Monday, January 19, 2015

"American Sniper": Unpopular Opinion Incoming

Now In Theaters

Oscar Nominations

Best Picture

Best Lead Actor - Bradley Cooper
Best Adapted Screenplay - Jason Hall
Best Film Editing - Joel Cox & Gary Roach
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing

Just about everyone was shocked last Thursday when the news came down that American Sniper was not only nominated for six Academy Awards, but among those was a nomination for Best Picture.  This was a film that most people did not even consider a dark horse in that race, and yet, the Academy surprised us all.  And so, diligent in my self-appointed critical task, I went to see what the big deal was… only to discover that there is no big deal.  The fact that this film was nominated for so many awards, let alone Best Picture, is only partially baffling to me, as a more cynical side of me has strong suspicions as to why this has happened.

American Sniper is a biopic about Chris Kyle, a soldier in the Iraq war who eventually became known as the deadliest sniper in United States military history, racking up over 160 kills over four tours.  This is an impressive feat, and the film pretty much rests its laurels on portraying that, and only that.  Kyle’s life is molded into the generic beats of any action-suspense film, complete with lost comrades and an equally skilled sniper who acts as his cartoonishly evil archvillain foil.  And that would be totally fine, so long as Kyle’s character were sufficient to carry the emotional and human side of the story.

I understand that Chris Kyle may not have been an introspective or particularly deep individual, but the film is so dispassionate about the war and Kyle’s relationship to it that there really doesn’t seem to be a point in telling this story as a piece of narrative fiction.  Bradley Cooper does his best to portray Kyle with the material he is given, but there really isn’t much to work with when the majority of the film plods from scene to scene with Kyle doing one of two things: feeling at home with his sniper rifle or struggling with PTSD when he returns stateside.  The film doesn’t even have anything interesting to say about PTSD, other than that Kyle has it.  Kyle’s character has no arc, no transformation that the film takes the time to walk us through that makes his life compelling as a narrative work.

The closest the film gets to achieving this is a third act attempt to demonstrate how he conquers his PTSD demons by spending time with disabled veterans.  However, we only see the beginning of his interactions with his brothers in arms, and before you know it, the film cuts to a period of time later when he is seemingly much better adjusted.  What was perhaps the most humanly compelling aspect of Chris Kyle’s story was given the short end of the stick in favor of dragging out his military accomplishments into a boring, repetitive slog.  This isn’t to say that Chris Kyle’s story isn’t worth telling, but it does not work as a piece of narrative fiction, which needs character development and plotting that this portrayal of his exploits simply lacks; a documentary would likely have sufficed to better enlighten us on Kyle’s life and accomplishments.

So why has this film been so extensively nominated for this year’s Oscars?  I think the answer is two-fold.  First, the Academy has always had a soft spot for biopics, regardless of actual cinematic quality, and American Sniper appears to be no exception.  Second, and probably more important, however, is the fact that this film is about an American veteran of our nation’s most recent conflict.  Ever since 9/11, portrayals of American war heroes have been subject to less scrutiny than other pieces of artistic representation, under the assumption that criticism of the art is criticism of the sacrifice the represented soldiers made.  However, I firmly disagree with the notion that wrapping oneself in the American flag makes one immune from criticism, and American Sniper is a perfect demonstration of why that is.  I do not dislike this film because I disagree with the politics of the Iraq war (which I do) or disrespect the work our soldiers do (which I don’t); I dislike this film because it is so dispassionate in its portrayal of the war and one of its most decorated soldiers that, within a viewing context, it makes it impossible to care about either without letting one's implicit patriotism fill in the gaps.  Don’t let American Sniper get away with being a lackluster product by being lured by its patriotism.  It isn’t worth your time or money.

Any other films make the Oscar roster you think are less than deserving?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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