American Sniper (2014)

AMERICAN-SNIPER

Bradley Cooper succeeds admirably in becoming the humble, everyday patriot in a film that is more a slightly jingoistic tribute than balanced biopic.

To call Chris Kyle ‘everyday’ is unfair, his experiences in the Middle East and his talents with a rifle are anything but ‘everyday’, but Kyle had the simple, one-dimensional outlook of many everyday, conservative American patriots. It’s not easy for a prominent actor with a celebrity profile to become the common man, but Bradley Cooper achieves it with much credibility – he makes the most of American Sniper’s simple script and simple direction.

I – like many others it seems based on the very lucrative opening weekend – was completely drawn in by the excellent trailer that so skilfully builds a crescendo of pressure and ambiguity. The war scenes in the full-length feature are fine, some of them are wrought with tension and appropriately grisly images, but few of the military excursions we see are particularly memorable. I also had a problem with the moment when a bullet leaves Kyle’s rifle in slow motion much like the video game Sniper Elite; it’s an inappropriately stylised depiction of warfare that doesn’t belong in a film like American Sniper.

The film’s chief problems lie in its narrative and the jingoistic, somewhat untruthful characterisation. Despite it being a competently crafted film, I have wondered if Chris Kyle’s story was entirely worth telling. Take away his unusual, tragic death and you’re left with a story that’s about a simple man who was a good shot. In an effort to substantiate some sort of narrative, the screenwriter Jason Hall gives Kyle an Iraqi nemesis sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) to stalk in the ruins of Iraq. This reeked of fabrication, and after a brief search on Google I learned that it was indeed a considerable dramatization. It seems Mustafa was a real individual but he certainly wasn’t Kyle’s arch-enemy, he is mentioned in only one paragraph of Kyle’s memoir and his death is speculated rather off-handedly – ‘I never saw him, but other snipers later killed an Iraqi sniper we think was him.’ 

Kyle is characterised as a good American patriot whose actions both stateside and in battle are always noble. When questioned about the ethics of his profession, Kyle – like previous noted snipers such as Carlos Hathcock of the Vietnam War – responds with a ‘it’s him or me/kill or be killed’ attitude that’s often faith inflected – I was just protecting my guys, they were trying to kill our soldiers and I’m willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot that I took.’ Kyle’s actions and justifications for them are reasonable in the film, but I started to think that perhaps the embarrassingly right-wing Clint Eastwood was too reverential and somewhat biased in his depiction, a suspicion that was confirmed after reading excerpts from Kyle’s memoir, which included musings on how he ‘loved’ killing and that it was ‘fun’. With a similar lack of foresight to the government he was fighting for, Kyle also exclaimed that he ‘couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.’ Perhaps the most alarming of Kyle’s boasts was about his supposed shooting of 30 armed civilians during the bedlam of Hurricane Katrina, a claim that has never been corroborated by authorities.

Despite my reservations about the man it was based on and the sanitised manner in which he was depicted, I still empathised with the character (I stress the word character) and his family struggles as I liked his measure and humility. This investment in the character and the foreknowledge of his sudden, tragic end meant I felt very uncomfortable during the final scene as Kyle insouciantly says farewell to his family for what would be the last time. It is a testament to mostly Bradley Cooper’s performance that I was dreading what was going to happen next.

The story’s shocking ending is dealt with tactfully, perhaps too tactfully. We see nothing of the murder and almost nothing of the murderer Eddy Ray Routh, who is briefly seen standing against Kyle’s car as he blankly stares at Chris’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller), who spends most of her screen time pregnant or making hackneyed pleas for her husband to ‘come home’ metaphorically. The film could have given a greater insight into Routh and the events of February 2nd, 2013, this could have been interesting, but I understand and appreciate the way in which it was handled. Indeed, the denouement’s understatement has proven very powerful; I had read with pointed interest accounts of the palpable silence amongst audiences once the credits rolled, and the effect was exactly the same in the auditorium I was in – it’s a rare occurrence.

Despite being laced with predictabilities, moral ambiguities and disappointing alterations of the truth, American Sniper offers an adequate if rather simple and familiar insight into the life of a committed career soldier.

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Jesus Camp (2006)

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I objected to so much in Jesus Camp that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Jesus Camp follows a group of children as they’re indoctrinated by fundamentalist Christians at a summer camp;  it is a documentary that leaves one both angry and incredulous.

At the centre of it is Becky Fischer, a fat, obnoxious egotist who serves as the main speaker at the camp. We see Fischer preaching emphatically to these young minds, permeating their innocence with fear and guilt until they cry hysterically. So ridiculous and damn risible is her fanaticism that she even lambasts Harry Potter, spouting that ‘Warlocks are enemies of God! Had it been in the Old Testament Harry Potter would have been put to death! You don’t make heroes out of warlocks!’ – clearly, a religion of peace.

What is happening here is not religion, it’s child abuse. The children aren’t given the opportunity to think for themselves, they are inundated and imbued with bigotry, absurd reactionary values and a completely zealous devotion to God. Fischer and her creepy minions are quite open about what they’re doing, she even refers to it as ‘indoctrination’ in one instance, but they see nothing wrong in it, in fact she even says – ‘I would like to see more children indoctrinated!’ When asked why she targets children, Fischer replies candidly and without shame – ‘The reason that we target kids is that whatever they learn by the time they’re 7, 8, 9 years old is pretty much there for the rest of their lives.’ 

Much of what you see is deplorable, however it truly passes a boundary when the indoctrinators use the language of violence, speaking of things such as ‘God’s army’, ‘fighting’ and ‘war’. After many children have been driven slightly mad by the suffocating mania of Fischer and her misfits, they are encouraged to manifest their religious zeal into violence by smashing mugs that represent all things satanic with a claw-hammer.

It’s this ‘God’s army’ mentality that produces the most disconcerting behaviour amongst the children. One child speaks of how she feels like a ‘warrior’ and that she’s at ‘peace’ with death; children should not be forced to contemplate their mortality like this. Her point is expanded upon by 12-year-old Levi – ‘you know a lot of people die for God and stuff and they’re not even afraid.’ If the political landscape of the United States was to descend somehow into bedlam, I could see this pernicious, extreme devotion to God becoming very violent indeed. They claim that their cause is purely spiritual, but that is nonsense, the real purpose of their dogma is to create a Evangelical overhaul of the government.

All of this incessant madness and irrationality is interrupted sporadically by Mike Papantino, the Christian co-host of radio programme Ring of Fire. The camera captures Papantino in his studio as he articulately despairs of these people, highlighting the alarming scale of the Evangelical movement and how this affects the democracy of the United States. Although I disagree with his religious views, Papantino reminds the viewer that there are normal people of faith out there that believe in the separation of church and state just like the founding fathers of their country.

Despite the input of Papantino, the documentary is, to its credit, largely impartial; directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady just let the cameras roll on their unhinged subjects. To insert their presence into the documentary and make any judgement would be unnecessary. Ewing and Grady’s documentary offers an important insight that effortlessly captures the unnerving and dangerous Evangelical underbelly of the United States.

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