American Sniper: Chris Kyle, Clint Eastwood, American Manhood

American SniperAmerican Sniper, an account of the life and times of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the most lethal sniper in American history, bears the classic marks of a Clint Eastwood film. Eastwood’s career, intentionally or unintentionally, has always been deeply entangled with ideas of masculinity – ideas which cumulatively seem to suggest an overarching vision of what a man is meant to be. And if American Sniper is about anything, it is about what a man can/should/should not be.

Chris Kyle was, by most accounts, the most lethal sniper in American history. With 160 confirmed kills across four tours of Iraq as a Navy Seal, Kyle was unsurprisingly given the moniker of “Legend” by the soldiers with whom he served. Perhaps more impressively, when Kyle returned home from war to his family, he dedicated himself to working with veterans suffering from war related disabilities. In American Sniper, Eastwood focuses primarily on Kyle’s experiences in Iraq, and the time in between tours as he finds himself attempting to reintegrate into domestic life. For the most part, Eastwood does this successfully, albeit with that same clinician’s gaze that has made his last few films less emotionally accessible than one might have hoped.

The scenes of combat in Iraq are presented with a gritty realism that only falters at a few moments where CGI should have been kept off the table. Eastwood’s strategy of dropping the viewer straight into the action without full context provides a discombobulating effect that works well, although his decision to focus on a kind of “arch-nemesis” subplot based around an opposing Iraqi sniper feels forced at times. And this is the frustration that I had with much of American Sniper. Eastwood does a superb job of presenting us with a tense vision of war – one that captures it’s emotionally traumatic effects – while frequently undermining this vision by resorting to what feel like rather generic narrative devices. Within the scenes set between tours, there is a similar unevenness. Kyle’s emotional trauma is rendered beautifully, but there is something awkward in the dialogue between him and his wife that reduces its intensity.

Bradley Cooper delivers an exceptional performance in the role of Chris Kyle. His understated approach to the character lacks sensationalism or melodramatic affectation, and Cooper manages to deliver meaning and emotive impact with great authenticity. This is true in the scenes of combat, of course, but Cooper’s real abilities shine through in the scenes between tours, as the most mundane of human interactions drive Kyle into a state of barely contained panic. Indeed, the film’s greatest triumph is in the way Cooper is able to physically articulate the emotional challenges of returning home from war.

Sienna Miller does a decent job in the role of Kyle’s wife, Taya, but the film’s weakest scenes involve her lamentations on the emotional and/or physical absence of her husband. This is less to do with Miller’s abilities than it is to do with Clint Eastwood and writer, Jason Hall. Both seem to want to engage with and explore Taya’s personal struggles with her husband, but neither seems entirely able to find an authenticity to their approach. This is nit-picking perhaps, but it’s hard not to think that the movie would have carried more weight with a more fully developed female character.

American SniperThere has been some criticism of Eastwood’s unwillingness to directly engage with the ethics of the Iraq War within American Sniper. This hardly seems surprising. In almost all of Eastwood’s works focused on historical representation, he heavily favours an exploration of individual characters within historical contexts over the exploration of the contexts themselves (BirdWhite Hunter Black Heart, Flags of Our FathersLetters From Iwo JimaJ. Edgar). I’d suggest that the predominantly apolitical nature of the film makes for a far more interesting and dynamic experience.

While Kyle is presented as clearly being an advocate for the war and the military as a whole, Eastwood refuses to present a position on the issue. There is no doubt that Eastwood admires the man for his integrity and loyalty to his country, but he’s also willing to subtly imply that there are gaps and prejudices in the man’s line of sight. Perhaps the most striking scene is one in which Kyle suggests that the death of a fellow soldier was the result of his having lost faith in the cause. For Kyle, the world is to be viewed much as it is when looking down the sight of a sniper rifle – with intense focus and without complication. This is a moment of jarring discord for the viewer, revealing a level of ideological contortion that was not made apparent up to this point. More than this, Eastwood also presents Kyle’s comfort with violence – with the killing of 160 people – with a disturbing and frank clarity that neither condones nor celebrates this element of his character. When asked by a therapist if he is troubled by these killings (which include women and children) he says that he is not… he is only troubled by the memories of those he was unable to save. This scene certainly lends more weight to the character, but also leads me to a final side note…

In the film’s final scenes there is an unmistakable visual reference to Dirty Harry. This reference is juxtaposed with a benign domestic situation that lends the whole scenario an unwholesome air. It is difficult to elucidate my point here without revealing anything of the narrative, suffice to say that the scene appears to be loaded in one of two ways. Eastwood could be utilising the intense iconography of his notoriously brutal alter ego to suggest something about the inherent nature of violence in human nature. But it is far more likely that Eastwood is suggesting that men like Chris Kyle and Harry Callahan are the necessarily violent protectors of the people, forced to teeter on the very edges of commonly accepted morality to uphold the greater good. Or as Kyle’s father put it an early scene, they are the “sheepdogs” that must protect the “sheep” from their oppressors, even if it means crossing the line. Is this what Eastwood thinks it means to be a man? This is where Pauline Kael might have used the “F” word. I wouldn’t go that far, but I was left with a little knot in my stomach.

Don’t get me wrong – American Sniper is a good film. But it could have been a great one…

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

19 thoughts on “American Sniper: Chris Kyle, Clint Eastwood, American Manhood

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  7. As usual James, I waited to read your analysis until after I had seen the movie, and I think you have given an honest evaluation of the plusses and minuses. Well done.

    One point that occurs to me regarding the use of Kyle’s counterpart Mustafa as the super-nemesis. Unlike in Million Dollar Baby, where I thought the super-evil Billie was the only serious miscalculation in an otherwise excellent movie, here I think there is a reason to present Mustafa as Eastwood and Hall do. The movie clearly suggests that Kyle, and men in his sheepdog position, need to justify what are often terrible actions. Each man does that differently, some more successfully than others. That’s what Mustafa becomes — Kyle’s personal justification for what he is doing. Whether Mustafa is real, or even realistic, it doesn’t really matter. Chris Kyle needs him there, and essentially, once Mustafa is removed, Kyle has no further way to move forward. That’s how I interpret this, though I do wish the movie had delved into that symbiosis a little more fully.

    As it stands, the “coming home” part after Mustafa is no longer a threat, is obviously rushed and feels weak to me. But that’s one of the dramatic prices that you pay when you attempt to tell a true story.

    Thanks as always for a very insightful piece.

  8. I really do like Clint Eastwood’s direction. I find his touch is light, or spare, which might be the same as saying the movies can sometimes be emotionally inaccessible. I don’t find them that way, but I do enjoy having to work at connecting with all the characters. If that makes sense. 🙂

    Anyway, looking forward to this one. Thanks for the insightful review.

    Also, did I miss the last installment of the best Australian films?

  9. A friend compared the film’s moral vision to the Hurt Locker. I love Eastwood, but that’s all that was needed to turn me away from the film. I cannot stand any more films on how traumatic war has been on good American soldiers, with no criticism of what on earth they were doing there in the first place…I know Eastwood is a conservative, but this did not get in the way of Iwo Jima for example, a superb film, where his a-political (let’s pretend to call it that) vision of the world, served the film’s universalism and humanism.

  10. Thank you for such a thoughtful analysis and for, as usual, saying it all so well.

    PERSONAL QUERY: A favorite teacher of mine was a Prof. Curnow at the University of Montana, U.S.A. Possible relation?

  11. Excellent review, James–your writing is superb, as always, and the points you make are truly insightful. I’m intrigued by the prospect of a Dirty Harry (one of my favorite crime dramas) reference; I wonder what it is…and if it’s extraneous. Personally, I’ve found Eastwood’s directorial career to be a bit of a mish-mash, with both cinematic successes and failures. This film looks mature, however, and from your review, would be worth a look.

    • Thanks, Simon!

      The reference is quite overt… Especially given the context of the scene (don’t want to give anything away). I’d be interested to hear your thoughts when you see the film.

      I’m a big Eastwood fan but i’d agree there are as many hits and misses. He’s had the good sense to work cheap throughout his career – which means he can get away with it. You don’t see too many directors with 35 films under their belt any more…

  12. A great appraisal of a film that I actually eagerly anticipate (for a change…) James. As you are something of an expert on Eastwood’s work, I am pleased that you chose to review this one yourself. One thing though. That other sniper, the ‘arch nemesis’. He isn’t played by Ed Harris by any chance?
    Best wishes from England. Pete.

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