This weekend I saw two war films that were based on two soldiers’ lives. Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut in “Unbroken” and Clint Eastwood’s mispercevied “American Sniper” are analogous in that both push forward the belief systems of their soldier protagonists. For Louie Zamperini it is “forgive thy enemy”; for Chris Kyle it is “stand up and protect your tribe”. The temperament and the politics of the moviegoer may prejudice either film,but
this need not be the case. The horror of war and the poor help given as veteran soldiers re-enter civilian life is paramount to understanding either film. Neither man is legend or hero,in my eyes,only humanly flawed and now both dead to suffering and to sin.
Both Louie and Chris were church raised and often pew disciplined. Young Louie heard sermons heralding “love thy enemy”; Chris heard “protect our own”. Chris Kyle also hears his dad spout “you know your purpose” … ” Protect your brother”. Both father and son believe in ” the gift of aggression”, wolf -dog over sheep. While growing up, Louie hears the bromides of the time from Pete,his older brother.” Take it to make it.”
Jolie’s “Unbroken” begins with a ten minute spectacular opening. Gunners rotating and swirling amongst the clouds. Mixed shots of panoramic views give way to close- ups of eyes held in the gun sight. Puffs of ash stay suspended. The cinematography is splendid,gauzy and then clear. The film’s sound pales in comparison –often weak, raspy and muffled.
I had read the Laura Hillenbrand accounting of Louis Zamperini ‘s World War II survival,resilience and redemption, so there were not any surprises. Hillenbrand dedicated her book to the wounded and the lost,and Jolie holds that spirit in her film. The war experiences of 45 days on a life raft with insufficient rations and water, the sharks, and the internment in a POW camp run by a sadist are added to the sky skirmishes and South Pacific Japanese attacks. Zamperini’s marriages,alcoholism and Billy Graham’s influence are not covered in the film “Unbroken”. His early years of dealing with prejudice and his Olympic running are. I found the back and forth chronology of the storyline to be frustrating. As soon as I was emotionally hooked, the screen would switch to a flashback. This seemed like teasing, and I think the film suffers for this. The four or five “break always” disrupted the emotional connection over and over again. The actors were still compelling and well -directed, and “the bird” especially brought the detestable Watanabe to life.
Eastwood’s movie opens with a huge tank and flashbacks to SEAL boot camp. We see lots of testosterone “feeling dangerous” vibes: darts thrown on targets painted on backs,for example. Bradley Cooper deserves his Oscar nomination. The film doesn’t. Cooper’s musculature is astounding.His neck is thick; his extra thirty pounds of sinew packs a screen frame. His Texas slur and intense eyes bring a true believer to life. We know Chris Kyle has envisioned how his first kill will go down. Later, a comrade compliments Kyle with “the marines feel invincible with you up there”. Really? One sniper,even one who can get a head shot at 2100 yards out,would not be able to hold to this legend. It is war that “puts lightening in your bones”. And lightening can blow circuits.
Kyle is a keenly observant soldier,but an unreflective man. He sees a rawly red elbow and deduces an enemy sniper. Kyle is good at picking up clues. He volunteers for four tours of duty, until his wife whines:”You can only circle the flames for so long,” and “when you are here ,you are not here.”Eastwood seems to rev -up the motors of war with “an eye for a eye” revenge theme Clint-style. A frame of the twin towers falling seems faultily to suggest that the Iraq War was about this. When a lackluster counselor asks the veteran Chris if there is anything he feels he would do differently, Chris responds with “I am only haunted by the soldiers that I did not save.” Staring a black TV screens, throwing an upper cut at the family dog,or bargeing into a nursery demanding that his baby daughter be immediately comforted by the one attending nurse, all show that Kyle doesn’t know when to quit warring. His wife’s “I need you to be human again” says a lot about what we expect of our soldiers.
There are some powerful scenes of sandstorm battles and an anti- war letter read at a graveside military funeral. There are too many flags, bugles and stamped SEAL crests on casket lids. A younger director would not have underscored patriotism like a sheriff pinning on his badge “High Noon” style. The use of a doll to replace a live child was also a mistake. In the first sequence of frames, the film did not suffer for this,but the second set of sightings was silly. Cooper did his best to shake those plastic curved fingers and the make-up crew did enhance, yet lifeless is lifeless, Mr. Director.