Journey 146: American Sniper

American Sniper movie poster

When I returned The Rewrite to the DVD store yesterday, I discovered that one copy of American Sniper, the last on my list of Academy Award Best Picture nominated films, had been returned and was on the shelf. I’ve been reluctant to watch this movie, knowing it is a true story and how the story ends, and because I am not a fan of war movies. I am not a fan of war, is a more accurate statement. I’ll not debate the merits of war. Having just passed Memorial Day, and feeling gratitude for my freedoms, which have been hard earned and maintained at a price, it is not my place to say whether war is right or wrong. Unfortunately, although I would wish it otherwise, war seems inevitable. My thoughts, after watching the movie, are on Chris Kyle, and on the strength of the film.

American Sniper stars Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Jake McDorman, Luke Grimes and Sammy Sheik. It was directed by Clint Eastwood and is based on the autobiography by the same name, written by Chris Kyle. The action/biography has a R rating, for strong and disturbing war violence, language and mature themes, and has a run time of 2 hours and 12 minutes. It was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor for Cooper, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing, for which it won its only Oscar.

Chris Kyle (Cooper) is a Texan, a wanna be cowboy and rodeo rider, a skilled and gifted marksman with a rifle, a man ready to fall in love and settle down. At the age of 30 his life shifts and he joins the Navy, becoming a Seal and training as a sniper so that he can fight terrorism. He meets Taya (Miller), the woman he wants to marry, as he is completing his training, and wed her he does. Shortly after, he ships out on his first tour of duty in Iraq.

Kyle immediately bonds with his team, taking his role as protector very seriously. His skill as a marksman makes him the best sniper in American history. Some of his targets are children and women, intent on killing those under his protection. He takes no joy in doing his job so well. But he does excel, earning the name The Legend before he completes his first tour. In the search for an al Qaeda leader named Zarqawi, and his ruthless comrade, The Butcher, Kyle learns of his counterpart, a Syrian sniper called Mustafa (Sheik), known for making nearly impossible shots.

Kyle serves four tours of duty. Between each tour, he returns home to his wife and growing family. But his heart, his mind, his determination to protect, are still in Iraq. He struggles with being a civilian, a husband, a father. He can’t find his purpose. The call of his team, his brotherhood, is stronger than the desire to remain safely at home. He returns to war, again and again. First to hunt down the man known as The Butcher, and ultimately, to take out Mustafa.

Even with a price on his head in Iraq, he perseveres in his commitment to watch over and protect his comrades. The loss in combat of his two closest friends, Biggles (McDorman) and Marc (Grimes) enforces his determination, until at last, during his fourth and last tour of duty, he succeeds in his personal goal of taking out the other sniper. That accomplished, he finally feels ready to go home.

American Sniper move Chris and Taya

Stateside again, Kyle continues to struggle with living a civilian life, until he finds a way to help his brothers as they return home. He reaches out to veterans with disabilities and those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. He enjoys taking these wounded individuals out to the shooting range and helping them with target practice, an act he feels helps them to feel like men again. Working with his comrades gives him purpose, gives him others to watch over, and with that, he moves beyond military life and begins interacting with his family, moving to a farm and teaching his son how to hunt.

On February 2, 2013, Kyle takes a troubled vet to the shooting range, with the intention of helping him, at the request of the young man’s mother. The film ends here, with a screen shot telling of Kyle’s death that day, while at the range. He was killed by the man he was attempting to help. Actual photos of Chris Kyle, his wife and his military funeral appear during the credits.

I can’t say that I enjoyed this film. During most of it, I repeated to myself, over and over, I hate war, I hate war. The scenes in Irag were difficult for me to watch. However, the film is very well done, with the focus on the main characters and their lives. I didn’t feel that there was a glorification of the acts of war.

These are my thoughts on the life of Chris Kyle. He initially wanted to serve and protect his country, and in doing so, his family. What took over his life, what seemed to feed his soul and make him come alive, was his determination to protect his brothers. I’ve heard how powerful a band of brothers becomes, how connected. And that is very evident in this film. Kyle did serve his country. He did love his family. His overwhelming, driving passion was to watch over his comrades and save as many as he could. His only regret was that he couldn’t save more.

The movie captured the deep commitment that Chris Kyle had, and the toll that the tours of duty took on his physical body and his mind. I hurt for Kyle, watching him struggle to adjust to a new way of life, post war. I hurt for his wife and children. The remaining years were short for them as a family, as Kyle found a way to protect and serve his comrades again, his wounded brothers. It appeared that just as the hero, the legend, was becoming an ordinary man again, a husband and a father, fate took him out. Both men, the decorated sniper and the young vet suffering from PTSD, were victims of a war that they fought in, and could never quite leave behind.

American Sniper Chris and Taya Kyle

Chris & Taya Kyle

Journey 110: Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

birdman poster

I wanted to save this movie until last, watching the Best Picture nominated films, since it won. I’d rather see the others so as to have a body of work to compare the winner to. However, with the final two films not scheduled for release until next month, I picked Birdman up to watch anyway.

Birdman stars Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan and Andrea Riseborough. This dark comedy/drama was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu from the screenplay he helped to write. It is rated R for language, brief sexuality and brief violence and has a run time of 1 hour and 59 minutes. Birdman was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, and won in 4 categories, including Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director for Inarritu and Best Picture.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is an aging actor, best known for his role 20 years ago as super hero Birdman in a series of films. Determined to break from that stereotype and be known as a true artist, Riggan writes, directs, produces and stars in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. His venture is fraught with mishaps and teeters constantly on the brink of failure. He fires one inept actor, replacing him with crowd pleasing but unpredictable and hard to work with, Mike Shiner (Norton). Riggan’s leading lady, Lesley (Watts) is a wanna be Broadway star but is untried. His girlfriend and play co-star, Laura (Riseborough) just wants to have a child while his best friend and attorney, Jake (Galifianakis) feels he is the only person grounded in reality and keeping the play afloat.

On the homefront, Riggan’s daughter Sam (Stone), who is working as his assistant, is fresh out of rehab and confronting life challenges, while his ex-wife Sylvia (Ryan) pops in and out of the St. James Theater, checking on Riggan and their daughter. Mike is as explosive to work with as his reputation suggests, money is always an issue, and the previews can’t seem to go without at least one minor hitch or major disaster. The most well known critic in New York City despises Riggan, seeing him as a celebrity rather than a true actor. She threatens to write a review that will destroy his play. Riggan’s own daughter seems to support the critic’s view of him. She blasts him for being out of touch with the world, with reality, and what’s important and relevant to people.

In the midst of all this swirling chaos, which is sometimes dark, sometimes humorous and most of the time, gritty, are Riggan’s intense battles with himself. His alter ego, Birdman, constantly talks to him, in a complaining, derisive voice that seeks to cajole Riggan into returning to his only meaningful role. That battle rages during the entire film, as Riggan desperately tries to rise above that role, wanting to prove to himself as much as others that he is so much more talented than Birdman, that he matters, that he is loved for who he is, really.  At his worst, Riggan loses himself in that other self, displaying signs of telekinesis and exhibiting the ability to fly, without the costume. On the opening night of his play, Riggan gives the performance of his lifetime, leaving a lasting impression on everyone, including his co-stars, his family and the critic.

This was an interesting, if somewhat difficult, film to watch. The director shot the film as one continuous shot, with very few edits, contributing to the film’s grittiness and realism. The narrow maze of corridors in the theater plays as big a role in the movie as the actors do, as much of the film takes place in those shadowy hallways, the bare bulbs overhead highlighting many of the poignant moments in the story.

I felt sadness and compassion for Riggan, and indeed, for all the characters, portraying over the top versions of struggling actors, poking fun at Hollywood and the very roles actors become famous for. I admire film and television stars for following their passions and excelling at what they love doing. This film cracks that rosy perspective a bit for me by showing the stark difficulty in pursuing such passions, in always seeking approval and admiration, in breaking free to be seen as more than the last role. Sylvia, Riggan’s ex-wife, tells him that he is doing what he has always done….confused admiration for love. At the heart of it, this movie is about love, seeking it, anxiously, in all the wrong places, while not being able to find it within. And ego’s attempt to find and take love, or a shallow version of it, wherever it can, at whatever cost. It’s so bleak, yet real, hard to watch, yet the same egoic attempts happen outside the movie.

I haven’t seen Selma or American Sniper yet, but I can see why Birdman won the Oscar for Best Picture. I’ll be thinking about this movie for a while, pondering the possibilities in the ambiguous ending. I’ll end this post less so, with the opening words of the film, which are actually on the tombstone of author Raymond Carver, who really did write the short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”:

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself Beloved. To feel myself Beloved on the earth.

birdman scene