Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Clint Eastwood's America, Part I

With the release of American Sniper, Clint Eastwood takes yet another stab at a war movie, albeit of a different nature than Letters from Iwo Jima.  This film is closer to Heartbreak Ridge, his forgotten movie about the invasion of Grenada in 1983.  Clint can always be counted on to support the conservative cause even if there is a sufficient hint of ambiguity in his movies to make you think he is calling the motives into question.  The sad part is that he isn't.

From the accounts I've read he is providing a straight up version of Chris Kyle's autobiography of the same name.  Kyle is a contentious figure in that he is America's most decorated sniper with over 250 "probable kills" while serving in Iraq.  He was apparently known as the "Devil of Ramadi" for his body count and had a bounty put on his head, further endearing him to American conservatives.  Unfortunately, Chris got taken out by a young ex-marine, Eddie Ray Routh, at a shooting range in Erath County, Texas, which was an ill-advised move given Routh's mental state.

I don't know how deep Eastwood goes into Kyle's character and to be honest I don't really care because I don't regard Kyle as a hero and don't think a movie needed to be made about him.  He was a troubled man who probably needed psychological treatment himself but became embraced by the right wing media with a star-studded memorial held in Dallas Cowboy Stadium following his death.

America has developed a love affair with Navy Seals, who have been on the front line of the "War on Terror" since its inception.  We shouldn't expect Clint to call these special operations into question anymore than he did the faux war in Grenada, which he essentially used as a backdrop for a war buddy movie.  This is probably what you can expect from American Sniper.

Clint is a hard man to pin down.  He has worked the better part of his life making himself look inscrutable, whether in front or behind the camera.  Sergio Leone was the one to rescue him from B-movies like Revenge of the Creature and make him into an outlaw with no name in his "spaghetti westerns," culminating in The Good Bad and the Ugly.  What's ironic is that these films were made during the time of the Vietnam War and to some degree Leone was capturing that sense of moral ambiguity in his films, most notably Once Upon a Time in the West, in which he used Charles Bronson and not Clint Eastwood.

When Clint returned to the western genre in High Plains Drifter you might have been fooled into thinking that Eastwood had a similar sense of moral ambiguity about the times, but it was the character more than the broader themes that attracted Clint.  Once again he has no name, but he is clearly on the side of good this time, even if we can imagine a checkered past.  He would offer the same character again in Pale Rider.  It was only in Unforgiven that we might be tempted to think Eastwood was calling this nameless hero into question, winning an Oscar for direction.

For me, Unforgiven was a dark comedy.  I don't know if it was intended that way, but the idea of three such disparate gunmen coming together to rid a small western town of a corrupt sheriff, memorably played by Gene Hackman, had much more humor than pathos.  In fact there was very little pathos until Morgan Freedman's character was made an example by "Little" Bill Daggett for any man who would defy his orders.  Naturally, Clint's character carries out the requisite vengeance, needing no support, which makes you wonder why he had Ned and the Kid tag along to begin with.

I suppose a good sniper needs a good point man.  At least that's what we have learned from other movies about American snipers like Jarhead, which was based on Anthony Swofford's memoirs of the war in Iraq.  You would be forgiven if you don't remember him since he didn't become a right wing icon like Chris Kyle.  Swofford has drifted to the left politically, questioning the motivations of the ongoing "War on Terror" in this and other books.

It seems neither Chris Kyle nor Bradley Cooper, who bought the movie rights to the book, was going to let Anthony Swofford or Sam Mendes, who directed Jarhead, have the last word on Iraq, and so Brad and Clint have fashioned a movie that puts American muscle on full display, with Brad adding 40 pounds and an impressive set of abs for the role.  If you expect a hint of irony from Clint you will most likely be disappointed.

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