Ninja Arab is leaping across the sunbaked rooftops of Falluja, or Baghdad, or anyplace that honest, tender Chris Kyle must rid of savages. Slim and Satanic in his black pajamas, narrow-eyed and inscrutable under his black scarf and do-rag, Ninja Arab could presumably walk like a normal person toward his next lookout for wreaking heartless, inexplicable murder, but as the nemesis of Chris Kyle he must show some flair. Chris Kyle is known as the Legend. Though the movie he’s in is based on a true story—of that we’ve been assured—decorum requires that he repeatedly confront an equally legendary Ninja Arab, so that the two may face off, and one die, in a climactic shoot-out on the dusty streets. Or over them, to be precise.
Chris Kyle takes a manly, Texas squint through his range finder. The shot is impossible, his buddies cry—but he will make it even so, because duty calls. Two duties. With the sniper rifle cradled in one hand, Chris Kyle picks up a satellite phone in the other and speaks with his beautiful wife back stateside. Does he tell her not to phone him at the office? Does he say he’s a little tied up, dear, with a meeting, and a firefight, and a final showdown with the embodiment of pure evil? No. Chris Kyle, knowing what a man must do, takes time out of his busy day so his wife will understand that he loves her and will protect her, because he is a sheepdog, and she is a ewe. (That’s what his daddy taught him, anyway, back at the beginning of the movie, without anticipating the overtones of cross-species husbandry.) “I’m comin’ home,” Chris Kyle drawls ecstatically into the phone. Then he squeezes the trigger, and a single bullet flies—far, far, far across the sky, as slowly as CGI can make it go, until Ninja Arab’s damned head splatters all over godforsaken Iraq.
I’m sorry I had to write that. When American Sniper went into limited release in December, I devoted two sentences to it in my holiday wrap-up, thinking that was as much attention as the film warranted. Last month, I gave the picture six more words—within a parenthetical clause—while making a modest case for not despising The Interview. That should have been it. The film wasn’t much good, I thought, and no one would be astonished to learn what The Nation thought of its politics. A journal of opinion, fine. A journal where opinions are barked on Pavlovian reflex, not so good.
Yet I see that something more has to be said, not because, as their patriotic duty, the usual suspects have lined up to praise the film, but because serious people—critics I admire, whose political sympathies are close to mine—keep insisting that Clint Eastwood worked profound moral ambivalence and heartfelt complexities of character into American Sniper.
I wish it were so. Eastwood’s westerns certainly fit that description. So do his cop movies (the ones that aren’t knockabout comedies) and his World War II diptych, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. The most I can say for American Sniper is that it moderates the full-throated Yahoo roar of the memoir of the same title (written by and for Kyle) while remaining true to its spirit.
Why do people who would abhor the book respect the movie? Don’t they notice its flimsiness? In the Eastwood version, Kyle gets his basic training on the cheap, in scenes cribbed from An Officer and a Gentleman. He acquires his wife (Sienna Miller) in a strenuously jocular meet-cute, which has her loitering, improbably alone, in a bar near a military base, groomed as if she’d walked in from a fashion shoot. Kyle’s observational skills presumably come from reading Hardy Boys novels. (“Say, I bet that unctuous Arab is hiding something under this creaking floorboard!”) The psychiatrist—wise, mature and readily accessible—who treats Kyle for post-traumatic stress disorder is a person more likely to be encountered in a promotional video for the VA system than in the average hospital.
All this is obvious—and it’s also being overlooked, perhaps for two reasons. The first is Bradley Cooper, who as Kyle gives the movie its sole chunk of solidity. Bulked up in his face and torso until he looks like a 3-D special effect, slowed down in his speech to create an illusion of depth behind every utterance, Cooper imparts substance to a character type that movie audiences always adore: the principled, no-nonsense man of the West, who banters easily with his buddies, addresses women with wry gallantry and prevails in fights when he must. The performance is so strong, so credible, that you could ignore, if you wanted to, the absence of anything darker, such as the monomaniacal ambition and cruel self-righteousness that raged in John Wayne when he embodied this type in Red River and The Searchers, or the sense of guilt that nagged at Eastwood himself in Unforgiven. American Sniper’s hero kills over and over again with a clear conscience, except when a child is in his cross hairs; and, even then, he and the audience know the death is someone else’s fault. I don’t say this is an unrealistically simple portrayal of Kyle; if the book can be believed, it’s fairly true to life. But life, as we ought to know, does not always get made into good drama.
Which brings me to the second reason why people might be reading more into the movie’s Kyle than is actually there. In the past, Eastwood has given us good dramas, many of them, and his fans do not want to believe he’s failed them now. I share the feeling. When Kyle takes his son hunting late in the film and remarks on what a serious matter it is to stop an animal’s heart, I wanted to hear an echo of William Munny in Unforgiven: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” But there’s nothing in American Sniper remotely comparable to Munny’s follow-up line, upon being told that the man who was just murdered probably had it coming: “We all have it comin’, kid.” The whole point of the American Sniper narrative is that Chris Kyle does not have it coming. His wife and children may suffer because of his long, terrifying absences, but he has to go away. His closest buddy in Iraq may decide that the war isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but for Kyle that doesn’t call the mission into question. It just shows that even the best men can buckle under the strain.
People want American Sniper to come from the Clint Eastwood who directed Unforgiven, but it’s made by the guy who talked to a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Here, too, he’s addressing a void: a character who has no crosscurrents inside himself and feels no conflicting ideas buffeting him from without.
You might object, in Eastwood’s defense, that he’s not out to judge Kyle but to present the man in his own terms, conveying his sense of himself and his world. But if that’s the intention, how could we know? What’s been abandoned in the transition from page to screen is precisely the “I” of the book, its worldview. All we can see here is the world itself—which Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall have furnished with Iraqis who are, at best, extortionate cowards, and at their almost universal worst are assassins in league with Ninja Arab.
I would rather have seen the book adapted for film as Manoel de Oliveira might have done in the 1970s. A voice-over performer, perhaps a woman, would have read the entire text of Kyle’s autobiography on the soundtrack, while actors mimed the events on a beautiful stage set. The running time would have been five hours, and the movie would have lost every penny spent on it—but you would have had a real chance to think about Chris Kyle.
* * *
On the subject of military memoirs, let me recommend a new one by John Boorman: Queen and Country, a lovely, nostalgic, regret-tinged sequel to his 1987 Hope and Glory.
You might recall how Bill Rohan, the autobiographical schoolboy of that earlier film, lived with remarkable good cheer through the London Blitz. Now, at the start of Queen and Country, he has grown into a charmingly lanky, jug-eared, pillow-lipped young man (Callum Turner) who seems perfectly bright and healthy, except for a tendency toward the surreptitious. He hides in the water, while swimming outside his parents’ little island home in the Thames, so he can spy on the pretty young women walking past. By concealing himself in the same idyllic spot, he can also covertly learn how film crews go about their business. (The home is adjacent to Shepperton Studios, where in the early 1950s World War II is still being fought and won.) And by keeping his head down, Bill hopes, he can slip beneath the attention of the army and so avoid conscription.
Using the quick, sure strokes for which he’s celebrated, Boorman sketches all of this within the first three minutes of Queen and Country, along with the certainty that Bill’s watchful, clever, slightly sneaky traits will carry him only so far in life. The army finds him, all right. By six minutes in, Bill has unwillingly moved from the dreamy, free-flowing, green world of Surrey into a fenced-off, barren compound of Quonset huts.
There the fun begins—or as much fun as a 19-year-old like Bill can manage under the circumstances, urged on by his new friend Percy (Caleb Landry Jones). Percy is ginger-haired where Bill is dark, pugnaciously pinch-faced where Bill is soft and foxy: these are the outward expressions of a disobedience in Percy that is blatant, thrashing and furious where Bill’s is sly. When they have finished their commando training and are inexplicably assigned to serve on base as typing instructors, rather than being shipped off to Korea, the two friends are alike in their eagerness to pursue young women in town (even at the expense of enduring the most nerve-twisting chamber music concert ever performed) and in learning from sleek, middle-aged Private Redmond (Pat Shortt) the art of taking as much advantage as you can of the army while returning as little as you can in service.
But even though conscription has drawn Bill and Percy together in these interests, their innate characters set them on divergent paths. When it comes to women, it’s Percy who chooses the safer course, pursuing the ready and willing student nurses in town, while Bill risks himself on the impossible: an infatuation with a slim, blonde, fine-featured young woman (Tamsin Egerton) whose name he doesn’t even know. Being a foolhardy young dolt, Bill notices but doesn’t care that his romantic ideal might as well have two signs plastered on her, one reading “Out of Your Class” and the other “Emotional Sinkhole.”
When it comes to military insubordination, though, Percy is the reckless one. Bill contents himself with undermining the political indoctrination of the conscripts, telling them unpleasant facts about the war they’re about to fight—and he gets away with it, because he can prove that everything he’s said was published in the Times. But Percy needs a more open, or even violent, outlet for his disgust at military life, especially as encountered in the endlessly punctilious Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis) and the brutally contemptuous Regimental Sergeant Major Digby (Brian F. O’Byrne). As Percy pulls the increasingly wary Bill further into his schemes of revenge, the fun becomes more dangerous, the rift between the friends more severe.
Queen and Country is the film of an old master (Boorman directed his first feature in 1965) who still has one of the most magical eyes in the business. (There is a stroll down a tree-lined path with soft, twilight colors and glowing lamps that might have come from Vincente Minnelli’s soundstage—but Boorman does it on location.) Age has not slackened his famous command of tempo or diminished his ability to draw bold, vivid performances from his cast (Thewlis is especially alarming, and moving), but it has deepened his rueful sympathy for the follies of the young. If Boorman’s attitude toward his female characters seems a bit old-fashioned—they interest him mostly for the same reason they interest the young men in the story—his retrospective view of a class-bound society in transition is sharp-eyed and wholly unsentimental. There is a reason why the central object in the movie is a clock on the sideboard of the noncommissioned officers’ mess: a regimental totem that dates from Victoria’s era and is still venerated as Elizabeth is crowned. The battle for Bill and Percy in Queen and Country doesn’t take place in Korea but in the mess. It’s long past time for that clock to go.
Queen and Country premieres in the United States at Film Forum in New York, and plays at the American Cinematheque in Santa Monica, California, as part of a Boorman series before opening in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley.