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 He keeps on hearing gunfire; he almost kills his own dog, thinking he’s attacking his kid; he’s withdrawn and distracted.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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Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

Machine Gun Preacher is based on a true story, the story of ex Hell’s Angel and bad boy Sam Childers.

At the beginning of the movie Sam gets out of prison. He hasn’t learned anything from that experience and wants to get back to his former life. Drugs, booze, his Harley Davidson and his stripping wife. Unfortunately for him, his wife has found Jesus, works at a mall, doesn’t strip, drink or smoke anymore and goes to church on Sundays. Sam does what he always did, gets drunk and high and ends up fighting with everyone. Then, one night, something really bad happens and wakes him up for good. He joins the church to which his wife belongs, sobers up, sells his bike, gets a decent job.

But that’s not enough for Sam. The way he used to be, lies too heavy on his conscience, he wants more, do more, do better. He builds a church and travels to Africa to see what good the missionaries do there. When he crosses the border into Sudan with a soldier from the Sudanese Liberation Army whom he met in Uganda, he sees things he has never even heard of. Mutilated people, shot women and children, cruelty and violence. He hears about the child soldiers recruited by the LRA (Lords Resistance Army), led by Joseph Kony, sees the many orphans whose parents have been slaughtered. Sam decides that this is his cause. God wants him to help and he will help.

What makes him different from all the social workers down there is that he doesn’t only help and bring money, he also fights. He doesn’t only defend his property, he attacks the aggressors and intimidates them in using the same methods they use. Ultimately he doesn’t mind killing. For him – this is obvious – this is more than just helping, this is fighting a war. A war against oppression, exploitation, violence and cruelty.

If it wasn’t for that, the movie would be average but because of this, it’s a very interesting movie because it seems to state some uncomfortable things and ask interesting questions. Can there be a level of violence which makes it impossible to fight it with non-violence? Could it be dangerous to just try to do good without being prepared to kill and shoot people for the greater good?

I’m not saying I agree with Childers (I personally think we are not meant to intervene everywhere all the time but that’s my opinion. I think if we want to do good, we can start in our own cities, our own neighbourhoods and families.) but I understand his point and found the movie quite interesting.

Machine Gun Preacher reminded me of Lord of War and Blood Diamond and some other movies which make African civil wars and warlords their main topic. While I think it’s a movie which will generate a lot of discussions and I didn’t mind watching it, I still think that movies like Lord of War, Hotel Rwanda and some others were far better. But it’s decent and for Gerard Butler fans certainly a must-see.

The Big Parade (1925) A Guest Post by nem baj

Today’s review is a Guest Post by one of my regular visitors, nem baj. It’s a post on one of the great war movie classics. I hope you will enjoy it.

The Big Parade (1925), the mother of all war movies?

The biggest hit of american cinema until Gone With the Wind was a war movie. Its commercial success was a surprise: in 1925, so close to World War I, the subject was still considered to be doomed at the U.S. box-office. King Vidor’s The Big Parade definitely reversed the tide, and its later influence on so many filmmakers makes it a must-see for the readers of this blog (1).

The Big Parade follows Jim, a young American man from an upper-class family who, like many others of different backgrounds, enlists in the Infantry and goes fighting in Europe. He will experience military life and love in the French countryside, then the horrors and glories of the Great War. This simple storyline is a perfect vehicle for a very strong theme in the director’s work: that of the individual at grips with society, the pressure of one’s social circles and the collective passions of the time (from The Crowd to The FountainHead).

Between two ‘book-ends’ sequences about Jim’s (John Gilbert) civilian life, the story is two-fold, almost perfectly symmetrical. The first part looks like a ‘military comedy’, young troopers making buddies and flirting with French women despite the language barrier, getting into rows, coping with the oddities of service… It is nicely shot, funny like only silents can be, and full of Vidoresque traits. For instance the scene when Mélisande (Renée Adorée) watches Jim’s buddy naked under their improvised shower – this was of course pre-code – which will find its clothed replica in The FountainHead; the moment when she rubs on her skin a rose she just picked, in order to smell good, and of course the chewing-gum initiation…

At some point the first time viewer might be tempted to wonder where this is going. After all isn’t this depiction of, well, American sex tourists, while so many others were dying, outrageous? Now, if these idyllic moments got to you by their simple poetry and lust for life, you’re in for a dramatic turn right in the middle of the film. In a masterful eight minutes scene – the departure of Jim’s unit for the front, leaving Mélisande behind – your heart should be wrenched, and you’ll start to feel exactly what humans leave behind when a war starts.

Then comes the second part, with its emblematic shots. The symmetry between the column of rookies riding to the front and the column of ambulances bringing back the wounded (Monicelli’s train scene in La Grande Guerra), the claustrophobia of the shell-holes (Milestone’s All Quiet…, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory), the difference between war and murder (Kobayashi’s Human Condition), the ensemble march in the woods (Kubricks’ Full Metal Jacket final shot), the contrast between disciplined fighting and the rage when your friends are killed (too many to list), etc.

Sure, you’ve seen all this in later movies. But this is the original grammar book, and Vidor is at his best: the cinematography, the editing are amazing, constantly switching between very wide shots and intimate ones to compose a lyrical vision of… hell. For war is undoubtedly a man-made hell in this film. Yet, the tour de force of Vidor’s movie is that it is beyond the pacifist debate: « The Big Parade charts a modern progress through a crazy world. Neither picaro nor pilgrim, [Jim] drifts, marches, stumbles upon a landscape he never made »(2).

The last ‘bookend’ sequence, the return to civilian life, might seem quaint. Yet it does not depart from the lyricism of the work, torn between human despair and hopes. The flashback in the mind of Jim’s mother, the ending between Jim and Mélisande (a soft rehearsal for Duel in the Sun‘s finale?) should please any opera lover, and the ‘lost generation’ gaze of John Gilbert when he rides home with his father is probably the best introduction to Scott Fitzgerald ever filmed…

1) No DVD yet, you may watch clips here (click twice on the “play now” links on the right to avoid the ads).
2) Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simon, King Vidor, American, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Thanks, nem baj, for a great contribution. 

Courage Under Fire (1996)

I have seen at least six of Edward Zwick’s movies (Glory, Legends of the Fall, Last SamuraiBlood Diamond and Defiance) and was only disappointed once when I watched Defiance. Courage Under Fire may not be the best but I still liked watching and re-watching it. For one it’s one of the very rare war movies with a female main character but it also tells a suspenseful and quite complex story. It may not be anti-war as such but manages to make us understand a few things. Last but not least I tend to watch every movie with Denzel Washington. Zwick has worked with him before, notably in Glory which is one of the most outstanding war movies you can watch.

Colonel Sterling (Denzel Washington) is asked to investigate whether chopper pilot K. Walden (Meg Ryan) who was killed in action was worthy of a medal of honour. The assignment is Sterling’s second chance, an opportunity to rehabilitate himself. Ever since he came back from Iraq where he took part in Desert Storm, he has changed. He is drinking, withdrawn and slowly unraveling. He cannot forgive himself that due to his order a friendly tank was blown up. Far less can he accept that the event is not called what it was and that he had to lie to the parents of one of the crew and tell them their son died as a hero under enemy fire.

As a first step in the investigation of officer Walden’s worthiness he questions the crew her chopper came to rescue before it was shot down. The men tell what they heard, they didn’t see a lot. Walden’s huey and her crew went down between those they came to rescue and the enemy. They took all of the fire during the night and in the early morning.  The men remember having heard a M16 until just before both parties were rescued by another chopper.

At this point in time, Sterling doesn’t know that Walden is not only a heroic soldier but that Walden is a woman and would be the first woman to ever receive a medal of honour. After having questioned the rescued crew he has to interrogate Walden’s crew members one by one. Her co-pilot is in a wheel chair, he was seriously wounded and cannot remember what happened on the ground. Ilario the medic (Matt Damon), parises Karen and her decision making but Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips), an angry, aggressive soldier, tells him that Walden was a coward.

The whole story is revealed layer by layer and in flash backs. We see what happened from different points of view and after a while it is clear someone is lying. It will be Sterling’s duty to find out whether she was a coward as some say or a hero deserving of the highest decoration.

The movie interweaves two stories, the investigation of Karen Walden and Sterling’s fight to come to terms with what happened in Iraq.

I liked the way the movie showed how different points of view change a story, how there may be more than one truth. Despite the fact that some of her crew lied, they still all saw different aspects of how it happened. It’s not a court-room drama but it has elements of it and is quite suspenseful.

One of the main topics however is women in the military. When Sterling hears that the medal of honour is destined for a woman we see that he has a problem. The idea is so new and strange to him that he has a hard time to absorb it at first. On the other hand, because the medal is destined for a woman, his superiors hope this is an opportunity to get as much positive media coverage as possible and would give it to her whether she deserved it or not.

The actors are good but that is to a large extent due to the characters. They are all interesting, very well-developed characters. What I liked a lot is the way the movie is structured. The changing between action- and dialogue sequences and more introspective moments. It’s a very balanced movie. The message is another story. It’s not an anti-war film. It is about people who love being in the military, who find the life as a soldier or pilot the most fascinating there is. People who put duty and honor before their family but still struggle to find a balance.

I think it’s very well done, entertaining and certainly a must for all the Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan and Matt Damon fans and those who appreciate the solid work of Edward Zwick.

Here are some of my reviews of other movies by Edward Zwick

Glory

Last Samurai

Defiance

The African Queen (1951)

The African Queen is one of those classics that many people like. Surprisingly I’ve never even seen it on TV although Hollywood classics are regularly shown on Sunday afternoons. I didn’t expect anything because other than that it’s set in Africa during WWI I knew nothing about it. After having seen it, I know that it is rather a screwball comedy than a war movie as such. Nevertheless I enjoyed watching it. It is entertaining and the actors are excellent. Being a bit of a Humphrey Bogart fan I had to watch it sooner or later.

September 1914, German Eastern Africa. Missionary Reverend Samuel Sayer and his prudish sister Rose (Katharine Hepburn) live on a farm isolated from any other colonists. They are regularly visited by Charlie Allnut who owns a crummy boat, the “African Queen” and travels up and down the river, bringing the mail and other things. He is boorish and has very obviously an alcohol problem.

When the war in Europe breaks out, the colonies are drawn into it as well. German troops burn down the mission and the Reverend dies soon afterwards. Allnut passes by on his boat and helps Rose to bury her brother and takes her with him on the African Queen. They face a very long, difficult and dangerous journey down the river and on top of that Rose is determined to help the war effort. She suggests, Allnut should construct a torpedo and that they should then attempt to sink a German warship, the Luisa.

As is to be expected their trip down the river is more than adventurous. Torrential rains, rapids, mosquitoes and German posts make the journey very daunting. What is worse for Allnut is the fact that Rose supervises him and throws away his brandy. She wants him to behave and at first they bicker and quarrel constantly. After several days on the boat and many dangerous adventures they get closer and end up falling in love.

What an unlikely couple they make. What I liked is the fact that Rose is the inventive and courageous one. Although she doesn’t exactly look like an adventurer, in her long skirts, hat and with her prissy little manners, she is quite gutsy after all. Something else that makes this movie memorable is the fact that it reminds us that the Germans used to have a few colonies as well. One tends to forget that as they lost them all during WWI.

It’s an adventure story and a very amusing tale in which two very different people on a shabby little boat, fall in love and successfully fight a whole crew of a warship. It certainly is an early version of adventure romances like Romancing the Stone.

Since You Went Away (1944) A Tale of the American Homefront

This is a story of the Unconquerable Fortress: the American Home…1943

I started watching this movie a few months ago but the very patriotic tone put me off. That’s why it is all the more surprising that now, that I have watched all of it, I really enjoyed it. It is patriotic, it is very religious but still, I found Since You Went Away very watchable. It’s an ideal family and Christmas movie. Some sad things happen but they are not shown, just spoken about which makes it safe to watch it even with smaller children.  By the way, the movie poster is misleading. This is a black and white movie.

I was familiar with UK and French movies about the home front during WWII but can’t remember any US films. This was made during the war which, for me at least, justifies the patriotic tone.

Claudette Colbert plays the pampered housewife Mrs Hilton whose husband decides to join the war and leaves her and their daughters (Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple) on their own. It seems that this doesn’t only put them under an emotional strain but that their financial situation is very precarious too. The salary of an officer doesn’t cover all the expenses and Mrs Hilton doesn’t know how to make ends meet. The first thing she has to do and which breaks her heart is letting her maid, Fidelia, go. Fidelia has been part of the family and the children are very attached to her. After one of her children mentions that it would be patriotic to have an officer as lodger, they advertise and finally rent the master bedroom to an old retired grumpy Colonel.

It’s clear that this is a family in which all the members are very attached to each other. Even the family bulldog is part of it. But also, Tony (Joseph Cotten), a friend of Mr Hilton, is accepted like he was a family member and comes to stay with them before he will see action in Italy. The two girls are typical teenagers. The older one is in love with Tony. He is flattered by the young girls infatuation and at the same time he declares his eternal love to the mother. But all this is done in a nice way. It’s obvious they will not have an affair.

After Tony has left, Jane, the older daughter meets the grandson of Colonel Smollet and falls in love with him. They even think of getting married but he also leaves for Italy.

The very contrast of the decent and efficient Mrs Hilton is the somewhat loose Emily Hawkins who knows how to exploit the war effort by running a cabaret.

Despite all the lovey dovey moments some bad things happen in this movie and it gets really dramatic when they are informed that Mr Hilton is missing in action.

I think that one of the aims of the movie was to show people how to grieve and keep up the morale at the same time. It was obvious that it was very likely to lose loved ones or that they would return badly injured or as invalids. Post-traumatic stress is as much a theme as how to deal with losing a husband on the battle field.

I thought this gives an excellent idea of how hard life on the home front was and that many a housewife had to toughen up considerably to make it through those difficult times. Emotionally and economically as well. It also shows the various opportunities the women had. Becoming nurses, collecting stuff for the soldiers or even training as welders.

I found it interesting and moving at the same time and, as I said already, it would make an excellent Christmas movie choice not unlike It’s a Wonderful Life. There are a lot of cozy fireplace scenes, snow and Christmas parties.

I couldn’t find a trailer but the opening scenes introduce the score and the filming very well. A lot of the emotions and themes are shown through images of objects and photos. That’s quite a subtle way to include the past and the history of the family without relying on flashbacks.

I included the movie on my Children in War Movies List after Crooked Mick pointed out that it belonged there.

Casablanca (1942)

Cinema doesn’t get much better than this.  Casablanca is one of the truly outstanding movies, a movie to watch and re-watch.

It is not, in the strict sense of the term, a war movie, that’s obvious, it’s a war-time movie or, if you like, a war romance.

It is one of the movies I have seen the most. At least four times. One of the viewings was a mixed bag as it was the Technicolor version. Casablanca is the prototypical black and white movie. The Technicolor version was really outrageous and sacrilegious. So watch out, if you have never seen it, the original Casablanca must be b/w.

Casablanca tells a tragic love story but more than that it’s incredibly atmospherical, it has some of the most famous movie lines, a haunting tune and two great actors, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman at their best.

Rick and Ilsa met years ago in Paris, at the beginning of WWII. We see their love story in flashbacks. When Rick decides to leave Paris with Ilsa, she simply doesn’t show up at the train station.

Years later they meet again in unoccupied Morocco. Rick is the hardened and cynical owner of one of the most popular bars in Casablanca. All sorts of people visit or hide in his establishment. Pretty much like all sort of people have come to Morocco for various reasons, most of them however hoping to get a visa for the US. There are also some nasty German characters swarming the premises.

When Ilsa and her husband appear in Rick’s bar, this is a shock for everyone. What happened in Paris, why did she not turn up and what does she want now? Ilsa and her husband try to get to America.
Will Rick help her or not? Will she leave her husband?

It is hard to imagine that anyone hasn’t seen this movie but, just in case, I’m not going to tell anything more.

Rick’s character is one of my favorite movie characters. I like the dialogue in Casablanca a lot. Rick is very cynical but has a point. He also illustrates that while women tend to get depressed, men tend to start drinking when life is too rough. He is one of those great monosyllabic movie characters with a “Don’t-you-dare-to come-too-close” attitude. I think it is precisely Rick’s character and Bogart’s great acting that prevent this movie of an unhappy love triangle to become mushy.

A movie like this would be unthinkable nowadays for many reasons. One can be summed up by the term “esthetic of smoking”. Not that I smoke but smoke rings look good in black and white movies, they add some mystery, just like fog.