American Sniper (2014)

American-Sniper

Clint Eastwood’s latest movie American Sniper  is based on the true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle who was called “the most lethal sniper in the U.S.”.

Every time I watch a movie based on a true story I find it difficult to write about because ultimately I have to write about two things: the movie as such and the story it’s based on. Very often I like the movie a great deal but I’m highly critical of the story. Like in this case. I admire Eastwood for the way he tells Chris Kyle’s story but I’m not sure I can admire someone who killed so many people, although I admire his skills.

The movie starts in Iraq. We get to witness two of Kyle’s most problematic kills. A boy and a woman. There is never a doubt— they are not collateral damage. Kyle takes them out on purpose. With good reason as they were about to blow up a tank. Nonetheless these two kills are problematic for him as we can easily deduce.

After these initial scenes, the movie switches back and we see a few scenes from Kyle’s childhood. How he was a great shot as a small boy already, taking out a deer. This seems to be a typical sniper movie feature. I can’t remember one in which we don’t see a small boy killing an animal, which already shows he’ll be a gifted sniper.

Kyle first works as a cowboy but it doesn’t work out for him and, being a patriot, he finally joins the Navy SEALs and becomes a sniper. One evening he meets his future wife Taya; shortly after their marriage, right after 9/11, he’s sent on his first tour to Iraq.

The movie then tells us chronologically all the important things that happened during the tours and the growing unease when he’s back home. Kyle is quickly turning into a legend. The most deadly sniper the US ever had and he’s also a wanted man. The Iraqis will pay a great deal of money to the person who can kill him.

Back home, Kyle tries to “return” but he fails. He never seems to leave the war zone. He keeps on hearing gunfire; he almost kills his own dog, thinking he’s attacking his kid; he’s withdrawn and distracted. His wife suffers but stands by him. In the movie we’re led to belive she has no idea her husband has taken so many lives. There’s even a scene in which she asks him if he’s ever killed someone.

The parts in Iraq are gripping. Especially since we have a “Enemy at the Gates”-situation. There’s an Iraqi sniper who is almost as good as Chris Kyle and the two try to take each other out. I’m not sure whether it’s based on a true story as well or whether this was added/embellished for dramatic purposes. In any case, it works because it gives the movie a plotline that is suspenseful.

As I said, I admire Eastwood for the way he told this story because it never felt manipulative. I didn’t think he was glorifying Chris Kyle or condemning him and whoever watches this will be able to make up his/her own mind.

Since I’m not American I wasn’t all that familiar with his story. I knew the name and that he wrote an autobiography called “American Sniper”. While watching the movie I had no idea how it would end, that’s why I’m not mentioning it here. If you don’t know yet, let me just tell you that it’s a pretty ironic and surprising ending.

One aspect that I found extremely interesting is what the film says about killing. Or rather – how we get to experience different ways of killing. If you shoot randomly in a battle and kill people, it’s clearly not the same as when you aim carefully and see them fall. A sniper’s kills are much more personal. I could image they weigh more heavily on the conscience than when you’re not exactly sure whether or not you killed someone. In a war like the war in Iraq there’s also the huge problem of civilians taking part. No matter how hardened a sniper is, it will be difficult for him to shoot a kid.

While I find that Chris Kyle is a highly problematic figure – his patriotism is more than a little annoying – and I really can’t glorify or applaud someone who shot so many people (160 confirmed kills, 250 probable kills) – I thought this was a terrific movie. Well done, thought-provoking and the acting is surprisingly good. I’m not exactly a Bradley Cooper fan so I was wondering whether he was a good choice, but I have to admit, he did a great job. And Sienna Miller works extremely well as his wife. I highly recommend the movie. 4.5/5

 

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Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Flags of Our Fathers

 “The right picture can win or lose a war.”

I remember watching Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers shortly after it was in the cinemas and feeling less than enthusiastic about it. I’d been watching my way through the best infantry combat movies at the time, so, obviously, Flags of Our Fathers fell short. After re-watching it yesterday I must say, it’s not bad at all. Quite the contrary. Sure, it has some corny Hollywood moments, but overall it’s a very interesting movie about topics that are still relevant today: the power of images and the making of heroes.

Flags of our Fathers tells the story of the iconic picture that rekindled the American war effort. Looking at the photo below I would say it’s extremely powerful. I’m not surprised it had such an effect.

APTOPIX OBIT ROSENTHAL

The movie starts with two elderly men reminiscing and telling their story to the son of one of them. The son knows his father took part in the battle of Iwo Jima and that he’s on the famous picture but he doesn’t know much more. His father never spoke about the war. From this initial moment the movie is composed mostly of flash back sections, some of which showing what happened on Iwo Jima, some telling about what came after the picture was shot.

Iwo Jima – or Sulfur Island – was a strategic point. Taking the hill meant that the US might after all have a chance to win the war. When the troops land, the island looks bleak, dark, forlorn and empty. It’s quite a creepy moment, which is enhanced through a change in point of view. We first see the troops land and slowly walk towards the hill, scanning the landscape and then we get the point of view of the hidden Japanese who observe the troops from their fox holes. Needless to say that this first wave of US soldiers is quickly heavily decimated. Still, many make it to the top and that’s when they plant the flag. A senior officer later demands this flag and the commanding officer decides to exchange it and to let him have another one. Both flag raisings are photographed but it’s the second, which is the better picture, that makes it into the newspapers.

Three of the men who raise the flag survive. However, inadvertently, one of the first six is named as the sixth of the second group, which will cause a lot of heartbreak.

The three survivors are sent back to the States where they are touring the country and trying to convince people to help the war effort and buy bonds.

The three men who haven’t done anything more heroic than holding a heavy pole, feel uncomfortable about being called heroes. One of them, an American Indian, is especially uncomfortable. He feels like a cheat. Not only because he doesn’t feel heroic but because they were not even part of the initial flag raising. It feels like he’s deceiving people. The mix up of the sixth soldier makes it even worse.

The movie is sleek and visually compelling. The combat scenes on the island are shot in gritty almost black and white pictures, which form a contrast to the colorful home front scenes.

The actors, notably Adam Beach and Ryan Philippe, are very good. The score is discreet and well-chosen. It stays mostly in the background.

I thought Flags of Our Fathers was really watchable. More than that actually. It’s very good. It shouldn’t be seen as a combat movie but more as a movie about the impact of pictures, an exploration of the true nature of heroism and the way society treats heroes when they aren’t needed anymore. It was sobering to see their treatment. At no point were they seen as soldiers and men but merely as a possibility for propaganda. This became even clearer after the war when people lost all interest in them.

Where Eagles Dare (1968) War Themed Action

I’ve never seen Where Eagles Dare before and must say I was pleasantly surprised. It’s entertaining and cinematographically stunning.

It’s a fabulously scenic film with some pictures that would even look good in a vampire movie. Plus we get to see two great actors, Clint Eastwood and  Richard Burton who, teamed up, give this movie a special something that I found very appealing.

The story is the tale of a suicide mission. A group of mountaineering soldiers, led by British Major Smith (Richard Burton) and American Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood) are sent to free an American officer captured by the Germans and held in a castle in the mountain, called Eagle’s Nest.

From the moment they parachute out of the plane it’s obvious that the mission they are on is a fake one. What they really need to do, is uncover double-agents.

From the moment they land in the snow-covered woods, until they climb into the castle, the action and tension is relentless and is even intensified, when they have to escape from the castle again.

It’s quite a violent movie, with loads of explosions and a great deal of merciless killings. But it is also very suspenseful, there is plenty of action reminiscent of a modern-day movie. (It seems as if this was Quentin Tarantino’s favourite war movie and that he wanted to do a remake. I hope he will not and that the similarities one can find in Inglourious Basterds is all there will be.)

It was a pleasant surprise to find a female agent who has quite a great role, and fights and shoots just like the men.

I loved the cinematography, the steep mountains, covered in snow and the castle, nested on the top of a hill, gave the movie a Gothic feel.

The fact that I always feel uneasy in cable-cars made watching this movie quite impressive as some of the most gripping scenes take place on the top of a cable-car.

Apparently the movie has been criticized for not being anti-war. I think, that there are for sure movies with a clearer anti-war statement, which is one of the reasons why I think this is more of an action movie with a war theme than a real war movie.

In any case,  I found it very entertaining and I loved Clint Eastwood in this.

I’ve heard that Where Eagles Dare is one of a pair, the other one being The Guns of Navarone. There is a certain likeness, logically, they have both been written by Alistair MacLean. I couldn’t say which one I prefer, I think they both have a lot to offer.

Which one do you prefer?

Heartbreak Ridge (1986) Heartbreakingly Bad

Shameful and painful. Shameful to admit I watched this crap and painful to have watched it. I wasn’t even sure whether I should review it on account of the shame factor. I mean, seriously, there is a bit of a reputation at stake, right? But then I thought, I might save someone the time or direct those who would like this movie towards it. I’m sure there are people out there who did or would appreciate this. Anyone who is planning on having an affair with their ex-husband/wife might learn a few things.

The beginning of Heartbreak Ridge isn’t all that bad. I can really sympathize with people who have a problem with their superiors, especially when those superiors do not seem to have reached their position through knowledge and capability but purely by chance or through the right connections.

Gunnery Sgt Tom Highway (Clint Eastwood) is a hardened veteran of two wars. He has done more than one tour in Vietnam and is most certainly not the guy to be posted in an office or someone who should be doing some menial task. Since his divorce, and most probably also before, he is a bit too keen on drinking and this, plus a tendency to insubordination, gets him frequently into trouble.

Being a highly decorated soldier and really liked by his friends he is given another chance. Just before his retirement he is sent back to his old unit in Cherry Point, North Carolina. He had been transferred from there, once more, because of insubordination. At present he is appointed trainer of a reconnaissance platoon with a very bad reputation of being true slackers.

Up to this point the movie is ok but then it tumbles down rapidly. Some new characters are introduced which are meant to be funny but are not. The platoon consists of a bunch of cheeky boys reminiscent of some high school comedy. There is a lot of growling and muscle action from the Gunnery Sgt and a lot of cheerless fun from the boys. Plus the ex-wife is introduced and to make matters worse we are served a corny version of the “How to date your ex” romance (it’s so unsexy).

If you think by now, this must be bad, you will be surprised to hear that it got worse. The platoon who, of course, has become one of the most worthy in a short time, is sent to the island of Grenada to liberate some American hostages. Those poor school girls have been captured by Cuban soldiers. Those mean men have a habit of losing their Havanas and that’s how the Gunnery Sgt found out who the enemy is (it’s quite subtle). What was so far a movie about military life + a parody of boot camps turns into a real war movie but of a tacky variety.

I don’t understand why Clint Eastwood accepted this role. I really have no problem with the guy, I even thought his acting was by far the best thing this movie had to offer. Rating? Should I rate it? 1.5/5

Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008) Another Grim Korean Vet or Why I Think Gran Torino is Dishonest

To a certain extent my title does already give away what I thought of Gran Torino, only it is toned down. I was actually thinking more than once while watching “What a load of crap!”. Sorry, people, if there is anyone reading this who liked it, no offence.

Gran Torino tells the story of an old grumpy Korean vet (no, this isn’t a cliché, of course not), Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood)  who has recently become a widower. He lives in a neighbourhood that has been invaded (his point of view) by…? – Ha! I’m aiming at 100% percent politically correct wording here and will therefore translate what Swiss official papers would use as a wording which is “People with a migratory background”. OK, once more with feeling. His neighbourhood is invaded by people with a migratory background or – less politically correct –  “spooks” and “gooks”, as our vet calls them. Especially unsavoury to him is the fact that the house next to him is occupied (his point of view) by gooks.

At the funeral and the reception that follows, it becomes clear that Walt Kowalski doesn’t get along with his family or children. The relationships are extremely tense and full of mutual animosity and mistrust. Walt is one of those tight-lipped men who answers with a grunt rather than a full sentence. He is suspicious and full of hatred for almost every one around him. And he loves his beer.

The family who moved in next door consists of the grandmother, the mother, a daughter and a teenage boy. The boy loves to do gardening and hangs out with his family or can be seen reading a book. This greatly displeases his cousin who belongs to a local street gang.

This gang tries to clutch the boy and wants him to join the gang. They are sexist and macho. Without really wanting to Kowalski helps the boy. The cousin however will not let go easily and the boy and his sister are in real danger. The boy’s behaviour seriously tarnishes his cousin’s street cred. This must be punished.

The neighbourhood they are living in is dangerous, especially for a girl who might get raped any minute. Some time later Kowalski helps the girl against a bunch of “spooks”. The girl and our vet get to know each other and when he calls her “gook”, she corrects him and tells him that she isn’t Vietnamese but of Hmong origin. The Hmong are mountain people, located between China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. During the war in Vietnam they were on the side of the US and were later abused, mistreated and executed by the Vietnamese. That’s why so many fled to the US, as the girl tells Kowalski.

And this is where the movie lost me for good. It drifts into some tacky redemption parable that I found all the more dishonest because of this Hmong detail. Not that I don’t think they deserve a movie, they certainly are a tragic people but to choose to focus on Hmong rather than on other immigrants – sorry, I meant people with a migratory background – is such a dishonest thing to do. It is as if Eastwood could only choose and have Kowalski accept them because they were on the side of the US. Kowalski is and stays a racist all through the movie.

The message is dubious, the movie is tacky and clichéd , the ending is corny…

Skip it!

Here is the link to the Hmong Net for those interested.