People will take what they want to take from American Sniper, director Clint Eastwood’s latest film. Already it has turned into an ideological war to be won or lost, rather than a fictionalized biopic to be debated.
It’s the most divisive movie on screens at the moment, and it appears to have caught a wave of desire among audiences—conservative, liberal, centrist—to return to stories of nerve-wracking wartime heroism in varying degrees of truth and fiction, from Fury to Unbroken. American Sniper is reverent and slippery. You don’t have to know much about the real Navy SEAL marksman Chris Kyle (1974-2013) to wonder if it’s telling the whole truth about him.
With Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County (one of the best films ever made from a lousy book) and Letters From Iwo Jima at the crest, and decades of ups and downs beneath it, Eastwood’s career behind the camera has veered in continually unexpected directions. Yet his work, like that of any auteur worth his salt, expresses different aspects of a single personality, in Eastwood’s case a plain-spoken but wary personality.
The phrase “Eastwood war movie” has come to mean … what, exactly? Can you draw a line from the cockamamie Grenada invasion-set Heartbreak Ridge to the mournful Flags of Our Fathers to his latest, American Sniper?
And yet it’s there to be drawn. Warriors who keep their heads down and do their jobs and derive a kind of noble purity from the lethal work they do: These are some of Eastwood’s most admired heroes. If psyches and bodies crack under the strain, there’s nobility, too, in watching the struggle, even if the struggle is to keep the worst hidden away, leaving the anguish to other souls, other moviemakers.
Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall introduce us to Kyle shrewdly and well. We’re on a rooftop somewhere in Iraq, watching the man who became the deadliest sniper in U.S. history (160 confirmed bodies, another 95 unconfirmed) as he watches for insurgents out to kill the occupying U.S.-led coalition forces. Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper with a convincing Texas accent, spies a local woman slip a huge grenade into a young boy’s fearful hands. The boy eyes the U.S. soldiers a few hundred yards away. Kyle has seconds to pull the trigger. It’s not really a moral dilemma because, as Eastwood films it, there’s no question these “savages” (Kyle’s word) are up to no good. Still, the film’s first depiction of two of Kyle’s confirmed kills comes at a cost. This isn’t what Kyle imagined or hoped for.
A childhood flashback interrupts the flow of the introductory scene. We see Kyle deer hunting with his father. “You’ve got a gift. You’re going to make a fine hunter someday,” he’s told, and the moment carries a hushed, churchlike quality. Over dinner, Kyle’s father informs him he was “blessed with the gift of aggression … the need to protect the flock.”
From there, American Sniper rolls forward, as Kyle survives four tours of duty, while his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller, effective every second even when she’s spouting boilerplate dialogue), maneuvers her way through her husband’s absence. Once he’s home for good, trying to repair a damaged marriage, it’s a matter of maneuvering through Kyle’s post-traumatic stress disorder and its effects on his loved ones. Cooper plays Kyle as a “legend” (that was his nickname) whose vulnerabilities remain a secret, even to himself, until the breaking point. He’s very good. Muscled up for the role, he suggests a world of contradictory impulses behind the character’s eyes, even when the script is skating on the surface.
The sharpest scene, featured in TV ads for the film, finds Kyle back from another tour. He’s stateside, but he hasn’t told his wife he’s home. He’s calling from a bar. He’s not ready to re-enter what’s left of his ordinary life. Eastwood spends an extra second or two with Cooper as he fights to keep it together. This complicates and deepens our understanding of a man who, too often in American Sniper, is a collection of stalwart patriotic virtues rather than a three-dimensional slice of real life.
If only the rest of the film were as strong and troubling as that bar scene. American Sniper gins up all sorts of conflict, treating Kyle’s beady-eyed Syrian sniper counterpart, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), as a skillful but vaguely subhuman adversary. The climactic showdown between these two leads to Eastwood’s most shameless techniques—clichéd slow motion just when you expect it, an audience-baiting “kill” shot complete with cheeseball bullet’s-point-of-view trajectory.
In The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow spent mere minutes on the disorienting homefront return of the central character (Jeremy Renner’s bomb-defuser), and every second of those few minutes counted, registered, told us something. American Sniper has the bar scene and not much else. The film is rarely dull; it’s one life-and-death sequence after another, and the filmmaking’s efficient, crisply delivered. But Eastwood honors his subject without really getting under his skin.
Some will see any objection to American Sniper, either the book or the film, as inherently unpatriotic, although plenty of military veterans on plenty of online comment boards have expressed their problems with Kyle’s book. A lot of the skepticism has nothing to do with veracity (he claims to have beaten up Jesse Ventura in a bar; Ventura sued for libel and won). Rather, they see the book as dangerously romantic in its view of war. Eastwood’s view isn’t that, exactly. But there’s a difference between a film about a man reluctant to acknowledge the psychological toll of what he endured and a movie that basically doesn’t want to talk about it or question it, or think about it, period.
American Sniper (R): ★★✩✩✩