American Sniper | C+
So, here's the dilemma: American Sniper is the best film Clint Eastwood has made in some time. It is an urgent and artfully understated portrait of a man who exacts terrible violence in the name of duty. Unfortunately, the real-life soldier this film is based upon is a far more complicated man than Eastwood or screenwriter Jason Hall let on.
Based on Chris Kyle's self-aggrandizing and highly successful memoir of the same name, American Sniper covers key moments in Kyle's life but focuses mainly on his four tours of duty in Iraq, where he is confirmed to have killed 160 insurgents.
Eastwood, who seems to have both a disgust and fascination with violence and the men who act it out, has always demonstrated that he understands the human consequences of brutality. He stages his action sequences with a nervous, uncomfortable energy, building tension with the patience of a spider. His firefights, like a rooftop confrontation during a sandstorm, are executed with impeccable craft and precision. The best scene involves Kyle calling home to his wife while she's shopping. A gun battle breaks out and the phone is dropped, allowing her to hear the violence but not know whether her husband is dead or alive. It's a brilliant bit of juxtaposition, contrasting the awfulness of war and its complete absence from everyday American life. Watching Kyle's actions in scenes like these, it's almost impossible not to admire his heroism.
But where Eastwood's film does profound disservice to its subject matter is in its artificial embrace of the myth of the American hero. Here, Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) is a swell guy with a deep sense of patriotism and a profound gift with the rifle. He's courageous and easygoing, a humble man who sees the world in black and white. He joins the military in response to terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens and courts his wife-to-be (a wasted Sienna Miller) like a gentleman. And while some of this may be true, American Sniper conveniently edits out anything that might detract from Kyle's status as a "Legend" (the nickname he earned as a Navy SEAL), a moniker tailor-made for Red State America.
In contrast, the real Kyle described the killing of Iraqi men, women, and children as "fun." He claimed, without hesitation, that every person he shot was a "bad guy" and a "savage." He boasted of looting apartments in Fallujah, and after returning from the war, gleefully told stories of being sanctioned to shoot looters during Hurricane Katrina — though no one has been able to substantiate those claims. At the time of his tragic death (he was gunned down in 2013 by a veteran who suffered from PTSD), he was embroiled in a nasty defamation lawsuit with Jesse Ventura, which by all accounts was completely justified.
But in American Sniper, there is simply no room for that kind of nuance or ambiguity. The movie never considers the idea that Kyle may have been a heroic soldier but less than a good guy — or, perhaps, a flawed individual in an impossible situation, one who used bravado and bigotry to rationalize his killings.
American Sniper seems incapable of understanding that you can be patriotic to your country and still criticize its actions. Or that Iraqis have lives and emotions that extend beyond the battlefield. (Here, they are mostly depicted as vicious enemies or cowering victims) And, needless to say, the tortured politics of Bush’s war in Iraq are completely AWOL.
Eastwood does flirt with the psychological and spiritual toll Kyle's tours of duty take on him but not with any consistency or real impact. Kyle's dark moods come and go but eventually feel like dramatic filler, episodic pauses between the big action scenes. There's never any sense that his experiences have exacted any kind of long-term cost. His wife Taya complains that the war has changed him. Yeah, he’s stoic and disconnected and jonesing to get back to the action, but by the film’s end he seems just hunky-dory. So, what's the movie about? If the answer is the sacrifices men make for their country in times of war, well, you could easily find 20 better, more meaningful films.
If American Sniper has a point to make, it's that Cooper is a hell of an actor. Not only has he convincingly transformed his look and his accent, he valiantly dispels all the trappings of heroism. Instead, Cooper embraces the idea that Kyle is a man doing a very hard job with the limited but profound tools he has. Nothing in his performance seems tied to the "legend" of Kyle. Instead, you get the sense that Cooper was more than willing to dig even deeper, had Hall's script provided the opportunity and Eastwood only asked.
American Sniper is rated R and has a running time of 134 minutes.