Sunday, February 22, 2015

American Sniper and Monument's Men: Then and Now

George Clooney's Monuments Men, the story of Allied efforts to preserve centuries of great art from falling into Nazi hands during The Second World War, generally flopped with audiences last year. With all the heightened rhetoric surrounding American Sniper, Monuments Men takes on something of a new meaning.

Many wrote off Monuments Men as creaky and old fashioned. The trailer, with Bill Murray and John Goodman in the cast, promised a sort of Ghostbusters type WWII adventure. Instead, the tame PG rated script hinged on a plot to . . . save art . . not necessarily a recipe for box office gold.

While I wish Clooney had given his cast more to do, it never gets boring.  When Clooney recruits Matt Damon to join his mission they seem really relaxed, it felt more like Ocean's 11 in the ETO- not necessarily a bad approach for a throwback war movie.

I'm sure Clooney grew up watching movies like The Great Escape and The Train featuring a diverse group of people who share ideals and come together to stop the Nazis. Monument's Men never loses sight of what was at stake in the war: the survival of democracy and free thought. 

Meanwhile, American Sniper depicts cold blooded soldiers fighting for a vague cause under a problematic pretext.

Chris Kyle, a legendary solider known for tallying the most kills in Iraq, does his job with a remarkable efficiency. He referred to the Iraqis as savages.  Bradley Cooper's performance brings honesty and depth.  Sienna Miller gives a good performance as his wife, but she's often reduced to acting in front of a phone.

For all its merits as a motion picture, American Sniper takes great pains to avoid the politics of the war in Iraq.  Vague references are made to fighting the terrorists in the Middle East in order to prevent them from hitting America again.  The silence over the politics says more about our time than anything else.

After viewing American Sniper, a quote from Herman Wouk's WWII novel War and Remembrance floated through my head, "Either war is finished, or we are."  

As the 20th Century came to a close and the threat of nuclear war receded, the world breathed a sigh of relief.  Then 9/11 happened. Suddenly the future history of the 21st century loomed as one of never ending conflict.  The post 9/11 political situation echoed what Yeats wrote in "The Second Coming", "the best lack all conviction/while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Thus we get the world of American Sniper.

The films I most admired, Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory, even Apocalypse Now ridiculed the very idea of war.  American Sniper suggests a future where war is the norm. And that is tragic. 

At least Monuments Men reminded us some some things are worth fighting for.  American Sniper depicts never ending imperialistic wars, conflicts in which the few bear the burden, while political opposition to them amounts to disloyalty, if not treason in the eyes of some. Eastwood's potent war film asks us to consider to such a world and points the finger directly at you.

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