February 21, 2020

POPCORN: “American Sniper” Bull’s-eye

4 popcorns

4 popcorns

“American Sniper”


4 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

Special to the Observer


If you’ve been around for the last few wars, you’ll recognize the eerie clip-clip-drone of helicopters that declares U.S. military ubiquity in “American Sniper,” an absorbing foray into the tragic dilemma that comes of trying to make the world safe for democracy. Based on the memoir, “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History,” by Chris Kyle, and adapted for the screen by Jason Hall, Bradley Cooper compellingly personalizes the iconic warrior. Confident in his destiny, he will save his country, singlehandedly if necessary.


We cheer him and bemoan, remembering from our childhood that old veteran holding court from his seat on a soda crate outside the candy store who resolutely declared: “There always was war; there will always be war.” We have them in all varieties: Good wars, bad wars, world wars and forgotten wars. We win some, we lose some…some we’re not quite so sure about and wonder why we sent Johnny marching in the first place. The philosophers among us see the perennial conflicts as sad proof that we’ve evolved very little from our primeval ancestors.


But not Chris. No time for wishy-washy, hifalutin ponderings here. When the U.S. embassies in Southeast Africa are bombed in 1998, the former rodeo cowboy, already thirty years old, joins the Navy SEALs. He is a man of action, taught early on by his dad that there are three types of people: wolves, the sheep they prey on, and the sheepdogs who protect the flock. Be a sheepdog, ingrains dad. Although recently married to Taya Renae, emotively played by Siena Miller, it is clear as day to the sharpshooter. Into the breach, and that’s all there is to it.


The depiction of the Iraqi War is attended by neither hawks nor doves, but rather with a large splash of reality. We are long past the flag waving that marked our Iliad years, from the American Revolution (1775-1783) until the conclusion of WWII (1945). Our domain is now established and as such, because it is the business of empires to do both wonderful and terrible things, we protect its interests, both real and perceived.


This requires sending endless waves of young soldiers to war zones throughout the world, many of them not quite as certain of their purpose as Chris Kyle is. He will deploy to Iraq four times, and soon, due to his phenomenal marksmanship, be dubbed The Legend. He outwardly shuns any glorification. To his wife’s chagrin, Chris takes the overall mission personally. It’s as if the war cannot be waged without him, which is perhaps the mix of messianic and egocentric elements it takes to make someone so undoubtedly brave.


Director Clint Eastwood, proving that he hasn’t lost a step in the evocation of tension, action and good old esprit de corps, builds a scenario fraught with gosh knows what dangers hiding amidst the crumbled devastation. We are inevitably at seat’s edge. But where the filmmaker ultimately adds a notch to his legacy is in the duality of this stunning anti-war/war movie. It is a thesis on the innate, unintentional hypocrisy of a species that calls itself human yet continues to settle its disputes by killing each other. Think about it. Composers wrote marches for it.


Indeed, we lament the entrenched hatred it takes for a five-year-old to pick up a grenade and go charging headlong into a group of GI’s. What more proof do we need that there’s something rotten in Denmark? Yet, when Chris assassinates a high-muck-a-muck, a symbol of those responsible for perpetuating such aberrant enmity, it is difficult to deny the visceral thrill of revenge and justification.


Although “American Sniper” has its own tone and temper, we channel memories of “Coming Home” (1978), “The Deer Hunter” (1978), “The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and any other movie that details the scars of war and the anguish of adjusting to peace. Mr. Cooper does a splendid job of epitomizing this mournful conundrum. Chris doesn’t want to talk about it, and that’s OK with most folks, who’d just as well sidestep the terrible truth. Fact is, only skilled professionals and those who have experienced such Hell on Earth can really commiserate.


The icky thing is, there are those who will relish this simply as a rootin’-tootin’ war flick. There’s no denying that the little kid in me who shot Nazis and Indians on Dewey Street in Newark, N.J., on a daily basis enjoyed the bravado. But there is an inherent, vicarious catharsis here, a heartfelt reminder that we can be better than we are. Adding to our pie in the sky wish list for humankind’s ideal future, which of course includes stomping out cancer, ignorance and poverty, “American Sniper” unsubtly enjoins us to keep our sights set on a world without war.

“American Sniper,” rated R, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Clint Eastwood and stars Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller and Kyle Gallner. Running time: 132 minutes


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