Weekly Watch: American Sniper

I’ve said, for a long time, that all art is subjective. Beyond the fact that art impacts different people in different ways, that’s because different people bring different perspectives and experiences to art in the first place. Two people looking at the same artistic work (or reading it or listening to it) can come to very different opinions about it based on the individual lens through which they’re doing the viewing. In that sense, art can become a Rorschach test, saying more about the person reacting to it than the art itself. A good recent example of that was American Sniper.

It’s a fictionalized account of the life of Chris Kyle, credited as the most prolific sniper in American military history. He racked up that total during the Iraq war. Ironically, given that he made his reputation with a gun, Kyle’s life was ended by another veteran at a shooting range in 2013. I have no doubt that the perceptions and values I brought to the movie colored the way I saw it.

It’s an interesting, if muddled, film. After a quick flashback intro, it alternates between harrowing battle scenes based in Iraq (the last one, which involves an all engulfing sandstorm, is really impressive) and home front scenes in Texas that shows how much impact the experiences are having on Kyle. The problem is that it never commits to either venue. It’s neither an all out war movie, nor is it a deep examination of the problems faced when vets come home.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in the way it glosses over Kyle’s life once he left Iraq behind. I don’t mean his death – that’s not shown on screen. I mean his transformation from brooding, seriously messed up soldier to a loving father and husband who was putting his experiences to use helping other veterans. All that’s covered with such brevity that it might as well have been a musical montage.

As I said, American Sniper turned into a kind of Rorschach test, with reviews saying more about the person talking about it than the film itself. That was true whether it was a professional pundit or some random person popping up on the Internet.

On the pundit side, check out Matt Taibbi’s review. I like Taibbi and agree with him on a lot of things, but I have to wonder if he actually watched the moving before writing that. It’s much more about what it isn’t – a catalog of the sins of the Bush administration and the Iraq War – than what it is. Instead, it’s very personal story about one man in the middle of something bigger. In fact, the plot makes it a mano y mano battle between Kyle and his Iraqi counterpart suggesting (as the recent Sicario did for the drug war) that everything, even war, in the end, is personal.

If liberal pundits were quick to slam the film for its perceived politics, conservatives were quick to praise it for the same reasons – because they found their politics positively reflected in it. Personally, if I thought American Sniper was validation of my politics, I would be very frightened. But I come to it with my own baggage, right?

See what I mean about a Rorschach test?

And it goes beyond politics. Take, for instance, this discussion in IMDB about how Eastwood ruined a perfectly good “war movie” by having scenes with a “whining wife” in them. Ignoring the fact that Eastwood wasn’t interested in making a “war movie” or that movies with scenes of warfare in them can be about more than killing bad guys.

American Sniper isn’t unique in this, although the effect is amplified because it deals with recent history, politics, and overseas adventures that are still causing us all kinds of problems. It might have cut across that divide with a little more commitment to being one thing or the other.



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