I walked out of American Sniper more than a bit puzzled. Clint Eastwood’s film, nominated for Best Picture, has been a lightning rod for scathing criticism on the one hand and loud support on the other, all adding up to a monumental opening weekend that reached almost $90 million in ticket sales. Where was the film that had aroused such passion? Where was the Chris Kyle heralded as an inspiring real life superhero for the young people by one camp, and denounced as a war-loving monster by the other? Where was the moving and disturbing picture that earned multiple Oscar nominations? To my surprise, American Sniper, when taken on its own merits apart from extreme liberal and conservative narratives, proves neither as offensive or inspiring as most have claimed, and in the end is a fairly solid, if unextraordinary, look at the Iraq War.
Before I continue, let me first say that I do not wish to attempt to ascertain the factual truth of the film’s portrayal of Chris Kyle. I have only been informed second-hand regarding his actual person, and do not want to intend any disrespect to his family or legacy, thus please interpret all the following critiques as critiques of the character of Chris Kyle as portrayed by Bradley Cooper. And let me say that Cooper’s portrayal is brilliant. Cooper fully immerses in the role, losing himself in a good old boy American persona. We buy this portrayal of Kyle as completely and utterly authentic, and regardless of what we may think of the character himself, Cooper’s subtle incorporation of speech, expression and physicality lends a genuineness and believability to Kyle that is hard to achieve. Cooper’s acting services a screenplay that has lofty ambitions, but only succeeds to realize those ambitions in fits and starts.
Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall ought to be commended first and foremost for attempting to wrestle with the traumatic effects that combat has on soldiers when they return to civilian life. The film alternates between Kyle’s home-life with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in the States and his four tours of duty in Iraq. Kyle grows more and more distant from his family as time goes on, neglecting his wife and his children, haunted by a desire to constantly do more, haunted by the evil he has seen and those he could not save through his own efforts.
American Sniper does a respectable job of showing this terrible cost (one particular scene in which Kyle sits in front of a blank television screen in the midst of his bustling home, hearing sounds of screaming and gunfire, is particularly impactful) but falls emotionally hollow because of the distasteful development of their romance. Their initial encounter is at a bar while Kyle is at SEAL training, Taya gets drunk and pukes, and Kyle very chivalrously holds back her hair so that it doesn’t get dirty, and it’s all uphill from there. Eh. Personally, even if this is factually true, their relationship rarely develops past the sexual banter of this encounter until after his deployments. With the foundation for their relationship more off-putting than endearing, it is harder to care as much when Taya finds that she is second in priority to Kyle’s true calling: the SEALs.
While Kyle is deployed, Eastwood stages some respectable combat sequences that touch on the moral difficulties and ambiguities war presents. Kyle has to deal with a sniper’s role, killing women and children at times, struggling with the implications of his choices with the hand on the trigger. American Sniper, however, never portrays an instance where Kyle’s actions could be held in doubt. These are difficult decisions, but Kyle seems to always make the right ones. Providing more scenes like the brief one towards the end of the film where Kyle nearly shoots a child aiming an RPG before the child drops the weapon and runs off, would have helped shed greater light on the moral dilemmas and traumatic situations faced by soldiers fighting in Iraq. A subplot in which Kyle continually faces off against an Iraqi sniper, known as “Mustafa”, shows brief glimpses of a fascinating alter-ego on the other side (particularly when one shot reveals the Iraqi’s young wife and child, a clear parallel to Kyle’s family at home) but instead it stays at a surface antagonist level, feeling a bit overly simplistic and out of place.
American Sniper is thus an uneven film. For every moment Eastwood and company nail (Kyle’s harrowing reunion with his younger brother as he leaves deployment, shaken and broken by a war Kyle finds a disconcerting energy in, is a moment of powerful cinema) something else leaves much to be desired (Kyle’s change from disturbed soldier and absentee dad to encourager of wounded vets and loving father is portrayed a bit too quickly). Combat sequences are competently done, but aside from one set-piece in a sandstorm, Eastwood offers little that hasn’t been covered already in films like Lone Survivor, The Hurt Locker or Black Hawk Down. Cooper’s performance is a revelation, but otherwise the acting is merely competent. Personally, I found American Sniper to be a commendable war-picture, if undeserving of its Best Picture nomination.
As far as the controversy goes, both sides shoot right past the balanced perspective of American Sniper. Those blasting the film for its simplistic depiction of good and evil in war brush over the film’s emphasis on the negative character changes that Kyle undergoes and the extent to which his wife and children pay the price, as well as a particularly powerful moment where an anti-war letter is read at the funeral of one of Kyle’s fallen comrades, written by the dead soldier himself. Eastwood does paint Al-Qaeda with a broad black brush, but this is understandable when one remembers that the story is told from Kyle’s perspective. At the same time, those trumpeting the subject of American Sniper as a hero to be emulated by our children should re-examine the violent, simplistic, and often neglectful and dismissive man portrayed in the film. American Sniper does find much to admire in Kyle (his drive, his skill, his commitment to preserve American lives) but Eastwood also shines light on how Kyle’s often simplistic moral compass led him to dismiss the legitimate concerns of others. The reaction to American Sniper is yet another unfortunate example of individuals reading their preconceived notions into a story, instead of thoughtfully considering the story on its own terms.