American 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.
There 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 (Bird, White Hunter Black Heart, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, J. 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…