Posts tagged ‘War’

Peter Jackson has been busy of late. The New Zealand director’s steampunk-inflected adaptation of the fantasy novel Mortal Engines will land this Christmas, while cinemagoers lucky enough to live close to a screening have recently been treated to his moving, fascinating documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, for which he has assembled and retouched archive footage of British soldiers that was recorded during the First World War.

The film was jointly commissioned by 14-18 NOW, an organisation set up to commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day, and the Imperial War Museum, the holders of the visual footage (audio recordings, made by the BBC after the war, also feature). As well as restorative work such as sharpening the images and conversion of the archive material to 3D, the director and his team have also colourised much of it, the switch from black and white to colour that occurs around ten minutes in being one of a few coups de cinema here; otherwise, little attention is drawn to the technical achievements that have taken place, which allows the viewer to focus more on the subject matter instead of the obvious prowess of Jackson’s team.

I’m not much of a fan of artificial colouring (though a black and white rendering of the world in the first place is no less artificial as a process) and I’m ambivalent about 3D more generally, but here it undoubtedly brings the men to life. We see them eagerly signing up to go to war, taking part in training exercises and then confronting the horrors of trench life at the Battle of the Somme. It is – was – a harrowing journey.

The conspicuous cameras that trundle before the men are often trained on large groups or smaller clusters, as opposed to individuals, and the camera operators were particularly drawn to the now-sharply-rendered faces of the soldiers, lingering in front of them. Typically, the men stare back at the lens, the result of their own fascination with a nascent technology; presumably most of the people we see here were being filmed for the first time in their lives. To bring the footage to life even more, Jackson’s expert lip-readers have figured out what the soldiers were saying, and actors have been employed to add their voices to the soundtrack; apparently much care has been taken on getting the right accents to tally with the regiments that are shown on screen. This is augmented by the aforementioned testimonies by soldiers that were recorded later, when the men had some literal and figurative distance from the events.

Such striving for authenticity – along with the technical prowess – makes this a fine attempt at enhancing a historic record, though of course the colouring will turn off some people, the 3D will turn off even more and its worth pointing out that the recollections of the soldiers cannot ultimately be relied upon (stress and time may mean that their testimonies are not 100% accurate).

That said, there is valuable insight here into the lives of British combatants (we only see dead or captured bodies of German counterparts, and never hear from survivors). The footage of life in the trenches is startling: the camera captures the nameless dead strewn around on the ground in No Man’s Land, shells constantly exploding nearby, rats everywhere and terrible unsanitary conditions (though there is something amusing about the line of men using the long-drops together, the ideas of privacy and comfort having long disappeared); but the awfulness of war contrasts considerably at times with the often upbeat mood of the men, who were eager to fight for their country. The film ends, oddly and ironically enough, by addressing their dismay at the end of the war. Many were unemployed and lost the sense of purpose they had while serving in the military; some men speak of the general lack of understanding when they returned home, with the general public unable to understand what they had been through. It may be 100 years too late, but this gripping, vital work does at least begin to address that issue. (5/5)

Cinemas in the UK have been – and still are – showing They Shall Not Grow Old with a recorded Q&A between critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode and Jackson, but the BBC is screening a 2D version on Sunday evening for those in the UK. (BBC2, Sunday 11 November, 9.30pm).

I have a soft spot for 1960s and 1970s adventure films set during the Second World War. You know the kind: big ensemble cast, some daring mission or other that needs to be undertaken with little or no chance of survival for the soldiers in question, and usually there’s lots of heroic derring-do to enjoy. Some of them have aged very well: The Guns Of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen spring to mind, and I’ve watched both within the past five years. Some of them haven’t aged well at all, and that’s the case for John Sturges’ final film The Eagle Has Landed, though it’s still far better than the worst dregs thrown-up by the genre (and by the same production company). Sturges was rightly respected going into this project, having helmed big hits like Bad Day At Black Rock, Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape during a long, impressive career. Indeed the notable names who signed up for what would turn out to be his last film – Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Jenny Agutter, Donald Pleasance – must have hoped that the veteran director was lining up yet another cracker. Sadly Sturges was only in it for one last paycheck, and confessed as much on-set to Caine, telling his lead actor that he only took the job to pay for a fishing trip. Reports suggest Sturges left as soon as filming wrapped, and had no involvement in post-production, leaving Editor Anne V. Coates to salvage the movie. Actually the film Coates helped to put together is structurally fine, even though it’s a little light on action until the grand finale (which is hardly her fault), and proved popular both with critics and the general public at the time of release. The plot – a bunch of German soldiers led by Caine’s General parachute into a sleepy Norfolk village to try and kidnap Winston Churchill – is paper-thin, and the premise is established within the first two minutes by an eyepatch-sporting Nazi (played by Robert Duvall, of all people). What follows is a slightly tedious 90-minute build-up in which the undercover German soldiers are joined in England by an IRA-supporting Irish academic (Donald Sutherland) and Jean Marsh’s sleeper agent; together they attempt to carry out the abduction after their cover is blown and a company of American soldiers stationed nearby is alerted to their presence.


Robert Duvall plays a German Robert Duvall with an eye patch

Tom Mankiewicz’s screenplay is largely faithful to Jack Higgins’ original novel but the film is completely undermined by poor writing and some very dodgy performances (I’m looking at you, Sutherland, but Caine is poor here too). Part of the problem stems from the way the main protagonists have been ‘softened’ to make the characters and their actions more palatable to English-speaking audiences: Caine is a ‘nice’ Nazi – we first see him saving the life of a Jewish woman, who is shot by someone else seconds later anway – and Sutherland is the kind of IRA supporter who you could take home to meet the parentsa bit cheeky, drinks a lot of whiskey, prefers poetry to violence, seems to genuinely like English people. (It really doesn’t help matters that it’s one of the worst cases of an Oirish stereotype you’ll ever see in a movie.) It’s no surprise that these two actors struggled with their parts in light of Sturges’ own lack of interest in the film, though. Sadly it seems like the director couldn’t be bothered to ensure his cast followed a uniform accent policy, either. Even though everyone speaks English throughout the film some actors make an effort to adopt the accent relating to their character’s nationality, and some do not. During the one scene involving all three stars – Duvall, Caine and Sutherland – it means you have to watch an Englishman playing a German with an English accent, an American playing a German with a German accent and an American playing an Irishman with an accent that veers from full-on ‘Ah, t’be sure, t’be sure’ to some weird mid-Atlantic drawl. It’s possible that 1970s audiences didn’t care a jot and just wanted to be entertained with a few shootouts and a spot of implausible romance, but there’s no two ways about it: it sounds terrible today. It’s left, somewhat bizarrely, for two American actors in minor pre-fame roles to save the day: Larry Hagman and Treat Williams restore an air of slight respectability during the final act, and Caine’s performance also improves, but it’s too late to save the film. Even Lalo Schifrin’s score reflects the dourness of the piece, and has an air of ‘will this do?’ about it. Oh for something like this instead.

Directed by: John Sturges.
Written by: Tom Mankiewicz. Based on The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins.
Starring: Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Jenny Agutter, Donald Pleasance, Anthony Quayle, Jean Marsh, Larry Hagman, Treat Williams.
Cinematography: Anthony B. Richmond.
Editing: Anne V. Coates.
Music: Lalo Schifrin.
Running Time:
115 minutes.


Irène Némirovsky didn’t manage to complete her three-part novel Suite Française as she was arrested by German forces in occupied France during the Second World War and sent to Auschwitz, where she would die. Her handwritten manuscript was discovered 60 years later, however, and it was published to critical acclaim in 2004, becoming something of a literary sensation at the time and ensuring that a middlebrow screen adaptation was somewhat inevitable. The screenplay draws from the middle book, which is about shifting loyalties in a small, Nazi-occupied French town outside of Paris, so technically the cinematic Suite isn’t a suite at all, though the title is also a reference to a prominent piece of piano music. The instrument and the piece in question are tied to the developing relationships between a few of the major characters here, but they’re also symbolic of the film’s stultifying good taste, which goes some way to ruining it in my eyes even if it doesn’t quite suck the life out of proceedings. This is one of those overwhelmingly British British productions, in which the Queen’s English is spoken well by all and sundry (even though they’re actually supposed to be French or German), the main German soldier cuts a dashing, clean-cut figure and there’s plenty of eye candy for anyone watching, lest they otherwise begin to engage with the notion that war is an ugly, nasty business and lots of people are being brutally blown to pieces elsewhere (and by eye candy I don’t just mean the beauty of the actors involved but also the impressive costumes, sets and landscapes that appear).

Michelle Williams stars as Lucille, a rich girl married to a French soldier who falls in love with a German officer (Matthias Schoenarts). His loyalty to the Fatherland is waning in tandem with Lucille’s loyalty to her husband, but there are plenty of other things going on to make up for what turns into a rather dreary, timid romance between the two: Sam Riley’s limping farmer-turned-resistance-fighter is hiding out after killing an oily German soldier who threatens to rape his wife, Margot Robbie’s farmer’s daughter is sleeping with the enemy just for the hell of it and Kristin Scott-Thomas’s ice maiden landlady is cynically kicking her old tenants out to make room for wealthy refugees fleeing Paris who can afford higher rents. It’s like a soap opera, and Suite Française does at least build into a rather tense, dramatic final act, although like a soap opera episode it ends and you’re none the wiser as to the eventual fate of most of the characters; only with this story we don’t get to tune in again tomorrow to find out more. Is she reunited with him? But what happens to so-and-so? And did that family survive? Etc. etc. It’s all tastefully realised, but it’s sort of like watching World War II as designed by Cath Kidston or Laura Ashley. Even when characters are shot there’s no sign of any blood, presumably in case anyone watching gets mildly queasy. As far as these things go I much preferred Testament Of Youth, in which the longing and suffering of those caught up in a world war is more keenly felt, and the mud and the blood and the wailing isn’t hidden away.

Directed by: Saul Dibb.
Written by: Saul Dibb, Matt Charman. Based on Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky.
Starring: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Matthias Schoenarts, Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Margot Robbie.
Cinematography: Eduard Grau.
Editing: Chris Dickins.
Rael Jones.
Running Time:
107 minutes.


‘Good kill’ is the oxymoron repeatedly uttered by Ethan Hawke’s drone pilot in this latest film by Andrew Niccol, the writer and director of Gattaca and Lord Of War. As the story progresses it’s a phrase that becomes ever more hollow as we witness a number of strategic drone missile strikes upon supposed US military targets in Afghanistan and the Middle East, many of which are carried out despite a lack of intel and with the knowledge that innocent civilians will be harmed. Hawke’s character Major Tom Egan, a former fighter pilot who now serves his country by carrying out the attacks from a tiny metal portacabin in a military base outside of Las Vegas, is understandably going through a moral crisis. His superiors repeatedly drill home the line that the bombings are in America’s best interests and that his actions will save US lives in the long run, but Egan’s doubts increase by the day, partly fuelled by the presence of a similarly skeptical new colleague (played by Zoë Kravitz). Meanwhile the distance between his tin box in Nevada and the victims of the airstrikes plays on his mind, as does the rapid evolution of this new style of warfare, increasing his personal discomfort with the job at hand. He’d rather be back flying an F-16: still happily killing people at his government’s behest, one presumes, but a little more comfortable in the knowledge that they could strike back if they are lucky enough to have access to the right weaponry.

Initially there seems to be some deliberation about each strike, and a degree of care taken with regard to the targets, though Egan’s frustration increases as this diminishes and his own ability to influence proceedings is reduced. He’s in a position where he must follow orders, even the brutal ones that begin to arrive from the CIA, represented here in time-honoured fashion by an unidentified and authoritative voice speaking down a phone line. The lack of choice is rammed home by Niccol as Egan and his fellow pilots are forced to watch a Taliban soldier repeatedly rape an Afghan woman; they are ordered not to intervene as the soldier is not an important target.

Hawke’s a perfect fit for the stressed out Major, wincing his way through the film with furrowed brow, unable to state his true feelings or disobey orders for fear of reprimand. His wife Molly (January Jones) seems to bear the brunt of Egan’s anguish when he is off duty, and as his marriage collapses the pilot hits the bottle. This thread of the story is less compelling, and quite honestly it’s difficult to care about the qwupfqaq7hl2mcbawg0ndisintegration of a single relationship in light of the film’s main subject, while I wonder whether the diversion from the topic of drone warfare is even necessary; there aren’t many films about that, after all, while there’s a seemingly-endless stream about men and their problematic marriages. It’s also a shame that the characters around Egan share little of his confliction: they’re either completely unquestioning about military or CIA orders or so obviously against the concept it’s hard to believe they’d be given the job of blowing people up from afar in the first place. Still, I won’t argue about the timeliness of Niccol’s examination of this relatively new technology, which has seemingly been accepted in real lifev without much in the way of public outrage. Despite some misfiring elements it’s a compelling drama, and one that gets to grips with the moral dilemmna surrounding drone warfare without presenting any easy answers; however as a marital drama this is disappointingly by the book.

Directed by: Andrew Niccol.
Written by: Andrew Niccol.
Starring: Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Zoë Kravitz, Jake Abel, Bruce Greenwood.
Cinematography: Amir Mokri.
Editing: Zach Staenberg.
Christophe Beck.
Running Time:
102 minutes.


imitation-game-still-1Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game highlights a terrible wrongdoing, namely the treatment of British computer scientist, mathematician, logician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) after World War II, when he was prosecuted for homosexual activities under archaic gross indecency laws. After a guilty verdict Turing accepted ‘treatment’ of oestrogen injections – a form of chemical castration – as an alternative to prison, and subsequently purportedly committed suicide by cyanide poisoning in 1954, days before his 42nd birthday (though there is evidence to suggest that this was accidental). As such this is a well-intentioned fact-based biopic, briefly drawing attention to the 49,000 other men who suffered the same conviction, although the primary focus of this film is on Turing’s important work during World War II at Bletchley Park.

As is widely known today, Turing was instrumental in decrypting the ciphers of the German Enigma machine, leading a team of codebreakers who – according to some historians – ensured that the war ended two years early (and thus saved anything up to 14,000,000 lives, though how such figures can be estimated with any kind of accuracy after factoring in the dawn of the atomic age is beyond my comprehension). In telling this story Tyldum and writer Graham Moore take a number of liberties with the known facts but it does make for occasionally gripping viewing: the eureka moment when a breakthrough is made is keenly felt, for example, while scenes depicting the awkward Turing’s clashes with establishment figures in the British government and the armed forces are certainly well acted, with Charles Dance popping up regularly as a formidable grimacing opponent. However ultimately the film fails to break free of its formulaic structure and design, the inability to make more of extremely one-dimensional supporting characters is frustrating and so much of it is wearyingly familiar: the predictable overpopulation with attractive actors, the omnipresent received pronunciation, the prevalence of tweed and the sullen brown colour palette (though I freely admit the presence of Scousers, denim jeans and pink overlays would be an eye-opener).

There aren’t many roles of note but the widely-praised Cumberbatch is excellent, though the actor certainly benefits from the decision to accentuate many of Turing’s character traits, and the invention of some new ones. Most obviously the codebreaker’s social difficulties are exaggerated in this film to the point that he seems to have Asperger’s syndrome, and is portrayed as an intellectual snob who is alienated because of his distinct lack of humour; however in reality Turing was sociable, had friends and enjoyed good working relationships with colleagues. He also led such a fascinating life that the focus here on three distinct periods – initial awareness of sexuality as a schoolboy (played by Alex Lawther), the Bletchley years and the period just prior to his arrest and prosecution – means that this feels somewhat incomplete as a study of the man: for example there is only a brief pre-credits mention for his pioneering work on early computers, and the establishment of the Turing Test is only alluded to by the film’s name, though the decision to skirt over these achievements is unsurprising: they’re not exactly the kind of subjects that regularly attract audiences to multiplexes in their droves, after all.

Keira Knightley is on form as Joan Clarke, a similarly important figure in the Bletchley deciphering, though when she appears as the only woman at an interview / codebreaker test and is mistaken for a secretary it’s hard to stop the eyes rolling toward the heavens when she subsequently beats all of the assembled male boffins and posts a record time to boot. Unfortunately the film’s mockery of the sexual politics of the era ends there, and Clarke is primarily defined by the way in which she relates to Turing, becoming his ‘right-hand woman’ and the only person he seems to be at ease with. It’s disappointing, though again hardly surprising, that the character’s role as an emotional crutch gradually becomes more important in this screenplay than her own work as a cryptoanalyst. Knightley’s part is, however, more substantial than most: Matthew Goode must act out numerous variations on the same scene as the caddish Hugh Alexander, while Mark Strong’s MI6 Chief Stewart Menzies fares little better, his special power being the ability to step out of the shadows at the crucial moment of every single high-level conversation. Dance’s Commander Denniston is nothing more than a perma-hindrance to Turing’s work – a portrayal that angered Denniston’s family in real life – while most of the other codebreakers are incidental or revealed to be imbeciles (presumably so that any modern day imbeciles watching can fully grasp the fact that the Alan Turing character is, by contrast, a genius).

When the action shifts briefly away from Bletchley Park we get little more than a sanitised version of wartime events. Tyldum occasionally drops in bloodless before-and-after montages that show the ominous sights of approaching U-boats or bombers as the Germans take advantage of supremacy above and below the sea, for example, and rather than witness the actual bombings of houses in London we instead see defiant people sitting on top of their piles of rubble; few of them actually look miserable and fewer still appear to be grieving. This reticent approach to showing the horror of war or the pain and suffering that took place means that little insight or hitherto unknown contextual information is gained, but at least the importance of cracking the Code is adequately established by several lines of dialogue, with Menzies asserting to Turing early on that four people have died while their conversation has been going round in circles.

Sadly despite its two very good Oscar-nominated performances The Imitation Game suffers from a blanket acceptance of popular dramatic convention, reducing years of work to a series of clichéd fiery clashes and needlessly linking Turing to the Soviet spy Cairncross (Allen Leech) for added intrigue. Turing’s life and work is interesting enough without such exaggeration, and you could argue that the inclusion of such a subplot betrays a lack of faith in either cinemagoers or the subject matter itself, even if it’s a common biopic trick. It’s also a shame that the screenplay really does little more than pay lip service to the work of others while a number of lines, such as Clarke’s ‘Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine’, seem to be written with trailer and poster tagline in mind — and even the delivery by an actor of repute can’t disguise it. Worst of all is the tip-toeing around the subject of Turing’s sexuality; we don’t see anything of his relationships as an adult, which would be far more apt than the fabricated interactions taking place with a Russian mole or Bletchley’s top brass. Still, it’s not a poor film by any means, and makes for an interesting comparison with Michael Apted’s Enigma, an adaptation of Robert Harris’ fictional (and arguably heterocentric) novel of the same name.

Directed by: Morten Tyldum.
Written by: Graham Moore.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance, Mark Strong.
Cinematography: Óscar Faura
Editing: William Goldenberg.
Music: Alexandre Desplat.
Certificate: 12.
Running Time: 112 minutes.
Year: 2014.


Kajaki-1Paul Katis’s Kajaki: The True Story is a gripping account of real life events that took place in Afghanistan in 2006, and seems to me to be a thoroughly modern war film, both in terms of its portrayal of British soldiers and the day-long situation that they unwittingly find themselves in. Set near the Kajaki Dam, a place that is symbolic of Afghanistan’s recent relationship with the wider world, the story concentrates on a squadron of soldiers from the British Army’s 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment who find themselves trapped in a wadi minefield and unable to negotiate a path to safety or evacuation. There are no firefights in this film, just ordinary men trying to cope with the situation they find themselves in, and as a result the acts of heroism we see are vastly different to your standard war film.

Kajaki opens with a half-hour that seeks to establish several characters and explore their station. Their task is to man strategically-placed lookout posts and, presumably, guard the dam and several minor roads around it; we also see them providing information for airstrikes. Unfortunately it’s difficult to work out who is who, at first, but a few men begin to stand out from the pack: Lance Corporal Paul ‘Tug’ Hartley (played by Mark Stanley, previously seen as Grenn in TV’s Game Of Thrones), Corporal Mark Wright (David Elliot), Sgt Stu Pearson (Scott Kyle) and Lance Corporal Stu Hale (Benjamin O’Mahony), the first soldier present to stand on one of the mines in real life, which happened when his patrol went to investigate a roadblock. There were several others involved in 2006 and as such many other characters appear in Kajaki, but those four have been singled out as Katis tends to focus on them.

The film is particularly successful when slowly revealing the extent of the danger faced by the soldiers. When a second mine goes off it becomes clear that each step could be the last one ever taken, and as such no-one caught in the minefield is able to move, whether injured or not. At one point an attempted helicopter rescue sets off a third landmine, and the extreme heat and desperate need for medical care begins to make matters even worse. It’s fascinating to see how the men react in these extreme circumstances: Wright and others courageously enter the minefield to try and help wounded colleagues. Medic Stanley, at one point, unselfishly attempts to reach fellow soldiers by using his backpack to test for mines: he throws it repeatedly and forcefully onto the ground in front of him and, providing it doesn’t explode, subsequently jumps on top of it to move across the wadi. Yet such acts of bravery are mixed with lashes of gallows humour as the soldiers attempt to lift each other’s spirits, despite the fact that some are near-death.

There is little offered in the way of context. Subsequent real-life investigations into the events, which highlighted some wider military failings, are not covered here, although there are brief updates about those involved during the end credits. Additionally, anyone hoping for comment on the UK-US occupation of Afghanistan will be disappointed: Afghan people barely appear in the film, and when they do they are usually distant figures on the horizon. However by concentrating on one single situation, and on one perspective, Katis has crafted a similar kind of ‘ground level’ picture to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, albeit clearly working with a lower budget and less of a desire to milk the tension for the sake of multiplex thrills back home. This stripped-back, realistic film is just as gripping and, despite the open landscape we see, it is also remarkably claustrophobic.

Directed by: Paul Katis.
Written by: Tom Williams.
Starring: Mark Stanley, David Elliot, Scott Kyle, Benjamin O’Mahony.
Cinematography: Chris Goodger.
Editing: Brin.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 108 minutes.
Year: 2014.


american_sniper_stillClint Eastwood shows no signs of slowing down, even at the ripe old age of 84, and the critical discussion that has followed the release of his latest film indicates that the veteran actor and notoriously-speedy filmmaker has never been more divisive; American Sniper has certainly touched a raw nerve, even if it remains to be seen whether there is any lasting impact after the initial fuss has died down. The film – which details sharpshooter Chris Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq as a Navy S.E.A.L. and the affect it has on his wellbeing and family back home in Texas – has been met with accusations from the left that it glorifies war and praise from the right for its celebration of ‘patriotism’, generally-speaking, but it is still questionable whether it has been interpreted correctly by either side.

This is, at times, a thrilling war movie, albeit one that struggles to support the weight of its own title, buckling under the pressure that often results when a filmmaker attempts to make A Statement. Though Eastwood’s film features the ‘A’ word in the title, the emphasis is mainly on ‘American’ as in ‘an individual American’, although there are ruminations on the nature of war and weaponry as a national identity (conveniently ignoring the fact that this is something a huge number of Americans are uncomfortable with), and these allow the movie to be viewed as a work purporting to examine Kyle’s beloved country too.

It’s interesting to sum up the plot by paying particular attention to the bookends of the film: the prologue shows the young Kyle (Cole Konis) being shown how to hunt and kill by his father Wayne (Ben Reed). Kyle Sr forcefully suggests that son Chris must become one of life’s protectors, initially by looking out for younger brother Jeff (played by Luke Sunshine and, later, Keir O’Donnell), a sibling dynamic that eventually transfers from playground to battlefield. This is perhaps an overly simplistic way of explaining why someone chooses a path in life that leads them to kill a (likely but unconfirmed) total of 255 people – one man’s dedicated patriot is another man’s extremist – but it’s the main reason suggested by the combined voices behind this work: Eastwood, screenwriter Jason Hall and Kyle himself.

What comes next has been described at length elsewhere, but in summary the adult Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a rodeo cowboy, enlists after seeing the US embassy bombings of 1998 on TV. With an unwavering belief in the policies of his government, Kyle feels an overwhelming sense of duty to serve and fight in order to protect his country (with little consideration given, in the film at least, as to from whom or what). He meets and marries Taya (an impressive Sienna Miller) and is sent to Iraq after the post-9/11 invasion, where he undertakes four tours of duty in eight years. It is common knowledge that Kyle was killed at a shooting range in Texas a few years after his release from the US Navy, and that leads us to the film’s epilogue. Here American Sniper’s structure and story gives credence to the paraphrased Biblical idiom ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ while highlighting – via Kyle hunting with his son and thereby passing the baton on to the next generation – that the culture surrounding guns in the US is endemic and therefore directly linked to the country’s foreign policy, either driving it and / or being driven by it. And yet Eastwood, perhaps not willing to appear soft in the eyes of the American right that he himself publicly supports, is back on message at the very end, incorporating footage of Kyle’s funeral cortege as it passes hundreds of flag-waving supporters and well-wishers. And so the movie ends with an indication that it has been a celebration of a man who probably killed 255 people – State-sanctioned and during wartime, yes, but 255 people – all along, which is clearly a fact that has appalled many viewers, myself included. Is Eastwood sitting on the fence, pandering to the left but ultimately reverting to the trusted right, or is he merely trying to show that there are several perspectives on this story, albeit in a clumsy fashion? Would a man who has built his career on a platform of macho, gun-wielding tough guys, both as actor and director, ever bite the hand that feeds him by damning the ever-rigid hard-on for weaponry that can be found among certain sectors of the US populace? Even at his age, at a point in life where he probably doesn’t give a hoot what anybody thinks, it seems like a surprising standpoint, and therefore American Sniper’s final shots are somewhat predictable, the director reverting at the end of the film to making the kind of statement that most people expect him to make.

The interesting thing, though, is that Eastwood attempts to at least appear balanced throughout. Context is everything here, and the director’s recent career in particular offers some clues as to how we can possibly interpret this film. American Sniper is the octogenarian’s latest attempt to explore ideas related to 20th Century myth-making, a streak that runs back as far the 1988 Charlie Parker biopic Bird but has gathered apace in recent years, with Flags Of Our FathersLetters From Iwo JimaInvictusJ. Edgar and Jersey Boys all being made within the last decade. The legend in question here was developed partly by Kyle himself (Hall has adapted the soldier’s autobiography American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History) and partly by senior officers during the second Iraq War, who quickly identified the benefits of allowing Kyle’s notoriety to grow unchecked in the hearts of his colleagues and the minds of the enemy. Like the men who appeared in the famous staged photograph of Flags Of Our Fathers, Chris Kyle is used as a propaganda tool, though such matters are less of a concern to him than the protection of his fellow soldiers as they attempt to negotiate their way through a country defined here by its residents, who are either hostile or scared. As with that earlier film, Eastwood’s sympathies ultimately lie with the individual, even if there is less of a sense of the individual being exploited in this new movie, and it’s interesting to note that both end on a tragic note. Flags Of Our Fathers is proof that a patriotic film can still question truth and the nature of heroism, but I don’t think Eastwood displays the same conviction here.

Comparison with Flags is also interesting because it was quickly followed by the (superior) sister piece Letters From Iwo Jima, which showed the battle for that island from the Japanese perspective. It’s entirely possible that Eastwood felt he could offer a balanced view of Kyle and the Iraq war within one film (even though he doesn’t), rather than across two, or that he could tone down any investigation of ‘the other side’ here, as it is something he had gone to great lengths to achieve in the recent past. That would go some way to explaining why the director took a different path than that identified by American Sniper’s earlier custodian, Steven Spielberg, who initially intended an equal focus on the story’s ‘nemesis’ figure Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), an Iraqi sniper. Disappointingly, Mustafa is steered back by Eastwood toward the panto villain model favoured by Hollywood; he’s reduced to being nothing more than another dark-skinned rooftop assailant like the ones Jason Bourne defeats with regularity, and that perhaps goes some way to explaining the film’s success at the US Box Office. This kind of one-sided jingoism is popular in the west, like it or not, and wars are easier to swallow if they are reduced to the simple level of one man versus another, or ‘goodie’ v ‘baddie’.

Is American Sniper a ‘patriotic’ film, in the modern sense of the word? Yes, it is, but then what exactly do you expect? It’s about a capital ‘P’ patriot, adapted from that man’s own memoirs, and therefore by its very nature Kyle’s own take on the country of his birth and the war he fights is key. You could argue that Chris Kyle’s politics are more important to understanding or decoding this film than yours, or mine, or even Eastwood’s, so surely it’s right that it ends with billowing flags and mourning crowds. The sniper’s view of the Second Iraq War is blindly, unequivocally, unquestioningly ‘patriotic’, and this dominant part of his personality, revolving around a failure to question the propaganda and scare-mongering of the mainstream news media and government in the US, is highly evident in Cooper’s portrayal.

The patriotism isn’t something that I find offensive, but I do have a problem with the fact that American Sniper is extremely lazy at times in the one-sided way it depicts this particular war. American fighters are introduced via the usual scenes of boot camp and barroom bonhomie, with the good-natured camaraderie flowing freely from soldier to soldier. By way of contrast their foes in Iraq are first seen threatening an innocent child and then cruelly executing an innocent father in the street. This time last year Lone Survivor was ridiculed for the exact same reliance on such war film clichés. When Kyle kills he is constantly shown to be saving the lives of his compatriots; there is an element of truth to that, of course, but Mustafa, on the other hand, is treated in an entirely different way. We are constantly reminded of his prowess as a sportsman, and his past as an Olympic athlete is insidiously linked to his killing of American soldiers, as if he is merely doing it for the sport and is inherently evil. Or maybe it’s because it’s just not safe to jog out there. Thanks very much, all involved, but no thanks.

The other main criticism of American Sniper is that it glorifies war. Well, yes it does, but then as this excellent article points out, most war films – even those that are described as being ‘anti-war’ – do the same. Some – like American Sniper – are adept at playing on the ‘war is hell’ theme and offer sobering amounts of realism, but as that article on The Atlantic website points out there is always an underlying message that ‘war isn’t great … but war makes you great’. This is just the latest in a long list of action movies that thrills its audience by allowing people to experience the adrenalin rush of combat from the comfort of their cinema seat, to join in the ride of becoming the world’s greatest sniper without the inconvenience of a bullet in your forehead at the end of it, and the latest in a long list that seeks to simplify war and the questions associated with killing another person for the purposes of entertainment.

The follow up discussion is, of course, whether Eastwood is breaking some kind of unwritten rule, and thus glorifying war too much, by including the film’s infamous slow-mo shooting scene, which is completely out-of-step with his attempts to portray Kyle’s war in an otherwise ‘realistic’ fashion. Why has Eastwood chosen such an incongruous shot at this juncture? It doesn’t fit in with the look or the feel of the rest of the film and harks back to the likes of 1993’s Sniper, or the countless video games and movies since that have adopted a lighter approach to their depictions of violence. Is it to highlight just how ridiculous the approaches of other filmmakers in Hollywood are to the idea of killing, to show that when you reduce it to bullet-time special effects and stylised slow-motion it reveals a throwaway triteness? And if that is the case, and I know I’m being extremely generous there, shouldn’t we be credited with enough intelligence to know this without Eastwood resorting to it in this film anyway? Only he knows, but Clint’s remaining as tight-lipped as you’d expect on the matter. I’d certainly like to hear a DVD director’s commentary, as he of all people will be aware of the fact that it’s the kind of device that puts bums on seats.

Despite these serious reservations I must admit that Eastwood has fashioned a solidly-dramatic war movie, and there is at least some mileage in trying to guess his intentions: on the one hand American Sniper finishes with a lot of flag waving, it is infuriatingly biased, and its blind acceptance of the notion of American soldier as hero is sadly as unquestioning as any of Kyle’s own views, yet on the other hand it puts the negative effects of war on a family’s wellbeing front and centre and is seemingly critical of gun culture. There are elements that will appeal to a broad number of people with very different worldviews from one another.

It’s also mildly questioning of propaganda and, oddly, the culture of celebrity that springs up under these unusual circumstances. I really don’t know what to make of it and my views on it have even changed as I’ve been writing this review. I certainly don’t hate it for being all the things that every other war film is, but I do feel somewhat guilty for enjoying the pulsating action set pieces, which makes me feel complicit when I don’t want to be. There are moments of balance but ultimately I don’t trust the way it glibly reinforces stereotypes or paints a picture of a conflict without friendly fire, Abu Ghraib, hospitals full of innocent victims and all the rest of the terrible shit that happened in that country. I understand the desire to make a film about an individual, and even the need to smooth a few rough edges for the purposes of Bradley Cooper’s future career, but that’s no excuse for a narrow-minded look at the conflict or the people that the individual in question comes up against.

The Basics:
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Jason Hall, Chris Kyle, Scott McEwan, Jim DeFelice
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Sammy Sheik
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 132 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 6.4