The American Sniper - BRINGING ARMED FORCES HEROISM BACK TO HOLLYWOOD
The "war film" is evokes every human emotion available in cinema multiplied by 10. Emotions such as losing loved ones, best friends who would die for you (literally), finding a cause to believe in, and everyday could be your last. The stakes are immediately high and relatable in a war film whether it is based on a historical war or an imagined one. I have been looking forward to American Sniper since for nearly two years after Bradley Cooper announced his plans to produce the film. The film follows the life of Chris Kyle, the most lethal snipers in American history. We see his childhood, his tours at war and his family life. It is one of the most complete views of what it means to be a soldier in modern warfare that I have ever seen.
Clint Eastwood took over the film after Steven Spielberg left the project and told it solidly from our male protagonists point of view with a few side trips to his family at home which is powerfully portrayed by Sienna Miller (Foxcatcher then American Sniper!? Go girl!).
My Major Problem with This Film (OR Any Film Covering the Conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan)
I have worked with very talented Palestinian actors, enjoyed dinner parties with Iraqi's, seen plays with Iranians and, of course, I am married to a Lebanese woman. So it is extremely difficult to watch a film where people from the Middle East function as little more than props or body counts. The film continually calls them "savage" people and does not attempt to show the other half, aside from perhaps the benevolent translator who does nothing more than...well... translate. Don't get me wrong. Any terrorist group that will use innocent life to wage war is savage. But I feel uncomfortable when there is no example of other citizens that are good people. "Not all black people are thugs." "Not all white people are racists." "Not all Arabs are terrorist."
The filmmakers do try to cover their bases with a throw away line that says essentially “We told all the civilians to leave town before the raid. If anyone is left behind, then they are a potential threat.” But this mumbled line is lost quickly amongst the sound of roaring military vehicles and distant gun fire. Every gunshot and kill in the movie made me cringe. Also, in war films I believe we're used to seeing both sides in nameless military uniforms. Of course in the current conflict, often the enemy is plain-clothed. So the loss of life hits hard with every shot in a civilian-vs-military sort of way.
But, given that it is told from the perspective of an American hero (and he truly is a hero) who has saved countless American lives, I understand as a story that the filmmakers felt the need create a one dimensional enemy in order for the protagonist's herosism to shine through, or else we leave the film feeling too conflicted with his (and of course our's as a country) choices.
What the film does incredibly well
This film is the first film in my opinion that really explores the human reasons that a soldier would continue despite tour after tour of military theater. Often a pacifist Hollywood likes to portray men like this as “addicted” to war or somewhat “in human” if they wish to return after serving their country. Often Hollywood shows the young man, uneducated to his/her possible potential, being duped by an army recruiter into joining a war and then becoming "unraveled" in the process. This film shows a man who was raised to protect as a young child. He see's that there are those who would like to harm our country (before 9/11) makes a choice as man around 30 to enlist and serve. He is the opposite of arrogant. He's a simple man from Texas who is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for others that he has never met. This is incredibly inspiring and gives honor to our troops. This point of view points back to a by gone era before the war in Vietnam and now Iraq that has left a country disillusioned with military combat. It's not surprising that it was directed by Clint Eastwood.
Although I think of myself as a liberal, I came from a military family (two of my aunts are US Army). I know people join the armed forces for different reasons and yes there are those crazy guys who signed up for war for crazy reasons. But there are a majority of people who signed up to serve because they needed meaning in their life and found serving their country a far nobler cause than other endeavors. The film isn't all one sided in this however. It does portray some of the men who enlisted and don't fare so well. But the ones who do are shown as complete men and not just war crazy "I like the smell of napalm in the morning" kind of guys. They are strong and solid in morality and judgement. And they have wives, children and families to fight for back at home.
HOW IT HANDLES POSSIBLE PTSD
Chris Kyle, of which the film is based on, reached out to help those in need after he returned from the War. This film confronts the challenges after returning home (either permanently or between tours) with the complexity and dignity it deserves. It was the first film in my opinion that truly illustrates the need to return to Iraq or Afghanistan after you left. "My friends are still there. I want to protect them. I want to help them. I don't want to leave them behind." The film does this by creating a cast of characters that follow him through basic training to his last tour. It's not that he's "addicted" to war. He has great concern for his fellow soldiers with the knowledge that the fight isn't over. The film also creates a antagonist character (not sure if this character actually existed but it functions well in the story) to also help illustrate a moment when perhaps he would be done with fighting and ready to get back to his family.
The film makes visits to the VA and shows soldiers working with Chris to find their dignity after much lose and sacrifice once they return home from the war. And there are uplifting scenes of Chris reconnecting with his family, being a strong husband and a tentative father to his young children. In the end, despite it's faults, the film made me want to salute our troops throughout the credits. No matter why we go to war, there are men and women who have given all of themselves for the sake of others. Thank you.