Clint Eastwood shows no signs of slowing down, even at the ripe old age of 84, and the critical discussion that has followed the release of his latest film indicates that the veteran actor and notoriously-speedy filmmaker has never been more divisive; American Sniper has certainly touched a raw nerve, even if it remains to be seen whether there is any lasting impact after the initial fuss has died down. The film – which details sharpshooter Chris Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq as a Navy S.E.A.L. and the affect it has on his wellbeing and family back home in Texas – has been met with accusations from the left that it glorifies war and praise from the right for its celebration of ‘patriotism’, generally-speaking, but it is still questionable whether it has been interpreted correctly by either side.
This is, at times, a thrilling war movie, albeit one that struggles to support the weight of its own title, buckling under the pressure that often results when a filmmaker attempts to make A Statement. Though Eastwood’s film features the ‘A’ word in the title, the emphasis is mainly on ‘American’ as in ‘an individual American’, although there are ruminations on the nature of war and weaponry as a national identity (conveniently ignoring the fact that this is something a huge number of Americans are uncomfortable with), and these allow the movie to be viewed as a work purporting to examine Kyle’s beloved country too.
It’s interesting to sum up the plot by paying particular attention to the bookends of the film: the prologue shows the young Kyle (Cole Konis) being shown how to hunt and kill by his father Wayne (Ben Reed). Kyle Sr forcefully suggests that son Chris must become one of life’s protectors, initially by looking out for younger brother Jeff (played by Luke Sunshine and, later, Keir O’Donnell), a sibling dynamic that eventually transfers from playground to battlefield. This is perhaps an overly simplistic way of explaining why someone chooses a path in life that leads them to kill a (likely but unconfirmed) total of 255 people – one man’s dedicated patriot is another man’s extremist – but it’s the main reason suggested by the combined voices behind this work: Eastwood, screenwriter Jason Hall and Kyle himself.
What comes next has been described at length elsewhere, but in summary the adult Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a rodeo cowboy, enlists after seeing the US embassy bombings of 1998 on TV. With an unwavering belief in the policies of his government, Kyle feels an overwhelming sense of duty to serve and fight in order to protect his country (with little consideration given, in the film at least, as to from whom or what). He meets and marries Taya (an impressive Sienna Miller) and is sent to Iraq after the post-9/11 invasion, where he undertakes four tours of duty in eight years. It is common knowledge that Kyle was killed at a shooting range in Texas a few years after his release from the US Navy, and that leads us to the film’s epilogue. Here American Sniper’s structure and story gives credence to the paraphrased Biblical idiom ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ while highlighting – via Kyle hunting with his son and thereby passing the baton on to the next generation – that the culture surrounding guns in the US is endemic and therefore directly linked to the country’s foreign policy, either driving it and / or being driven by it. And yet Eastwood, perhaps not willing to appear soft in the eyes of the American right that he himself publicly supports, is back on message at the very end, incorporating footage of Kyle’s funeral cortege as it passes hundreds of flag-waving supporters and well-wishers. And so the movie ends with an indication that it has been a celebration of a man who probably killed 255 people – State-sanctioned and during wartime, yes, but 255 people – all along, which is clearly a fact that has appalled many viewers, myself included. Is Eastwood sitting on the fence, pandering to the left but ultimately reverting to the trusted right, or is he merely trying to show that there are several perspectives on this story, albeit in a clumsy fashion? Would a man who has built his career on a platform of macho, gun-wielding tough guys, both as actor and director, ever bite the hand that feeds him by damning the ever-rigid hard-on for weaponry that can be found among certain sectors of the US populace? Even at his age, at a point in life where he probably doesn’t give a hoot what anybody thinks, it seems like a surprising standpoint, and therefore American Sniper’s final shots are somewhat predictable, the director reverting at the end of the film to making the kind of statement that most people expect him to make.
The interesting thing, though, is that Eastwood attempts to at least appear balanced throughout. Context is everything here, and the director’s recent career in particular offers some clues as to how we can possibly interpret this film. American Sniper is the octogenarian’s latest attempt to explore ideas related to 20th Century myth-making, a streak that runs back as far the 1988 Charlie Parker biopic Bird but has gathered apace in recent years, with Flags Of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, Invictus, J. Edgar and Jersey Boys all being made within the last decade. The legend in question here was developed partly by Kyle himself (Hall has adapted the soldier’s autobiography American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History) and partly by senior officers during the second Iraq War, who quickly identified the benefits of allowing Kyle’s notoriety to grow unchecked in the hearts of his colleagues and the minds of the enemy. Like the men who appeared in the famous staged photograph of Flags Of Our Fathers, Chris Kyle is used as a propaganda tool, though such matters are less of a concern to him than the protection of his fellow soldiers as they attempt to negotiate their way through a country defined here by its residents, who are either hostile or scared. As with that earlier film, Eastwood’s sympathies ultimately lie with the individual, even if there is less of a sense of the individual being exploited in this new movie, and it’s interesting to note that both end on a tragic note. Flags Of Our Fathers is proof that a patriotic film can still question truth and the nature of heroism, but I don’t think Eastwood displays the same conviction here.
Comparison with Flags is also interesting because it was quickly followed by the (superior) sister piece Letters From Iwo Jima, which showed the battle for that island from the Japanese perspective. It’s entirely possible that Eastwood felt he could offer a balanced view of Kyle and the Iraq war within one film (even though he doesn’t), rather than across two, or that he could tone down any investigation of ‘the other side’ here, as it is something he had gone to great lengths to achieve in the recent past. That would go some way to explaining why the director took a different path than that identified by American Sniper’s earlier custodian, Steven Spielberg, who initially intended an equal focus on the story’s ‘nemesis’ figure Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), an Iraqi sniper. Disappointingly, Mustafa is steered back by Eastwood toward the panto villain model favoured by Hollywood; he’s reduced to being nothing more than another dark-skinned rooftop assailant like the ones Jason Bourne defeats with regularity, and that perhaps goes some way to explaining the film’s success at the US Box Office. This kind of one-sided jingoism is popular in the west, like it or not, and wars are easier to swallow if they are reduced to the simple level of one man versus another, or ‘goodie’ v ‘baddie’.
Is American Sniper a ‘patriotic’ film, in the modern sense of the word? Yes, it is, but then what exactly do you expect? It’s about a capital ‘P’ patriot, adapted from that man’s own memoirs, and therefore by its very nature Kyle’s own take on the country of his birth and the war he fights is key. You could argue that Chris Kyle’s politics are more important to understanding or decoding this film than yours, or mine, or even Eastwood’s, so surely it’s right that it ends with billowing flags and mourning crowds. The sniper’s view of the Second Iraq War is blindly, unequivocally, unquestioningly ‘patriotic’, and this dominant part of his personality, revolving around a failure to question the propaganda and scare-mongering of the mainstream news media and government in the US, is highly evident in Cooper’s portrayal.
The patriotism isn’t something that I find offensive, but I do have a problem with the fact that American Sniper is extremely lazy at times in the one-sided way it depicts this particular war. American fighters are introduced via the usual scenes of boot camp and barroom bonhomie, with the good-natured camaraderie flowing freely from soldier to soldier. By way of contrast their foes in Iraq are first seen threatening an innocent child and then cruelly executing an innocent father in the street. This time last year Lone Survivor was ridiculed for the exact same reliance on such war film clichés. When Kyle kills he is constantly shown to be saving the lives of his compatriots; there is an element of truth to that, of course, but Mustafa, on the other hand, is treated in an entirely different way. We are constantly reminded of his prowess as a sportsman, and his past as an Olympic athlete is insidiously linked to his killing of American soldiers, as if he is merely doing it for the sport and is inherently evil. Or maybe it’s because it’s just not safe to jog out there. Thanks very much, all involved, but no thanks.
The other main criticism of American Sniper is that it glorifies war. Well, yes it does, but then as this excellent article points out, most war films – even those that are described as being ‘anti-war’ – do the same. Some – like American Sniper – are adept at playing on the ‘war is hell’ theme and offer sobering amounts of realism, but as that article on The Atlantic website points out there is always an underlying message that ‘war isn’t great … but war makes you great’. This is just the latest in a long list of action movies that thrills its audience by allowing people to experience the adrenalin rush of combat from the comfort of their cinema seat, to join in the ride of becoming the world’s greatest sniper without the inconvenience of a bullet in your forehead at the end of it, and the latest in a long list that seeks to simplify war and the questions associated with killing another person for the purposes of entertainment.
The follow up discussion is, of course, whether Eastwood is breaking some kind of unwritten rule, and thus glorifying war too much, by including the film’s infamous slow-mo shooting scene, which is completely out-of-step with his attempts to portray Kyle’s war in an otherwise ‘realistic’ fashion. Why has Eastwood chosen such an incongruous shot at this juncture? It doesn’t fit in with the look or the feel of the rest of the film and harks back to the likes of 1993’s Sniper, or the countless video games and movies since that have adopted a lighter approach to their depictions of violence. Is it to highlight just how ridiculous the approaches of other filmmakers in Hollywood are to the idea of killing, to show that when you reduce it to bullet-time special effects and stylised slow-motion it reveals a throwaway triteness? And if that is the case, and I know I’m being extremely generous there, shouldn’t we be credited with enough intelligence to know this without Eastwood resorting to it in this film anyway? Only he knows, but Clint’s remaining as tight-lipped as you’d expect on the matter. I’d certainly like to hear a DVD director’s commentary, as he of all people will be aware of the fact that it’s the kind of device that puts bums on seats.
Despite these serious reservations I must admit that Eastwood has fashioned a solidly-dramatic war movie, and there is at least some mileage in trying to guess his intentions: on the one hand American Sniper finishes with a lot of flag waving, it is infuriatingly biased, and its blind acceptance of the notion of American soldier as hero is sadly as unquestioning as any of Kyle’s own views, yet on the other hand it puts the negative effects of war on a family’s wellbeing front and centre and is seemingly critical of gun culture. There are elements that will appeal to a broad number of people with very different worldviews from one another.
It’s also mildly questioning of propaganda and, oddly, the culture of celebrity that springs up under these unusual circumstances. I really don’t know what to make of it and my views on it have even changed as I’ve been writing this review. I certainly don’t hate it for being all the things that every other war film is, but I do feel somewhat guilty for enjoying the pulsating action set pieces, which makes me feel complicit when I don’t want to be. There are moments of balance but ultimately I don’t trust the way it glibly reinforces stereotypes or paints a picture of a conflict without friendly fire, Abu Ghraib, hospitals full of innocent victims and all the rest of the terrible shit that happened in that country. I understand the desire to make a film about an individual, and even the need to smooth a few rough edges for the purposes of Bradley Cooper’s future career, but that’s no excuse for a narrow-minded look at the conflict or the people that the individual in question comes up against.
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Jason Hall, Chris Kyle, Scott McEwan, Jim DeFelice
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Sammy Sheik
Running Time: 132 minutes