American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s latest examination of male violence and its repercussions, is a curious beast. It’s neither as jingoistic as its critics claim (some of whom, embarrassingly, didn’t bother to see the film before reviewing it) nor as nuanced as its defenders submit (see Mark Hughes for a well-done and serious consideration of its merits).
Eastwood, a by-now iconic director with a slate of legitimate classics on his resume, presents something less than either of those. There’s just a big nothing at its center. It’s a middling character study, buoyed by a solid and often sensitive performance from Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper, that almost pathologically leaves insights unexplored, traffics in racist tropes that it can’t redeem or subvert, and, at more than two hours, manages to feel both overlong and incomplete. It also has two of the dumbest scenes of 2014, which I suspect more people will remember in 10 years than anything else that happens in the film.
If you haven’t been following the controversies swirling around it, the film tells the story of Chris Kyle, officially the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. It’s based on his book of the same title, and follows Kyle, in an occasionally non-linear fashion, from his childhood lessons on honor and sacrifice, through young love and marriage, and finally to Iraq, where he served four tours and killed a lot of people. The real Chris Kyle played pretty fast and loose with the details of his own self-mythology, even getting sued for libel by fellow Navy SEAL (and action figure I once had) Jesse Ventura, and bragging, almost certainly falsely, about serving as a sniper in the chaos of post-Katrina New Orleans. (Side note: was that supposed to reflect well on him?) He became something of a talk-show mainstay among the American right wing, a true-blooded patriot and righteous killing machine for God and country.
The film depicts him somewhat differently. We are thrown right into the fray, depicting Kyle’s first kills. These are, terribly, a young boy armed with a grenade launcher, and then his mother, trying to finish the job. It’s a woozy and uncomfortable scene, and give credit where it’s due: from the very first moments of the film, Eastwood highlights the awful moral ambiguity and hideousness of the situation, and Cooper subtly conveys its immediate, jarring effect. (This first scene is in conversation with one of the film’s last, where the possibility of having to do this again shatters Kyle’s war-enthusiasm for good.) The film can certainly be faulted for a lot of things – and should be, as it’s not very good – but completely gung-ho celebrations of war aren’t among them, from the first scene on.
We flash back to his childhood, hunting in Texas with his dad. Young Kyle is apparently just a natural born killer – a fact the film lazily doesn’t bother to explain. (Why is he so good at shooting guns? Who knows, some people just are.) He also learns the ways of the world according to his pop, which involve people being divided into sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs, some under attack, some attacking, and the proud few to protect the weak. If there was a bit of dialogue more howlingly bad (sorry) in 2014, I haven’t heard it. Along with the later use of a plastic baby in a key scene (already making the internet rounds thanks to its sheer ludicrousness), the scene’s an instant camp classic.
After some training montages that play like a Muzak version of Full Metal Jacket, Kyle’s off to war; in fact, he’s called up not only on his wedding day, but while dancing with his new bride Taya (Sienna Miller), surrounded almost exclusively by other SEALs who will accompany him, and their wives, who will be left behind. This too-cute heavy-handedness is more the rule than the exception here.
The rest of the film alternates between gritty, jarringly edited combat scenes (some quite tense) and Kyle’s visits back home between tours, during which he’s increasingly ill at ease, hearing guns firing from blank TV screens, tensing up at the sound of tools in a car repair shop, bewildered that anyone can go shopping at the mall when people are killing and dying right around the corner (as far as he’s concerned). This is the film’s best aspect, as we see the mounting toll of what he’s done and seen flicker across his face in calm situations, though he’s quick to deny anything’s wrong. The combination of stoicism, compromised integrity, and growing doubt, born of a particularly American mode of masculine violence and honor-bound retribution, is classic Eastwood. American Sniper would’ve been better if it examined that theme in more than snapshots.
As it is, the film telegraphs everything from a mile away, and those calm scenes that are its strength end up feeling like pauses between muddily shot tours of duty (which even come with their own title cards, so we know important, exciting things will now happen).
Other missed chances: there is an Iraqi sniper, Mustafa, who is Kyle’s equal on the other side and, with a wife and child, perhaps his doppelganger. The two square off at regular intervals, and the script keeps implying other parallels will be revealed between them, these opposed killers who find themselves inextricably linked. That would be a good thing to learn about, right? But no, we do not learn about that. And at a pivotal moment, Taya directly addresses what should be the central question – why does he keep choosing to leave his family, young children, safety, and comfort for this fraternal brotherhood of violence? He mutters, without much confidence, “To protect my country,” and she yells, “That’s fucking bullshit!” She’s clearly right – that’s not enough to constitute a real answer under the circumstances. Unfortunately, like Kyle, the film has no interest in figuring out what that answer might be.
Even more unfortunately, the film’s laser focus on Kyle excludes deeper characterization of every other character. But none more so than the Iraqis. Even Mustafa, a prominent figure in the narrative, is rendered a cypher; the fighters and the mobs themselves are an indistinguishable mass, and those who aren’t are seen only through the telescopic lens on a rifle. This could be interpreted as a critique, but I think that’s giving more credit than is due. There’s no attention paid to who they are, where their local allegiances lie, how they relate to each other, or anything else about them – they are American soldier-killers, full stop. Not every movie needs to be The Battle of Algiers, and this was after all adapted from a particular memoir with a particular perspective, but it would be nice to pair Kyle’s constant, uncritical use of the word “savages” with at least a brief glimpse of the lives of those he kills and who want to kill him. For all intents and purposes, American Sniper could be a zombie film shot in the desert.
All that said, it’s not as bad as it could’ve been, but it’s far from good. Cooper deserves credit for allowing Kyle’s constantly guarded emotions to creep through the façade believably, but there’s little else to recommend American Sniper. I’m of the opinion that good art can be made about anyone or anything, including about someone like Kyle, a fabulist whose claim to fame is effectively killing armed civilians as part of an occupying force in a war that never should’ve happened. So you know, maybe I’m not the target audience. But politics aside, Eastwood’s latest is mostly a chore, a film about war without much to say beyond, “War can be hard on a guy.”
On the other hand, maybe that’s a message that resonates: American Sniper is also officially now the top-grossing January release of all time. Make of that what you will.