Tuesday, February 10, 2015

sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs

The year was 1968.  Movie reviewers were at war with one another.  Well, if a war can exist where 95% of the forces are arrayed on one side.

The controversial movie of the day was John Wayne's Green Berets.  Wayne was concerned that most of the media were not presenting a positive view of American goals in the Vietnam War.  Green Berets was produced to balance the scales.

As far as I could tell, none of the reviewers saw the film with a mind open enough to discard their own views on the war.  Reviewers critical of the war were critical of the film.  Reviewers supportive of the war spent most of their reviews discussing the difficulties Wayne faced in getting the film to the screen.

I was writing a film column at the time for one libertarian student publication or other.  I don't even remember the name.  However, I do recall that I was very sympathetic to the aims of the film.  What shocked me was just how bad the movie was.

That memory came welling up as I sat with my brother and sister-in-law watching American Sniper last night.  Even though most critics have lauded Clint Eastwood's nuanced treatment of an American military hero facing evil against the background of an initially popular Iraqi war that devolved into a morass, they have stumbled over the notion that it was executed by a president most of them did not support.  As a result, their reviews take on a rather churlish tone.

Eastwood has become the almost perfect director for the challenges that men face during war -- and when they then bring those challenges home with them.  Not to mention how society is often unprepared to deal with the challenges American military heroes face in a society "at peace."  (There are those who argue that war simply sensitizes military men to the struggles of daily society the rest of us have learned to ignore.)

That is the story of American Sniper.  Bradley Cooper nails his character -- Chris Kyle, the real life hero on which the movie is based.  The fact that most of us know how his story turns out only slightly takes away from the story's trajectory.

His obsession with duty personified in the person of an expert Iraqi sniper.  His steady decline into his hero archetype that pulls him further and further away from his wife (played by the master of subtlety: Sienna Miller).  All played against the subtext of an America that has others things to worry about than the heroes protecting its national interests.

To its credit, the movie does not offer easy answers.  Nor does it try to.  In that sense, it is a conservative anti-war movie.

And I am not certain how I feel about it.  I am glad I saw it because it has given me a lot of questions to ponder.  What I do know is that unlike what some critics say, Chris Kyle was an American hero.  He did a job on our behalf, and he did it well.

Here is my suggestion.  When you see the movie, leave your political notions outside.  Then watch it for its moral complexity -- and its technical expertise.  I doubt I have sat in any film where the closing credits completely caught the attention of the audience.

That may say it all.

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