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American Sniper – A Modern-Day Achilles?



The skin on my cheeks is tight with dried tears. My hands are shaking.

I’m angry.

I’m petrified.

By now, the last echoes of Ennio Morricone’s Funeral have whispered away in the screening room at the Directors Guild of America, and absolute silence preludes the Q&A.

That the round of invited filmmakers consists of six white 40+ males is little surprising.

It is difficult to put down in words what I am feeling at the moment. Being the person I am, though, I will try anyway.

I presume the story is known: 

Chris Kyle is American Sniper, doing several/too many tours in Iraq after 9/11, defending “the greatest country in the world”, leaving behind wife and kids.
Sniper’s childhood in Texas is defined by a stolen bible, rodeo, and his father’s belt. Quite traditional, so I am told. News of the bombing of US embassies in the middle East catapult Sniper in the direction of his story. “Why would they attack us?” he asks, sharply deducing: Embassy equals nation.
Sniper becomes a SEAL, finding he’s good at shooting people in the head from far away. But until now, he’s only been playing war, when…

The unthinkable happens (9/11), and his skill is needed elsewhere against elsepeople.

I guess we’ve reached plot point one.

Sniper does well as is expected, taking down everything that’s armed, including women and children, in order to save his boys during the mission to break into every house, give the inhabitants a trauma for life, an aversion to anybody who speaks English, and find this one Iraqi sniper, who’s by the way a brutal fuck. Sniper becomes “legend;” his headcount unmatched.

I cry during the war scenes, all this senseless killing suffocating my pacifist heart. I start looking for something, any sign in Bradley Cooper’s eyes, any subtext making it clear that the general idea of this war is being questioned. When Cooper says “When I meet my creator I wanna be able to justify all my game,” I hope he really means “I shouldn’t’ve been there shooting people in the first place.”

I hope in vain. Not a single word is wasted on what seems to be the undeniable truth of the moment: the war of the United States against Iraq was an arbitrary one. So the killing continues, and there is nothing heroic and legendary about it.

The crucial love story is forced and fails to examine in depth what it means to live with a traumatized soldier, or deified killer. Why Taya falls in love with Sniper remains unclear. Sniper exhibits little charm, nor is he particularly witty. He is the absent father, fighting on the other end of the globe for a flimsy notion of American freedom.

The truest moment comes too late and leaves too quickly during Sniper’s home leave, swiftly wiping out of the way what should have been a main issue in the film:

"
Sniper: I’m fighting for you. I’m doing this for you!
Taya: No, you’re not. I’m here.
"

Toward the end of the second act, Sniper’s friend meets a bullet and is sent home. Upon visiting friend in hospital, Sniper thinks friend ain’t doing too bad, when out of nowhere, friend dies on the operating table. Traditionally, the only solution for Sniper is revenge. He can only fall back on what he has been taught, and I cannot hold it against him. He is not aware that the entire time he has been killing somebody’s father, mother, daughter, son, lover, and friend. The enemy has no family.

By now, Sniper and fighting buds have painted skulls (courtesy, naturally, of Marvel’s Punisher) on tanks and uniforms, clearly downplaying and videogaming the act of war and killing in an attempt to stay sane in a situation nobody should be in, ever.

When American Sniper finally takes out evil Iraqi sniper via what’s apparently an “impossible shot,” I prick my ears to detect the audience’s reaction. To my relief, nobody claps. There’s only a faint “Yay!” from somebody in the back.

The movie ends with archive footage from Kyle’s funeral and Ennio Morricone. 

I’m angry.

I’m petrified.

The Q&A starts, and the film is praised for its power, its bundle of oscar nominations, and its ability to “hit a chord with a modern crowd.” It’s also mindblowing because “as many women as men” are giving their hard-earned money to see this flick. Most probably because the trailer suggested a higher morale than the film eventually follows. Big words are tossed around, referring to Sniper as “a modern-day Achilles” and a “real-life hero as opposed to Marvel superheroes.” A gentleman even asks, whether “Seals are allowed to have a beard.” The audience “awws” when the six white 40+ males talk about Sniper’s untimely and tragic demise: He was shot by a veteran. Nobody asks the questions that are burning in my heart right now. Does nobody find it unsettling that a veteran would murder another veteran on the shooting range? How do you expect a young man to look at himself in the mirror after being mystified not because he saved people, but because of his unbeatable headcount of 160 confirmed kills? Why are you turning your own children into traumatized soldiers, and how can you expect them to continue living their lives as if nothing happened?

I’m trying to trim down my battered emotions and examine the film with my storyteller brain.

From a mere screenwriting point of view, American Sniper is a relatively blandly written, biased story. It may well be because it’s an autobiography, and its ideology hits you over the head with a sledge hammer. The depiction of Iraqis is about as dimensional as the depiction of the red-star dudes behind black visors in Top Gun: faceless, voiceless, without motivation. Yet, everybody who does a little writing knows that an antagonist is only interesting and powerful when he/she/it has a clear motivation (or is a raptor or an iceberg). Antagonists are their own stories’ heroes. In American Sniper, the Iraqis are stripped of not only voice, face, and motivation, but their sheer human existence. Sniper reluctantly refers to them as “savages.” 
In a nutshell: The war sequences are long, repetitive, and boring. Taya threatens to leave Sniper at some point, which she never does. Sniper is de facto never in any real danger. Cooper beefed up for his part and plays a Texan. The editing is quite solid.


So, there.

Who am I? I am clearly a nobody. I am a small voice in a small body from a small country with small problems. As a writer, I want to use the medium of motion picture for something it does so well: Open up curtains to other worlds, let us walk in somebody else’s shoes, present us with stories, styles, human experiences we’ve never seen before or thought possible. I want to give voice to the voiceless, and faces to the ones that until recently didn’t have one. I want to see people understand and overcome adversity and differences, not consolidate them. I want to see people’s minds expand, not shrink into a thumbnail. Or if nothing else, I try to do damn good entertainment.

American Sniper does nothing of the above. It merely reiterates what people have been practicing since the beginning of time: The construction of our planet’s/world’s/nation’s history through the eyes of the Great White Male. An autobiographical and incredibly narrow account of warbound events is yet again rendered the history of a nation. There is nothing creative, original, or fresh about this concept.

American Sniper doesn’t take us a step forward; it drags us back into the 1940s. With clear conscience, I call it reactionary and backwards.
Why tell a reactionary and backwards story? Because it’s easier. Because if you dare wrap your head around Sniper’s legacy in a more forward and progressive fashion, you have to end up at a loss: Kyle was shot by another veteran stateside, who – extrapolating from the Texan way of life and law – will sooner or later end up in a death cell himself.

There’s no future for the war generation. Paradoxical, if you consider that soldiers believe to be fighting for a better future for us all. Not only do we not benefit from the flimsy notion of a better future or whatever ideal of freedom is buzzing around at the moment, but those warriors, heroes, and legends end up with nothing but a broken mind in a broken body.

After escaping Nazi ideology, Bert Brecht (screenwriter of Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die!, nominated for two Academy Awards in 1943) made an interesting observation in Life of Galileo:

"
Andrea: Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.
Galileo: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.
"

Why, then, is America so desperate for a hero? Why are people thirsting for a modern-day Achilles?
Is America so unhappy?
And aren’t Marvel superheroes good enough?

I clearly don’t know, and I’m sure you’re sick of my meandering, so let me end with this:

Was I brainwashed into pacifism from an early age on? Yes. Is brainwashing kinda bad in general? Yes. Is being brainwashed into pacifism less destructive than being brainwashed into a romantic notion of war, revenge, and heroism that leaves generation after generation crippled, orphaned, and widowed? 

YES.

Go see American Sniper if you must, but I beg you, do so with a critical eye, a clear eye that sees through the cloud of ideology and deification into what is essentially murder of human beings committed by human beings in the name of peace and freedom.

Come out of this film and start asking the important questions.

link of the day:
Danny Leigh in The Guardian

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