I have not reviewed a movie here for many months, maybe for a year or more. I am not sure why this is true. I simply lost interest in film reviews I suppose. I’ve also seen some fairly bad movies in the last year. I think the Academy nominees for this year included some of the weakest films and performances in years. But I have not lost my interest in film.
In the first few months of 2015 I have seen several films that I enjoyed. Today I’d like to compare and contrast two films that capture something of the spirit of America. One is being deeply debated, American Sniper. The other film, McFarland USA, is not so well known but should be. (I will give the compare and contrast part of my blog in tomorrow’s post.)
American Sniper is a critically acclaimed movie that is debated left and right. It features Clint Eastwood’s sure-handed direction and has a gripping central performance from Bradley Cooper, who plays the lead role as a sniper in Iraq. It is tense, violent, and uses terrible language. It is a most vivid tribute to its real-life subject, Texan Kris Kyle. Kyle was a U.S. Navy SEAL who was sent to Iraq with only one mission: to protect his brothers-in-arms. His pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and, as stories of his courageous exploits spread, he earns the nickname “Legend.” (It is said he had more kills than any sniper in US history!) However, Kyle’s reputation also grew behind enemy lines, putting a price on his head and making him a prime target of insurgents. Despite the danger, as well as the toll on his family back at home, Kris Kyle serves through four harrowing tours of duty in Iraq. Kris became emblematic of the SEAL creed to “leave no man behind.” But upon returning home, Kris discovered that he can’t leave the war behind. As most of you now know Kris, and a good buddy, were shot and killed by a troubled ex-military man that they were trying to help deal with his PTSD. The recent trial of Kyle’s killer has been in the daily news for several weeks.
Kris Kyle’s biography is gritty and hard to watch. He is a rather profane man, deeply scarred by his relationship with his dad. He had a lot of emotional baggage even before the war. But American Sniper is not an uncritical testament to the might and right of the armed forces. Clint Eastwood delivers a complex, conflicted and profoundly moving portrait of the American military machine. He shows us the clear toll it takes on the soldiers who keep getting shoveled back into the fire. One reviewer, who I think gets this about right, said: “American Sniper possesses the sweep and scope of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, but very little of that movie’s romantic grandeur. Eastwood is after something smaller and more personal—while Cimino turned the Vietnam War experience into myth, here Eastwood undermines the legend of a contemporary American warrior even as he is creating it.”
I was deeply moved by Kris Kyle’s heroism and courage. I am also more profoundly convinced that most of the American conflicts that we are engaged in at the present moment are pointless. Indeed, I am persuaded that they are actually harmful to our nation and people. There is room for honest disagreement about this conclusion. But there is really no room to disagree that American Sniper presents us with a shocking portrayal of the high cost of combat. It proves the central thesis of Christopher Hedges’ chilling tour-de-force, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2003). I encourage everyone, pro-war or not, to read this indictment of how wars define us as a people in harmful and culture destroying ways. Christians, of all people, should become more astute about this issue rather than simply those who embrace every new combat mission the USA engages in overseas. One can be a patriot and not embrace all the combat missions that we have launched in the last fifty years plus.
Tomorrow: McFarland USA, a film in which Kevin Costner is in the lead role. This inspirational film is a “do not miss.” And it opens up some intriguing and important questions for the Christian church in America in 2015.