October 22, 2015
On Messages, Desires, and American Sniper
Some of the best films go against our expectations; they may even go against our wishes. Many moviegoers, especially ones from Western countries, seem to want happy, sometimes unrealistic endings for characters that they have invested so much time in, and when they are not delivered, there can be great backlash. This is to be expected of particular genres. Film noir rarely delivers truly happy endings, and gangster films can only seem “wholesome” if the lead characters end up in jail or the morgue. This is one of the reasons that the ending of The Departed diverges so much from that of Infernal Affairs – audiences, it was said, needed both justice and closure, never mind that in giving it to them, a hero was turned into a cold-blooded murderer.
What some people want to see on screen is an affirmation of what they already believe. Examples of this can be seen in many of today’s faith-based movies, whose audiences are more than willing to accept concepts such as the healing power of prayer or the existence of an afterlife without debate or cinematic “proof.” Likewise, most viewers of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 went into the film with a firm opinion of the war in Iraq and likely walked out of theaters having had that view confirmed. Recently, a popular mantra has been some viewers just want to relax, and if a film gives its audience two hours of pure, unadulterated escapism, viewers can be rather satisfied with a film and downright dismissive of any criticism from film critics.
What can completely rile some audiences however is a film’s refusal to deliver the “right” message, and again this has to do with concepts that filmgoers have going into the theater. To many people, a movie that deals with abortion must be pro-choice, one about politics must depict government corruption, and an action movie must be about the eternal, yet unchallenging battle between good and evil. One guess who the victor is expected to be.
I suspect that for many of its harshest detractors – be they average viewers or professional film critics – American Sniper was a film that just didn’t go where they wanted it to, and to some, this was unforgivable. Some have labeled the film pro-war or outright military propaganda; others have criticized it as being too kind to its subject. They seemed to have formed an opinion about Kyle prior to watching the film, and what they had seen was not that Chris Kyle. Some viewers were no doubt looking for another Ron-Kovik story, one in which the protagonist starts out supporting a war and ends up leading marches and protests against it.
American Sniper is not another Born on the Fourth of July, and this is to its credit. It challenges in the same way that The Hurt Locker does. We are not watching someone we can easily understand or relate to beyond the initial shock and anger he experiences upon seeing news footage of the September 11 attacks. As depicted in the film, Chris Kyle, much like the character that John Cusack plays in Grace is Gone, supports the war from start to finish. He also remains a gun user, going so far as to introduce hunting to his son, just as his own father did when Chris was young. Does that mean that American Sniper is pro guns? I don’t believe so.
It seems to me that American Sniper is about how war - with all that it requires of its soldiers – is a dehumanizing experience. This is of course not a new message, as most contemporary war films deal with it on some level. However, American Sniper is much more daunting than most other war films, for viewers must see the toll war takes on Kyle even as he remains a supporter of the very conditions that turn him away from the people that care about him the most. This requires viewers to study Kyle’s reactions throughout the film - from the film’s first brutal scene in which Kyle must make a decision that no one should ever have to make to his last kill, an act that he follows up with a tearful admission to his wife that he is ready to go home. That he expresses these sentiments as bullets are whizzing by his head and there is real chance he won’t make it home is telling. This is a man cool under pressure but still barely holding it together emotionally. We understand this even if he won’t admit to it.
And then there’s the finale, which some have said whitewashes all that has been depicted previously by returning Kyle to the shooting range and not showing what some seem to have wanted to be the point of the film, that guns are dangerous in the hands of the wrong people. It is a legitimate complaint, yet I feel doing so would also have changed the focus of the film, moving it from the effects of war on the human soul to the effects of guns on society, thus reducing the impact of Kyle’s war experience and possibly turning viewers against Kyle’s father. That would have been an entirely different film. Perhaps it would even have been a better one, but it would be making a point that the subject of the film did not believe in for the sake of providing some members of the audience with a message they could relate to. The film is much more challenging the way it is.
I don’t mean to suggest that American Sniper is a masterpiece, for I don’t believe that it is. It devotes too little time to Kyle’s family and makes it seem as if his mental rehabilitation was as simple as getting other people to talk to him and returning to the shooting range. I also felt as if time was flying by too quickly, robbing viewers of completely experiencing the daily hell that is and was the war in Iraq, and I can’t help seeing its limited portrayal of Kyle’s Syrian counterpart as a missed opportunity. In fact, had the film not been nominated for Best Picture, I would have had no objections. However, I would rather have an imperfect film that defies the audience’s expectations than one that just preaches to the choir. To me, such films have the potential to expand our horizons and inspire thought and reflection, and isn’t this what some films should do?