Political controversy surrounded two of this past year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture. If Selma was a lightning rod for controversy, American Sniper was a veritable drone strike.
The late Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL on whose autobiography American Sniper is based, has been in the news more or less constantly for the past several years. Much of that news, unfortunately, has centered on the trial and conviction of Eddie Ray Routh, a disturbed Iraq War veteran who shot and killed Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield. Just as much of it, however, has centered on Clint Eastwood’s movie, with a screenplay by Jason Hall based on Kyle’s book. Articles published in Slate, The New Yorker, and elsewhere have questioned some factual claims in the story, though not Kyle’s officially confirmed record of 160 kills as a sniper in the field. Other commentators have criticized the film and Kyle himself on moral grounds. Michael Moore, though acknowledging that Eastwood’s film is well-made, noted that his uncle was killed by a sniper during World War II. Moore quoted his father as saying, “It’s cowardly to shoot someone in the back. Only a coward will shoot someone who can’t shoot back.”
The Slate article shows clearly how the movie of American Sniper departs from Kyle’s book, and how both tend to embellish the facts. (The movie also omits some uncomfortable events in Kyle’s life, such as the defamation lawsuit brought against him by former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura.) I haven’t read Kyle’s book, but from the evidence I have seen, Eastwood’s film doesn’t depart from the facts more significantly than other biopics.
I agree that glorifying snipers isn’t in the best interests of a civilization. I also can’t condone the film’s portrayal of Iraqis as treacherous almost to a person, or Kyle and his buddies describing them as “savages.” Nevertheless, I find myself unable to judge Chris Kyle. I have never been in the military, and I never walked a mile in Kyle’s combat boots. There is a scene in American Sniper in which an Iraq veteran comes up to Kyle and thanks him for saving his life. For some, it will be a queasy moment; for others, it will ring true. For still others, it will be and do both.
American Sniper is a good film of its kind, despite the caveats above. (Xenophobia, unfortunately, is endemic to war films.) It doesn’t rise to the same level of moral quandary as The Hurt Locker, which may help explain why American Sniper was by far the bigger box-office hit. Eastwood is halfway between Dirty Harry and Mystic River here, presenting Kyle (Bradley Cooper) as a hero but not shying away from the damage his military service caused him.
The movie begins with the tense scene made famous in the film’s trailer: will Kyle pull the trigger on an Iranian mother and her small son, who are bearing an explosive device? The story then switches to scenes of Kyle’s childhood—a life ruled by rodeo, the Bible, and a tough father who sees the world in no uncertain terms. You have three choices in life, Wayne Kyle (Ben Reed) tells Chris and his younger brother Jeff: to be a sheep, a sheepdog, or a wolf. A real man becomes a sheepdog, he says, but if that’s what he chooses, that means unending vigilance in guarding the sheep from the wolves.
American Sniper presents a life defined by vigilance. We see the extraordinarily strenuous training Kyle and his fellow SEALs undergo, which is only a prelude to the horrors of front-line service in Iraq. We see how Kyle is expected to make split-second judgment calls on when, and who, to shoot. (The outcome of his quandary in the first scene has already been well-publicized, but I will not reveal it here.) We see Kyle’s ongoing duels with a terrorist leader known as The Butcher (Mido Hamada) and a counterpart Iraqi sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik). We see several pitched battles—all of them shot brilliantly by Eastwood, especially the final battle in which a miasma of smoke and dust makes it impossible to tell friend from foe.
Throughout American Sniper, Kyle stays loyal to the code inculcated into him from childhood, and he has no sympathy for fellow soldiers who slack off even slightly. This comes out at the funeral of his close friend Marc (Luke Grimes). At the funeral, Marc’s mother reads a letter from him, expressing doubts about the Iraq war and the reasons why it was being fought. Driving home, Kyle coldly tells his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) that Marc more or less had it coming. “The letter got him,” Kyle says. “He let go, and he paid the price for it.” Yet Kyle himself pays the price for not letting go. We see this clearly in his stateside scenes, especially his extreme overreaction to a friendly tussle between his son and the family dog during a backyard barbecue.
As Kyle, Bradley Cooper once again proves himself one of this country’s most accomplished and versatile screen actors. He is just as effective in the playful scenes of Kyle’s courtship with Taya as he is rifle in hand, staring through his sights at a potential target. Sienna Miller has a number of memorable scenes as Taya, especially the one in which, speaking to her husband over a mobile phone, she suddenly hears the sounds of battle.
American Sniper is a persuasive portrait of a hero’s life. That doesn’t mean another filmmaker couldn’t turn around and make a film presenting Mustafa as the hero, with Kyle as the “savage.”
Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service shares with American Sniper the theme of extraordinary service to one’s country. Otherwise, the two films are as different as The Dirty Dozen and Casino Royale, and I mean the Casino Royale that featured Woody Allen.
The extravagant playfulness of Kingsman: The Secret Service is evident from the beginning, in which rubble falling from the bombardment of a fortress tumbles down to spell out the opening credits. The story begins with British agent Harry Hart, a/k/a Galahad (Colin Firth), feeling unassuageable guilt at the death of a rookie agent in his care. He visits the widow, who dismisses him, but not before he leaves his card with the agent’s small son Eggsy, telling him to call any time he’s in need.
Fifteen or twenty years later, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a cheeky yobbo with no job, a violent stepdad, a rap sheet and a taste for derring-do. During a particularly dire scrape with the law, he finds Galahad’s card and calls him. Galahad bails him out of jail, and also helps him out, with a combination of gentlemanly grace and brute force, when some of the local hooligans want to give Eggsy a beatdown.
Eggsy is awed by Galahad, who proceeds to give Eggsy some tough love. You can go back to your squalor, Galahad says, or you can go into training to join the Kingsmen. You won’t have an easy time in training, and you may not be selected, Galahad says, but it’s a door to a better life.
The training Eggsy receives is just as arduous as Chris Kyle’s, if also much more fanciful. (Kyle, for instance, never wakes to his dormitory being deliberately flooded.) Galahad, meanwhile, is in the field tracing the nefarious doings of Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a lisping computer tycoon who has, shall we say, some novel ideas on how to curb global warming.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is deliberately outrageous in action and tone, as if Quentin Tarantino was asked to write a Marvel Comics version of Goldfinger. How well you like it will be determined by how well you like over-the-top cartoonish violence. Personally, I enjoyed it; I was a little taken aback by the sheer extremes of goriness toward the end, but I was equally taken aback by how funny Vaughn made it all.
Meanwhile, Firth and Jackson are clearly enjoying themselves, as are a long list of sterling actors including Michael Caine, Mark Strong, Mark Hamill and Jack Davenport. As Eggsy, Taron Egerton is possessed of good looks, easy athleticism and a tongue-in-cheek bravado in the grand tradition of British action heroes. It’s not impossible to imagine him twenty years from now in the same place Colin Firth is today—or fifty years from now in Michael Caine’s place.