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Rob Edelman: American Sniper

So much has been written and said about Clint Eastwood’s AMERICAN SNIPER, which came to theaters at the tail-end of last year. AMERICAN SNIPER, of course, is the story of Chris Kyle, who is played by Bradley Cooper. Kyle, a Navy SEAL, has been celebrated as the most lethal sharpshooter in U.S. military history.

The film has since gone on to earn record-shattering business at the box office. Just as impressively, it came out of nowhere to earn six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor. Even at the end of the year, AMERICAN SNIPER was so under-the-radar that I neglected to think of Cooper as a potential nominee while mentioning six other actors who might have been cited for their stellar performances as real-life individuals.

Regarding AMERICAN SNIPER, my sense is that there are two ways in which to view the film. The first is: How effective is AMERICAN SNIPER cinematically? Is it well-acted, well-scripted, well-directed? The second is more political. The questions here are: How is the central character depicted? Is there any agenda here? What is this film telling us about his life, his mission, his personality, and his patriotism? And in a broader sense, what is this film telling us about the American GIs who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Cinematically-speaking, AMERICAN SNIPER is first-class. It is Clint Eastwood’s best film since GRAN TORINO, which was released in 2008, and it deserves all its accolades and all its nominations.

As for the politics in AMERICAN SNIPER, I must admit that what I saw in this film was very different from what I was expecting. My sense was that the film was going to be a tug-at-your-heartstrings flag-waver that only would be unconditionally embraced by those who swear by Fox News, and who believe that Fox News really is synonymous with fair and balanced reporting.

But thankfully, I was wrong.

On one level, Chris Kyle is depicted as a young American patriot who loves his country and joins the military to fight for his country and against those who would plot to destroy his country. And there is nothing whatsoever that is wrong with this portrayal. However, the film seems to-- and I say “seems to” because I am not a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan-- offer a compelling and realistic portrait of what GIs face while on tours of duty in the Middle East.

In the film’s vividly memorable first scene, Kyle-- with rifle in hand-- has his sights set on a woman and child. In a split second, he must decide if they are innocent civilians or terrorists who must be eliminated. This is powerful stuff. But what separates Iran and Afghanistan from previous wars is 21st century technology. Kyle may be stationed in a combat zone, but at the same time he can converse with his wife via cellphone. On one level, the two can chat-- and he easily could be a husband calling his wife from his office. But this is far from the case. If their conversation is interrupted by gunfire and Kyle must abruptly end that conversation, his wife has no way of knowing if she has just become a widow. This too is powerful stuff.       

Most importantly, though, it is to the film’s credit that Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are not glamorized or romanticized, which is too often the case in the countless TV ads that offer rose-colored depictions of returning vets. In the real world, some vets are uncommunicative; they are unable to share their thoughts with their loved ones. Others, meanwhile, are deeply disturbed, mentally unhinged. In other words, the only vets with serious issues are not those who have lost an arm or a leg while in combat.  

In this regard, AMERICAN SNIPER offers a potent portrayal of the psychology of war and the impact that combat service just may have on the mind as well as the body.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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