One of the things I've long admired about Clint Eastwood's work as a director is that he's constantly attempted to subvert and complicate his own image. In the public eye, he's a tough, conservative, all-American purveyor of macho cinema, but the actual work is rarely that simple. He broke up a string of action movies with the affectingly moody Charlie Parker biopic Bird. He challenged his rough, rugged image by directing and starring in the tender, delicate The Bridges of Madison County. He delivered an impressively nuanced and broad-minded look at the complexities of World War II with his simultaneously-shot Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. He built on and subsequently undercut his Dirty Harry image with Gran Torino, an occasionally heavy-handed movie which nonetheless deserves credit for its strong statement on the futility of vigilante justice. Just a few months ago, he took a complete left turn by helming a lightweight jukebox musical (the pleasant but middling Jersey Boys). American Sniper, though, is something different. It's a movie which fits squarely within Eastwood's oversimplified public image, and his most morally troubling work since Sudden Impact.
The film is based on a memoir by Chris Kyle, the man officially named as the deadliest sniper in U.S. history. As played by Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), Kyle is a relatively simple man – a Texas-born good ol' boy raised by a family that valued God, guns and American pride (not necessarily in that order). Early on, we see Kyle watching footage of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings with clinched fists and furious eyes: he knows the bastards that did this need to be stopped. He joins the Navy and trains to become a SEAL, which is mostly depicted via a lengthy training montage. At one point, we see Kyle struggling to hit his marks in target practice. Then, we cut to a scene of Kyle watching footage of the World Trade Center towers falling. Cut back to target practice, where we find him shooting with more anger and accuracy. As far as Chris is concerned, the war he's eventually asked to participate in is a simple one: there are a bunch of violent savages over there, and it's America's job to go over there and kill them before they kill us.
Based on what I've read, this seems like a fairly accurate portrait of Kyle's mindset, but the problem is that the film itself seems to share the same mentality. It oversimplifies an incredibly complex war for the sake of permitting American Sniper to double as a propaganda film; the American equivalent of that fictional German sniper biopic featured at the end of Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. In this film's version of the Iraq War, every person who looks like they might be a terrorist is a terrorist, no innocent civilians are killed and American lives are the only lives that matter.
To be fair, American Sniper isn't particularly concerned with making a point about the war. Its primary goal is to underline the idea that Chris Kyle is a hero, which it does over and over and over again in the most frustratingly obvious ways. There are at least a dozen scenes (and that's a conservative estimate) in which another character tells Kyle what an incredible hero/living legend/amazing person he is, which feels like overkill. This gets particularly bad towards the film's conclusion, as Eastwood spends the last fifteen minutes or so offering a series of scenes which accomplish nothing more than saying, “Wow, Chris Kyle is just the best!” Most Great Man biopics have at least a handful of scenes along these lines, but American Sniper overdoes them for the sake of assuring the audience that its view of Kyle is by no means complicated or anything less than worshipful. It doesn't trust the audience to simply view Kyle's actions and assess his character for themselves; it literally tells us how we're supposed to feel about nearly everything he does.
The film avoids complexity in other areas, too. The trailers offered an intense glimpse of a scene in which Kyle is forced to determine whether to shoot a woman and child – a brutal moral dilemma, to be sure. However, the actual film suggests that such dilemmas weren't actually that difficult for Kyle. He avoids celebrating with a bigoted fellow soldier after making a tough kill, but he's quick to shut down any questions about whether he has any regrets or whether all of the killing has really affected him in any way. Likewise, the film also dismisses suggestions that Kyle is hooked on war ala Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, assuring us that his willingness to sign up for one tour after another (despite the fact that his family misses him and that there's a sizable bounty on his head) is rooted in nothing more than a sense of noble patriotic duty. Cooper does good work in the part – he digs in and captures this guy without ever being patronizing – but the film doesn't provide the performance with any interesting context. The only flaws American Sniper permits Kyle are of the, “he just loves his country too much,” variety. I don't know how close that portrait comes to capturing the real guy, but the movie certainly feels as if it's printing the legend.
All of that being said, the really frustrating thing about American Sniper is that Eastwood's direction – on a technical level, anyway - is stronger than it's been in years. The director is clearly aiming to make his own version of a Katherine Bigelow movie, and there are several moments in which he comes close to capturing that level of visceral intensity. Eastwood's infamous brand of “two takes and we're done” direction has taken some flack in recent years, but it's always struck me as something born of confidence rather than laziness. Every single action scene is focused and coherent; the sort of effectively no-nonsense filmmaking which reminds you of why Eastwood deserves descriptors like “old pro.” There's a sandstorm sequence which offers a level of visual intensity one simply doesn't expect from an 84-year-old man, and a handful of battle sequences which capture the chaos of modern warfare without descending into chaos themselves.
On the domestic front, however, Eastwood struggles. Poor Sienna Miller (Foxcatcher) is saddled with playing Kyle's wife Taya, who is basically given two things to do: tell Chris that she loves him and complain that Chris is never home. You've seen this character in a thousand sports movies and cop dramas, telling the male protagonist that he's too focused on his noble professional goals and that he doesn't spend enough time with his family. Also clumsy: the early flashback scene to Kyle's childhood, the awful scene in which a pre-military Kyle discovers that his girlfriend has been cheating on him and the scene with that fake-looking robot baby. Oh, that robot baby.
Spoilers for a well-known real-life incident: In his final years, Kyle devoted much of his life to helping veterans who were struggling (either mentally or physically) after returning home from war. In 2013, he was shot and killed by a fellow veteran who was suffering from PTSD. American Sniper pushes this incident offscreen and relegates it to a block of text which appears over the end credits. I don't know for sure what inspired the filmmakers to make that call, but within the context of the rest of the movie, it feels like yet another attempt to avoid wrestling with something truly difficult. Instead, we're shown footage of Kyle's massive funeral procession as soaring music plays in the background – one final reminder that Kyle was a hero, and that American Sniper has nothing else to say about him.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 132 minutes
Release Year: 2014