Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day Post 2015

Two years ago I posted after reading Chris Kyle's American Sniper. Today I finished watching the Clint Eastwood-directed movie. Today I'll share a few thoughts.

First, there's no way a two hour movie can fully capture the thoughts in the book. And it's rare when a movie captures well the spirit of the source material. The movie here is a heavily abbreviated version of the book's story. It also takes the usual artistic license to embellish the drama, or outright create it where there might not have been any.

Still, Eastwood made this movie knowing things Kyle could not have at the time Kyle wrote his book. The most important one being that Kyle's life would end in early 2013. And this is a powerful tool in story telling. Some writers will tell you that the hardest things to write are the beginnings and endings of a story; with the death of Kyle, Eastwood got built-in ending, and I think he uses it to good effect. Where the book was a slice of Kyle's life, describing some of his youth and life in the military, Eastwood's movie seems more a cautionary tale about war and the different ways it can effect people.

The combat scenes are good, except that I don't remember them being described in much detail in Kyle's book. But it's when Eastwood moves away from the book as scaffolding and fills in the blanks where it picks up it's best points. The movie does a good job replicating the eerie intimacy a sniper has with his targets, being farther away from them yet able to see more through scopes than the troops that are closer.

And when the actors are showing Kyle's estrangement from civilian life when he returns home, they're giving us something Kyle, who rarely comes across in his book as anything other than calm and in control, could probably not share as well as his wife could.

There's also something clever done as each of Kyle's tours is introduced. The equipment shown evolves with the passage of time. Early on we see Hummers, by the end, we see MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush protected) trucks and drones.

Unfortunately, it's when the movie casually tries to keep itself tied to the book that it falls. Kyle wrote with conviction about his friendships and his love for his fellow soldiers. The movie doesn't really bring into focus any of the peripheral characters. Even if they weren't made of cardboard we see so little of them that we don't really develop any affinity. Some film critics felt this same way about Kyle's wife, Taya, but I thought the actress did pretty well here with the moments she was given.

Aside from the biographical value of the film, I think the best message to be taken from the film is that war affects people in many ways. Sebastian Junger's book, War, also talks about this. Although PTSD is a more common term now, we're still learning a lot about it and how to deal with it.

One of the reviews I read said that although the film, like Kyle's book, is wrapped largely in jingoistic gloss, it is slyly also a an anti-war movie. "Slyly"? If you need a movie to convince you war is a terrible thing, you're an idiot. But aside from that, there are indeed a couple moments where I thought Eastwood challenged some of Kyle's beliefs. In his book, Kyle is proud to be a redneck of the "god, country, and family" philosophy, and this is mentioned too in the movie. But there is a quick scene where a more pensive teammate questions the US efforts. And I like the way it was portrayed; the actor doesn't spout off some speech written by some liberal ivory tower resident. Instead, when Kyle tells him the enemy is savage and evil, he simply responds with a non-committal, "Ok." And the delivery of his response was perfect, seeing it in print can't do it justice. It was said in a resigned tone, as if he knew he wasn't going to change Kyle's mind but also that while some of what Kyle said was true he had doubts about the US approach.

The movie finishes on the note that it should. In the same way that Unforgiven refused to revel in the act of killing, American Sniper ends quietly, with images that are respectful and yet deeply somber.

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