Saturday, February 28, 2015

'Sniper' tells us we need to get a clue.

“American Sniper” is about the cost of war. As much as “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home” and “Full Metal Jacket” and, yes, even “Saving Private Ryan” are about the cost of war, so Clint Eastwood’s movie is about what a nation spends when it invades another country. Whether that is what Clint Eastwood intended I do not know. Who can tell what goes on in the mind of a privileged Hollywood octogenarian?  Eastwood long ago lost track of the fine line between the characters he portrays and the man he is; it should be no surprise that he cannot tell the difference between the world he creates in a camera and the world the rest of us live in.

I also don't know whether Eastwood intends for his audience to see the Americans as invaders but that's exactly what he does in the film's opening shot. It is of a tank – the symbol of unstoppable military might – creeping down the street of a blasted city, wary infantrymen trailing along behind it. It is exactly like dozens of other shots of German or Russian or Japanese tanks creeping down blown-out city streets; it is the image of military occupation. As a result, while we do care somewhat about what happens to the young American soldiers, we cannot stop remembering that they are invaders and occupiers, and nobody really wants them there.

The action is interrupted for a background interlude in which our main character is raised to be an excellent hunter, a damn good shot with a scope and rifle, and a sheep dog. Other essayists have already pointed out the ridiculousness of the movie's metaphorical "wolves, sheep, and sheep dogs" pretense so I will only comment that it is the kind of simplistic philosophizing that runs through this movie.

After the background interlude we are brought back to the tank and the soldiers, and to the sniper who watches over them. The sniper, whose name happens to be the same as a real man who was in similar situations (let me address that a little later) must make the conscious decision to kill a child and then the child’s mother in order to protect the column of soldiers coming down the street. That is his job, but it is a job wrapped in emotional conflict. And so we begin to see, very early on, what it costs to go to war.

I have not read the book on which Eastwood's movie was based. I have, however, read dozens of reviews of it and long excerpts from it. The movie is not about the guy who wrote the book. Chris Kyle, who wrote the autobiography titled "American Sniper," was a sociopath with no conscience whatsoever. Unlike the character by that name in the movie, Chris Kyle felt no emotion from killing a young mother. He doesn't admit killing any children directly, but does say his first "kill" was of a young woman holding a baby and a grenade; the grenade supposedly went off, and we are left to assume that the baby's mother bears full responsibility for what happened after Kyle pulled the trigger.

So Eastwood lies to us and pretends that his sniper is anguished at having to kill a child and a woman. Later in the movie we see the required scene of an immaculately-uniformed Marine handing a sobbing widow the perfectly folded flag from her husband’s coffin. There are shots of the mangled bodies that will never heal right, the faces of young men and women trying desperately to be “happy to be alive.” These are supposed to be the scenes that show us the cost of war, the cost beyond the lives snuffed out; the lives only half-lived, the lives that will always less than they should have been.

Depending on one's predisposition, these scenes will either inspire the viewer to see the heroism of those who have sacrificed so much -- undoubtedly Eastwood's intention -- or repulse the viewer as an unacceptable burden to be born by volunteers whose service was squandered in a folly of historic proportions. You can guess in which camp I reside.

It’s natural enough to look at the scarred, maimed bodies of the survivors, the carefully folded flags in glass cases, the mothers and wives and children of the fallen, and say, “We shouldn’t have done this. This was all a mistake.” That's what we say to each other, but what do we say to them? How do we tell the man who has lost both legs and an arm to an IED in Iraq that the sacrifice he made willingly was all a horrible mistake? How do we tell a young woman who will never walk again because she drove a truck one day down the wrong street, that we’re not going to bear the cost of finishing the job? One can imagine them asking us, “Well, if we shouldn't have been there in the first place, can I please have my legs back? May I have my future back? Could I get my son back?”

And those are just the American costs. Countless non-Americans are dispatched either at jaw-dropping distances by the main character, or by the firestorms of death that issue from American guns. While long minutes of film are chewed up desperately urging wounded Americans to stay alive, nothing is shown of what happens to casualties on the other side. No one even bothers to ask why a man who was a shopkeeper several weeks ago now drives a rickety car loaded with explosives hell-bent for leather toward an armored U.S. column. Perhaps he is still shocked and awed by the erasure of his family by American bombs; we'll never know because his death is explained in wolf-sheep-sheep dog terms: "He chose the wrong side."

And now our adventurism in the Middle East has spawned a new evil, worse than the Taliban, worse than al Qaeda, worse than anything even Osama bin Laden could have envisioned. Now, in the vacuum of our withdrawal, comes ISIS, a blacker evil than ever has existed in modern memory. Clearly, whatever we intended to accomplish there, we left the job unfinished. But how do we tell the families of the Iraqis and the Afghanis, and now the Jordanians and the Syrians and Egyptians, that, we’re sorry, but we’re tired of war and we no longer want to spend the blood and flesh and bone and human spirit that it costs to eradicate ISIS, or whatever horror it morphs into?

There aren’t any easy answers. If we don’t send infantrymen to destroy ISIS, will the sacrifice have been for nothing? If oppression in the name of a religion is as evil as oppression in the name of Nazism, why are we not making the same commitment now that we made in 1942? And if it isn’t the same, why did we ever go there in the first place?

There is a line in “American Sniper” – and I cannot remember who delivers it, but it’s not important – that goes something like this: “There’s a war going on, and these people are still going to the mall and driving around and talking on their cell phones. They don’t have a clue.” The line isn’t just about the horrors of urban guerilla warfare. It’s about how we came to be in those blasted city streets in the first place.

Whether he intended to or not, Clint Eastwood has clearly told us that we need to get a clue.

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