In case you’ve been living underground for the past few weeks, you know that American Sniper is arguably the most controversial film going around this awards season. And because my friends are infinitely smarter than I am and we’re all wildly passionate about movies and culture, I decided to try something new for this review.
Below is the transcript of a roundtable discussion featuring Jonny Diaz (you know him as my arch-nemesis and occasional guest blogger), Joe Ferrarelli, Cara Zelaya and moderated by the wonderful Kalhan Rosenblatt.
Here we go!
STORY (plot, screenplay, adaptation, execution of storyline)
JONNY: As far as the writing of American Sniper goes, I think its a good adaptation of Chris Kyle’s memoir, based on the limited exposure I have to various passages from it and interviews he gave before his death. However, as a screenplay, it suffers from various deficiencies, particularly in the dialogue, which is often either really over-the-top or detrimentally simple. The early scenes with young Chris and his father struck me as especially poorly conceived, with heavy-handed metaphors and stilted, cliched dialogue. I also thought that structurally it was really uneven. The juxtaposition between combat and the family at home was really well executed, and really helped to underscore the themes that I think Eastwood was going for, but I wish they had spent more time on Kyle’s life post-military service. His transition from detached civilian to reborn veteran counselor was really abrupt – I would’ve liked to have seen a deeper investigation of how he handled life permanently stateside, and how the war impacted his domestic life. Finally, I think the characters were a little underwritten. Chris and Taya were presented as broadly defined character types that only became memorable on screen thanks to the considerable talents of Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.
CARA: American Sniper suffers primarily for its controversial source material. In the best of cases, a clumsy execution allows us to project our own feelings onto the film. In the worst of cases, it stumbles upon making no clear linear place on which to land. In terms of characters we are occasionally given dimensional characters, but even this is not particularly consistent throughout. An arc of tension is well executed until the last third of the film, in which any closure seems rushed and incomplete. As Jonny touched upon, the story suffers most from broad generalizations and an inability to become attuned to the complexities of war and the people affected by it.
JOE: My opinions on American Sniper fall very much in line with Cara and Jonny. The story of the film and the way it’s told feels simplistic. Simply. We’re introduced to a hero whose major fault is unwavering moral righteousness. We’re teased with a darker side, and ultimately our righteous hero overcomes that with ease. The script is filled with face palm moments, notably the father scenes and the scene with the therapist near the end of the film. A great film could have been made out of the Chris Kyle story – a unlikely soldier, excellent at the grittiest parts of the job, a legend who ultimately also became a victim of war’s psychological toll. Even as a war movie, it feels unrealistic. Ultimately, the cat in the hat should have just gone home.
DANY: I think at the heart of all the controversy is the ambiguity of Eastwood’s direction and the story that he wanted to tell. I believe Eastwood was trying to comment on the effects of war on both soldiers and families and juxtaposing the brutality of combat with home life. But if this was indeed the story he wanted to tell, then I agree with Jonny that a deeper look into Chris Kyle’s post-military life would have better helped drive those points home. I also agree with everyone above about the uneven structure. The early family scenes with Chris and his father and brother never seemed to land, and opening up this entire backstory with Chris as his brother’s protector and savior never really came full circle (other than one later scene between Chris and his brother, that plotline all but disappears). Ultimately, I believe the adaptation is much too simple for such a complex story with such a complex person at its core, not to mention the controversial background of the war in which all of this takes place.
JONNY: I think Joe and Dany are absolutely right that the oversimplification of both Chris Kyle and the broader narrative of the war is one of the film’s biggest shortcomings. From all accounts, the real Chris Kyle was an extraordinary complex man; heroic, yes, but also deeply flawed. I wish the film had presented him more even-handedly instead of reframing him as a martyr completely free of any moral ambiguity. I think overall, I liked American Sniper more than the group as a whole, but I see no reason why the film has to present us with such a sanitized and simplistic tale of moral absolutes – especially when presenting a subject so complicated and thematically dense.
CARA: So, I think we’re all in agreement over the bulk of the film so I’m going to introduce some things we might disagree on. Is oversimplification of the story a problem within the film itself or one within its source material? And I don’t just mean the book it’s based on, but in the tradition of war-story-telling and the military as a whole.
As far as I can tell, war films succeed (story wise) when a single person is not the protagonist/main focus of the film, but rather when war as a theme is explored deeply, with all the individual human repercussions that may entail. So can American Sniper truly be blamed for being a genre-film rather than a literary human exploration?
JOE: I think Cara raises a great point that the most affecting war movies involve more ensemble casts than Sniper present. The movie has a great opportunity to explore war on an individual level and it eschews that and goes for the Black Hawk Down approach. Not all the time, but where it counts. Fleshing out the rest of the Punishers might have really helped the movie. Significantly.
DANY: I agree with Cara and Joe on what makes a war film successful, and I would argue then that based on those criteria, American Sniper doesn’t necessarily succeed as a war genre film. Then again, it’s adapted from Chris’s memoir about his own life not necessarily the war itself so it’s a tricky interpretation.
JONNY: I don’t think that oversimplification is symptomatic of war films generally, nor do I think that a tight focus on one individual necessarily makes for a less effective war film. The Hurt Locker comes to mind as a war film that focused largely on one central character, but was enormously complex thematically. I think the difficulty comes with telling stories about a war that is both controversial and recent. It’s a lot easier to set up moral absolutes with WWII or the Civil War, when there was a clear “right side” and “wrong side” – but with the War on Terror and Vietnam, it gets trickier, and I think you need a higher degree of complexity that films like Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Zero Dark Thirty include. Whether they’re ensemble driven or focus on one character is largely irrelevant to their success, in my opinion.
CARA: To me, the Chris Kyle I’m presented with is not the main focus of the film, but rather his adrenaline rush towards war. Similarly the same can be said about Hurt Locker, but I am presented in Hurt Locker with a much more compelling character with more displayed complexities. The genre-element is not Sniper’s only problem, but it’s a significant one, even if it’s not a problem exclusive to the war genre.
JONNY: I’m going to disagree there. The entire film revolves around Chris Kyle – his background, his experiences, and his decisions. Thematically I think it’s actually a great parallel to The Hurt Locker, just much less effective in its execution.‘
CARA: No disagreement here, I just think Chris Kyle is a much less compelling or complex protagonist. As touched upon earlier though, I can’t tell if that’s a source material problem, or an execution problem.
JONNY: I wonder if the fact that Kyle himself was real (and somewhat of a local celebrity in Texas) had anything to do with the softening of his rougher edges. Conversely, Jeremy Renner’s character in The Hurt Locker was fictional, so that wasn’t a problem for Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow.
PERCEPTION (reality vs. film, perception of film, greater theory of film)
JONNY: American Sniper has come under a lot of fire for both its politics and the perceived inaccuracies of its story and its adaptation of its central character. To me, those are things that should have no impact on our cultural assessment of it as a film. No filmmaker should have to bear the burden of complete historical accuracy. This is art. This is expression. It’s a reflection and representation of reality — not a historical document. I have no problem with the film simplifying or softening Chris Kyle and his life, just as I have no problem with commentators, critics, and others pointing out those inaccuracies and fostering discussion from them. I feel similarly about its politics. You are free to openly and publicly disagree with the political stance that the filmmakers take, and the filmmakers should be free to make those statements in their film. Neither artistic license nor expression of a particular “agenda” or position should invalidate a film’s artistic merits or devalue the expressive contributions of its cast and crew.
CARA: Its current place in political discourse and an unexpected reception from both mass audiences and critics alike is, rightfully in my opinion, where most of the conversation of American Sniper is centered. The film in and of itself can not be distinguished from the time it was released, and the cultural mindset in which it was released from as well as onto. Many will argue that the film is not to blame for how it is to be perceived by audiences, but I find that that is naive at best. A large amount of financing from seasoned film veterans went into the execution of the film, as well as the timing of its distribution. When and how a film is distributed is not just a financial decision, it’s one that carries social implications as well. To me American Sniper’s criticism is taking the bulk of the conversation because there isn’t enough artistic creativity to take its place in the public’s eye.
JOE: I think the biggest issue is the politicization of the film. It’s bothersome and troubling the way the film is being used as a legitimate piece of American propaganda, which isn’t unintentional. I don’t think a movie that champions the United States military or legitimate military heroes is wrong in anyway, but the reaction to the movie is upsetting. I think there are many valid points to be taken and discussed by the film, but even its ending seems to let people know that questioning the movie means you’re making a statement on Kyle. That not liking the movie is insulting to his life. That’s a problem. And I have to feel the movie in some part is constructed in that way (especially the credit sequence).
DANY: There are countless factors that attributed to the massive attention American Sniper has received both critically and by mass audiences. But I’m inclined to agree with Joe that the biggest issue is the politicization. It’s difficult to distinguish the film itself from the cultural mindset that it was released in – and perhaps, as Cara mentioned, it can’t be. The visceral reactions from both sides of the spectrum is upsetting and makes me think whether the average moviegoer can both appreciate the film for all its nuances and subtleties, recognize its shortcomings and still understand that at the end of the day it is one man’s artistic expression. This is not to say that the cultural perception of the film should be written off entirely, but rather that it is important to recognize the fine lines between life and art, reality and perception, culture and film.
JONNY: Cara, I don’t think you can blame the filmmakers entirely for its perception and response from audiences. Obviously Clint Eastwood and his team intended to evoke a series of responses from their audience: emotional, mental, physical, etc; but it’s important to remember that each audience member brings their own thoughts, feelings, politics, and personal history to the theatre, and it’s unfair to expect the filmmakers to be able to predict or control audience response. Likewise, I think it’s naive to expect the average moviegoer to conduct the kind of detailed analysis that a film critic, political analyst, or crazy film fan (i.e. us) would undertake for a film that in all likelihood, they won’t remember much about a year from now.
Joe and Dany, I agree that the use of American Sniper (and any film, really) as a political bludgeon by pundits and commentators is very troubling. A similar effect happened with Selma earlier this year — If you criticized Selma, it’s because you’re a racist, not because you legitimately had a problem with the film. Likewise, if you dislike American Sniper, it’s because you’re against the military and you’re un-American, not because you had a valid criticism. The extreme polarization of the conversation around films with controversial subject matter has a chilling effect on speech and is counterproductive to both political and artistic discourse.
Finally, Cara, I’m confused as to how you think the distribution of the film – or its timing, rather – affected the film’s success or the discourse around it. Could you expand on that?
CARA: From the get-go the point of American Sniper was to make a lot of money. It had a wide distribution, and a very aggressive media campaign. An American flag almost never failing to be present. America and American patriotism has been a large selling point, if not the main one. The filmmakers can’t then hope to be exempt from being called a propaganda film, or a patriotic blockbuster, when it’s been sold as such from the beginning.
JOE: I think it’s important to note the film started like under the eye of Spielberg, so Cara’s point about making money is valid. However, I think that there was a legitimate desire to tell Kyle’s story on the part of producer Bradley Cooper. And I think actor Bradley cooper carried that out. But it’s clear the movie was sold, maybe not constructed, but sold on the patriotic nature of the subject matter. And that led to it’s current political statement nature. So it’s fair to assume that that was part of the goal and that is something I question, highly.
JONNY: Listen, literally every studio film exists to make money. In fact, I’d argue that every movie that gets made, aside from maybe some micro-budget indies, is made with the hope or expectation of a return on investment. I don’t think that the desire or intention to make a profit on the film should be counted as a mark against it in any way. The attempt by the distributor to make money has little to nothing to do with the film as a political or artistic statement.
Also, let’s be careful about distinguishing a film that emphasizes patriotism to sell tickets, and a propaganda film. This ain’t Reifenstahl.
CARA: For clarity I never did call it a propaganda film, I said it can’t not expect to be called one from people who aren’t attuned to the complexities of what may or may not be propaganda. No this isn’t Triumph of the Will, but let’s not act like many people won’t walk by [the movie] poster, and run under the assumption that this is a pro-America, pro-Military film. The box office result wouldn’t be what it was were it not for that very intentional advertising campaign.
That being said, there’s a big difference between being a filmed that wants a profit (every film ever) and being a film that is carefully constructed to have a wide appeal. There’s a big difference between American Sniper and The Hurt Locker.
JONNY: I understand that point, and I don’t think it’s unfair to characterize the film as pro-America or pro-military. But calling it propaganda is disingenuous. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a filmmaker to not have their product referred to inaccurately as propaganda. Maybe that’s expecting too much from the public.
Obviously the advertising had a lot to do with its financial success. Just like advertising had a lot to do with the success of The Avengers, or Gravity. A specific advertising strategy in order to gain wide appeal is not something specific to this film, nor is it something I think we should criticize.
CARA: Sure, but you can’t act like the appeal in seeing The Avengers and Gravity is the same as American Sniper. The appeal of American Sniper is almost entirely embedded in it’s Americanness.
PERFORMANCE / VISUALS / SOUND (acting, directing, technical, etc.)
JONNY: I’ll start with the acting. Most characters only make minimal appearances or are too underdeveloped to really make much of an impact, so I’ll focus on Chris and Taya Kyle. I thought both Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller did really beautiful work with characters that were underwritten on the page. Cooper in particular gave a really subtle understated performance, much of which had to be internalized due to Kyle’s terse manner. Miller, on the other hand, took what could’ve been a stock character – the army wife – and made her the most compelling part of the film, in my opinion. I never questioned Kyle’s sense of duty that called him to redeploy, and Cooper deserves the credit for that – but neither did I question his decision to walk away from the military for the sake of his family, and the credit for that belongs to Miller.
Technically, I thought the movie was impeccable, particularly from a sound perspective. The sound effects editing and overall sound mix were great, and really helped to ratchet up the tension. Visually, it had solid, if not particularly spectacular, photography and design. The MVPs of the creative team for me were the film editors. Cutting back and forth from the battlefield to the home front, increasing tension throughout, the editors did a masterful job. From a filmmaking perspective, I think this is Clint’s best film in a decade, at least, and if American Sniper weren’t so politically controversial, I would definitely consider Cooper a threat to win the Oscar on his third consecutive nomination.
JOE: Technically, there’s little about American Sniper I had legitimate gripes about. I thought it wasn’t particularly inspired, but I in’t have a problem. Sound wise, it’s great. There’s some questionable CG, but overall, technically, I wouldn’t be surprised if it walks away with a couple awards.
DANY: I don’t have much more to add, especially because Jonny per usual took the words right out of my mouth. From a technical standpoint, American Sniper has much to be proud of. Sound mixing and editing deserve recognition but film editing in particular is what really makes the film stand out. From a filmmaking perspective, I would argue that this is Eastwood’s best directed film in recent years (too bad he won’t be a part of the Best Director showdown). And if I were in the Best Actor race, I would be very wary of Bradley Cooper. Who knows whether the controversy will help or hurt? Sienna Miller also takes a role that could have been disappointingly one-dimensional and delivers a stunningly emotional performance that won’t be but should be recognized.
LAST MINUTE THOUGHTS:
JONNY: I think this is a film that will age well, as the controversy around it cools and the immediacy of the War on Terror fades into history. Strong filmmaking and compelling performances last forever.
CARA: I think besides Bradley, not much will be remembered about this film. And more is gained from talking about the film than the film itself.
JOE: My final thought on the film: If nothing else, no film made me think more about larger ideas this year. Even films I enjoyed more and felt stronger connections to. That’s worth something.
DANY: This was the film that made me stop and think. More so than any other film this year (with the exception of Selma). From the story adaptation to the performances to its reception, I find its impact fascinating. But my final thought. Has to be. The. Fake. Baby.
KAL: This is where I jump in to say OH MY GOD WHAT WAS WITH THE FAKE BABY? HOW DID NO ONE STOP THAT? Dany that and the terrible slow-mo kill-shot made me facepalm so hard.
DANY: Fake baby is what happens when you have a film led by men.
KAL: I thought you were going to say “a fake baby is what happens when you have fake sex.” I don’t know why.
JONNY: As a man, let me just say that I didn’t even notice the fake baby. So you may be on to something.
KAL: And Dany and I are losing our minds, so I think she hit the nail on the head.
Stay tuned for more roundtable discussions from the Fab Five!