It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he's got and everything he's ever gonna have.--William Munny (Clint Eastwood) in Unforgiven.
Boise Weekly has a movie reviewer and a fine one at that. With George Prentice around, there is no need or point of me ever doing a review myself. Besides, when I watch a movie, it's usually long after the thing was released. Rather than leaving the comfort of my home and joining a crowd to watch a flick, I wait until it shows up on television or in a big red box somewhere.
However, for this week's column, I'm reviewing a movie—American Sniper—on which everybody feels compelled to have an opinion. I, too, feel compelled to have an opinion on it, so I am joining the crowd. Hopefully, my opinion of American Sniper will be somewhat different than all of the other opinions, but it will be hard to avoid sounding like someone else. It will be hard to avoid. That's the problem with joining a crowd, isn't it? It's tough to not sound like you're just one of the crowd, when you are.
It's likely there is only one thing that will set my assessment apart from everyone else who's written a formal review of this movie—that being: I haven't seen it. I will, eventually. Probably. At some later date, well after all the controversy has boiled off, I will almost certainly watch American Sniper. In the meantime, let me just say I've heard Bradley Cooper did a bang-up job of acting in it, which is no surprise. There is no reason to believe Cooper would be a superlative actor in Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013), then turn into Adam Sandler for this latest movie. So let's agree that whatever is fomenting all the controversy over this film isn't Bradley Cooper's acting skills.
There's no mystery where all the controversy is coming from, is there? Simply put, is it a pro-war movie, or is it anti-war? More viscerally, does it make the act of killing such a thrilling prospect that impressionable idiots would fantasize that they, too, could blow away human beings with impunity, or does it portray the sickening realities of what such slaughter does to the minds and souls of the soldiers doing the slaughtering?
I don't know. Like I said, I haven't seen it.
But I have come to trust the man who made the movie—at least, when it comes to making films, if not to making one-sided conversation with an empty stool. Clint Eastwood has been a peripheral part of my world since well before I started growing hair on my face. From Rowdy Yates to the gunslinger with no name to Dirty Harry to Bronco Billy to the guy with the orangutan to Joe Kidd to the high plains drifter to Josie Wales to William Munny to the guy with the El Camino... no actor has pulled more box office gold out of a squint. Not that I would ever call him a bad actor. Let us just say "limited," though it's never stopped him from being an appealing and commanding presence on the screen.
It is in the directing where Mr. Eastwood has proven himself an enduring artist. Even his first effort, Play Misty For Me (1971), was memorable, and he just got better from there. The movies grew ever more multidimensional, more nuanced, more convincing. How can Eastwood not consider moral ambiguity and still turn out movies such as Mystic River (2003) and Unforgiven (1992). One had the sense he was using violence in the latter to renounce the violence he had capitalized on in so many earlier roles.
With Gran Torino (2008) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), he painted subtle portraits of petrified old assholes transcending themselves, softened with rediscovered empathy—a feat that would have turned to farce in less talented hands. So there is no reason for me to believe he'd be a superlative artist for the last four decades, then turn into John Wayne so late into his career. (For a real example of a pro-war, jingoist piece of propaganda crap, I refer you to The Green Berets .)
But if American Sniper is, as I suspect, another multidimensional, nuanced Eastwood film, in which he's dramatizing the hell of war in a convincing restatement of the eternal truism "War is Hell," it won't mean anything like that to one-dimensional, nuance-deaf idiots—Texas state leaders come to mind—who could never understand it as anything beyond a glorification of misplaced heroism and mythologized murder. There have been reports of such barbarian-wannabes expressing—on the Internet, where else?—their latent lust to partake in the slaughter in the same manner as the character in the movie, e.g. from a safe distance with a powerful weapon against unsuspecting targets, a la Charles Whitman. (For a real example of another famous sniper's work, I refer you to the University of Texas bell tower, 1966.)
So, is Michael Moore right about American Sniper? And Bill Maher? And all the others who regard it as praise for a sociopathic killer? Or is Michelle Obama right? And George Prentice (BW, Screen, "The War at Home," Feb. 4, 2015). And all those who understand that putting something horrifying on screen doesn't mean you're suggesting horror is something to be admired.
I don't know. Like I said, I haven't seen it.