. And in the post 9/11 world two-ton hands are serving up the bromide again and again. Lately, the studios have wrapped themselves in the American Flag with a joyous (and profitable) ferocity that they haven’t shown since the era of World War II films.

However, American Sniper crosses the standard propaganda line by clearly exploiting the divide caused by our nation’s involvement in Iraq and the Middle East. It showcases the belief of a great many people that we must project to the world an image of America as a homogenous country of white, Christian, gun-loving citizens. To its credit, this makes the picture potentially interesting, given that it raises issues about about who we are as a people, or if there is, in fact, any concrete way to define us.

But the film is not interested in exploring that debate. It has already answered the question before the first scene hits the screen.

This is classic Clint Eastwood. Dirty Harry vs the bad guys, and the bad guys all look like ‘them.’ And the good guys all look like ‘us. (It is hard not to speculate that Eastwood must be damned frustrated. He’s much too old to play the lead killer. This film is tailor made for him — circa 1972.)

Some threats were made to local film critics who gave this picture a negative review. There are crazies out there and that is not be news. What’s unusual is that so many on the conservative side (the latest being Senator John McCain) have set their sights on such a benign outlet as a movie review. The pans have hardly affected the draw for American Sniper. Reviews are not a threat to the producers. The film has spent the last several weeks as number one at the box office. Critics are not changing anyone’s mind on the film’s position on the issues. (There are reports that anti-Muslim threats have risen preciptiously since the film’s release.)

Relax. Chill.

As for the movie itself, it is a conventionally linear look into the mind and actions of Chris Kyle, the most successful (?) military sniper in our country’s long history. A failed Rodeo cowboy, Kyle is driven by 9/11 to join the Navy Seals and fight. An excellent marksman from an early age, Kyle rapidly rises to the head of the class. He becomes the man the troops trust most to protect them. He is so proficient in his calling, and so unable to reacclimate to civilian life with his wife and children, that he re-ups for a second, third, and fourth tour of duty. He not only deftly takes out rebels hellbent on massacring our soldiers, but he develops an uncanny ability to decipher potential threats from innocent looking women and children. Though he suffers some guilt, he never wavers from eliminating those hostiles as well.

And what we are left with is one of the bloodiest films produced in a very long time.

Bradley Cooper, one of the best of Hollywood’s current crop of ‘pretty boys,’ contributes an engaging performance as Kyle. He gives his character an emotional through line, first showing us Kyle’s flickers of sensitivity, then suggesting how these feelings must be buried in a hardened soldier, and then dramatizing the struggle to tap back into his personal passions once his mission is over. His Kyle is not a man we particularly like, but one that we grudgingly respect. The film, based on Kyle’s memoir, invites us to care about his dilemma, to appreciate how difficult it must be to repress compassion in order to do the greater good.

If only Eastwood had explored those issues more deeply, it could have been a thought-provoking film.

But that wasn’t the Hollywood agenda, now, was it?

And for all of you who disagree with this point of view….as the mantra goes for horror flicks, remember….”it’s only a movie.”

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.


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