Movies aren’t always for whom we think they are.
With the release, reception, and buzz around American Sniper, there’s an important conversation we’re not having about the flaws of modern film criticism.
Usually a critic who begins this way is about to get defensive of his controversial negative review of a lauded film. I’m not doing that here. American Sniper is a powerful piece, one of the best films of 2014, one of the best war movies Clint Eastwood has ever directed, and a film that will endure long after this review, other reviews by bigger critics, and its inevitable treatment (or mistreatment) at the Oscars pass. Chances are you’re probably going to see it, so it doesn’t need defending either. And if nothing else, its first trailer was probably the best trailer in 2014. And I’m definitely not here to attack or attempt to discredit any of the critics who don’t like it, or flex my articulation mojo by proving them wrong.
American Sniper is a dramatic biopic of the late ex-Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. The Texas kid was the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, credited with 160 confirmed kills. He served four tours in Iraq before being honorably discharged. At home, he suffered the effects of post-traumatic stress, endured loving but tense relations with his wife and children, and made the news often, usually not in good ways, until his life was cut short when he and his friend were shot and killed at a shooting range. He was 38 years old.
The movie is pretty much that story shown straight from childhood to adulthood to wife to war and back, and then to war and back again. As per usual with Eastwood-directed movies (especially biopics), the story tells itself and the tension builds itself. He re-enlists and returns, each time to a more intense fight and struggles to cope with the absence of war at home. He gets worse and more unhinged as time goes on, and Bradley Cooper manages to portray that kind of deterioration with deft subtlety in what is his best performance ever. Eastwood appears to trust in Kyle’s story to explain itself and in Cooper’s ability to sell it. So he hangs back, keeps the cinematography and scene-by-scene staging functional and engaging, and lets the performers do the work.
That’s where we get to the perceived problem. The prominent criticism of the film is the fact that Eastwood either fails or outright refuses to actually direct the narrative. American Sniper appears by some to be a sequence of events of varying intensity stitched together into a complete picture, but without any nuance or thematic overtone.
It’s easy to just dismiss the voices of the critics arguing against American Sniper because they’re in the minority. But the point they’re raising mostly in unison is worth considering and is legitimate applied to other films. And it’s similar to the negative reaction toward the impeccable Lone Survivor last year. Lone Survivor contained a survival and endurance story that many critics mistook for jingoism. Sniper examines what Chris Kyle sought to attain by going to war and what he brought back with him. Yet perhaps the critics are right that the beat-by-beat structure and lack of overarching depth or visual introspection prevent the film from concluding.
Is Sniper directionless or theme-less? Is Eastwood failing to give the tragedy of Chris Kyle a through-line, or even a narrative at all? Is this just a paint-by-numbers movie in Eastwood’s fashion that doesn’t do justice to Kyle or the war that may have killed him?
There’s another question not being asked. Why are the above questions centered around this particular film?
It could be because Eastwood makes it easy for them. Sniper is about as non-narrated as it can get. Actually it’s because of the fact that war, particularly the Iraq War, remains not only a touchy subject worthy of analysis, but also because of the genre space Sniper exists in. It’s a war film, but it’s not the kind of war film critics are used to seeing. When you make a movie about a controversial soldier in a controversial war, through a studio known for dramatizing and narrating war but that deliberately doesn’t do so here, a movie then subject to scrutiny by hive minds of critics with controversial opinions about all of the above, you’re pretty much setting yourself up for a miscommunication.
That miscommunication is the heart of the problem because American Sniper takes the appearance of a Hollywood Oscar-bait war film, but it isn’t. This film is not for critics or the awards committees. It’s not for actors’ guilds, film schools, or even for you and me. In fact, it’s not even for the military at large. This film is for Chris Kyle’s family, friends, and those who fought with him.
When you boil down the story as the film depicts it, Sniper is about one thing only: a man looking for closure and failing to find it.
Sniper works because its creators understand the wants, needs, and morals of its intended audience. Yet so many critics took it out on the film for the fact that they weren’t in that intended audience and thought they were. And if there’s one thing film critics absolutely cannot stand, it’s to be left out of a film-related conversation.
FilmCritHULK recently released an article on Nightcrawler. In praising it, Hulk noted that we may be making movies wrong – in that audiences scramble for primal emotional satisfaction, which causes them to misunderstand or resent films like that (also The Wolf of Wall Street) that point the finger at the audience in raising ugly truths about society et al., and that today’s worst films are often the ones that indulge those base wants without offering anything else.
Halfway through Sniper, I figured out what Hulk’s analysis was missing. Critics are doing that too! Just as critics take offense when they aren’t included the conversation, or when a film they expected/hoped would turn out a certain way doesn’t, they are equally quick to a fault to make these conversations about themselves.
The showmanship of critics in articulating what good movies mean to them, using needless esoteric vocabulary and verbose exposition (yes, I do it too) is grounded, fairly so, on the attitude that you’re there to read that critic’s opinion. What’s often lost is the fact that you’re usually also there to find out if the film is good (read: ‘worth your time & money’). In their overwrought, tiresome meandering in the “meaning,” “subtext,” “thematic underpinning” (especially when it isn’t there), and other catchphrases critics employ to fluff their work in the name of appearing elite, critics often forget to answer that.
And critics wonder why people get annoyed with them.
What comes with that is their need for films that are intended for them, or (as is the case with Sniper) films that appear to be intended for them, to have the kind of message worth writing a prideful review over. Nearly every year, we see films (usually in award season) that appear cynically created to indulge the critics’ appetites in such ways. My favorite example of that is American Beauty, a film drowning in ham-fisted satire, trying to be about everything in so artsy a fashion that it ended up actually being about nothing. But boy did the critics take the piss with that film. Like a blank check issued to a shopaholic, it’s a film that gives critics the opportunity to assign deeper meaning to it in however they wished and go nuts with it in show-off-y reviews all about them and barely about the actual movie.
With the war genre, the critics do even more of it. Let’s not pretend we don’t know that the vast majority of critics are politically left-of-center, anti-war, and without military experience. You know it; I know it; it’s the way it is. Conservative as I am, I’m not taking issue with that. Just keep it in mind.
War films are no strangers to acclaim and fame. Typical of Hollywood, most are crafted and constructed in a way to tell you something about war that only a film can. The critics, spoiled by the success of this genre, are used to scouring a war film for subtext and getting it, especially in Clint Eastwood’s films. Look at his previous war films, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, films that deconstruct the myth of World War II’s bloodiest and most famous battles, cautionary tales against erecting monuments to and (if you will) “block-busting” something as hazy and muddling as war. Great films, but they’re also fodder.
American Sniper is a film that looks like it’s going to give something similar but doesn’t. The critics looking for political meat to chew on but who also didn’t understand that all the film was trying to do was examine what Kyle was trying to get out of the war and what the war was doing to him didn’t know what to do with that.
Until you get that Sniper is just trying to tell the basic story with a tone meant to respect and honor Kyle’s memory and legacy, but also with the conscious eschewing of commentary on war’s nature or Kyle’s psyche, you won’t understand that. “Hollywood”-izing the film wouldn’t just have been disrespectful; it would have missed the audience and the point.
The film uses an equally capable sniper who unleashes hell among Kyle’s fellow men and eludes them as the initial hook. Kyle returns in part to take him down and to continue protecting the men on the ground, but his return is in many ways emblematic of the Iraq War’s malaise and attrition. And Kyle’s obsession over war’s unfinished business slowly eats at him.
Kyle always had a “reason” to return to the fighting. Though he saved many lives, each additional tour bore a heavier weight upon his mind, body, and soul. The war came home with him, each time worse than before (as it does for so many veterans). Yet as ugly as Kyle’s post-war stress manifestations were, the good nature of his character that drove him from childhood was still there. Ultimately, there was no closure to his story. There may never have been. And when the critics most susceptible to the sensational indulgence of award season war drama missed that point, and thus also got no closure from Sniper, they took it out on the film because they didn’t know what else to do.
The irony of it all couldn’t be sweeter, but American Sniper will endure.