There are other movies out right now—better ones, too—but I chose to see American Sniper because it is the film everybody has an opinion on right now, and I guess I felt like I needed to formulate one of my own. The memoir that this serves as an adaptation of is likely something I will never read, so I can’t comment on Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall’s ability to bring Chris Kyle’s story to the screen as Kyle told it. I know that he uses the word “savage” to describe Iraqis, and I know he later falsely claimed to’ve punched out Jesse Ventura at a bar for mocking veterans. I also know that Kyle said he was responsible for more kills than the Navy SEALs will confirm, and that the government parked him atop the Superdome in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, where he allegedly shot and killed “dozens” of American citizens. I don’t know Chris Kyle, but he sounds like a complex, flawed, dangerous fraud, the fabled Good Guy with a Gun who exists only in the collective fantasy of the American right whose life is worth reflecting upon as a means of deconstructing such myths. Clint Eastwood, however, is not the man for such a job. A man who is given to lecturing invisible Barack Obamas on the significance of America and her ideals, Eastwood sees his protagonist as a man wearing a white hat though stranded on a black sea. The war isn’t just something that happens; it’s something that happens to him. Kyle’s story, in the hands of a director more interested in the fact of a hero than his psyche, is as complex as a bologna sandwich.
American Sniper, rather than linger in the details or fret about the larger implications of what Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) does for a living, is largely desensitized to the brutalities he perpetuates and has perpetuated upon him. Exactly one kill shown here has any weight, his first, and that is largely because, as cut for the trailer, it’s a rather compelling microfilm about the weight of one’s choices. That the choice being made here is a white man’s decision to kill or not kill an Arabic woman and her son is shown to be largely irrelevant—it’s not how Kyle imagined his first time pulling the trigger, but he stopped a pair of suicide bombers from wiping out a patrol of Marines. Mission accomplished, end story.
Between his placing a finger on the trigger and his pulling it, there’s a rather lengthy bit of exposition explaining the kind of person Kyle is. In short, he’s a red-blooded American, an honest-to-God cliché. He loves his country and he loves his woman. The first three images of American life shown in this film involve hunting rifles, bibles, and a football. The suburb Kyle grew up in is shot as beige and featureless as the Iraq he will later occupy. He has sex with the woman who will become his wife (Sienna Miller) and wakes up to live footage from New York City on September 11th, 2001. Both the sex and the act of war inspire Kyle to get better at his job. He says he’s protecting his country. He says his country is the greatest on earth. It’s all been said before, but Chris Kyle is a real man with a real (if embellished) record, a soldier whose funeral filled a football stadium, so coming from the actor occupying him, I suppose all of that’s supposed to lend the script’s bumper sticker platitudes the kind of gravity repeated sequences of bodies spasming, geysering blood, and collapsing dead just can’t earn these days.
Given a relatively straightforward script and Eastwood’s by-the-numbers direction, Bradley Cooper isn’t exactly taxing himself as Kyle. Without the real man’s penchant for dehumanizing language, all Cooper has to do is set his jaw firm and speak with a slight drawl. Even when he’s under fire, taking shots from elite enemy snipers—one of whom is described as a former Olympic medalist fiercely loyal to bin Ladin—Cooper’s Kyle doesn’t seem too stressed. His wife can hear gunfire and other soldiers shouting over their cell phone connection, but Kyle always seems to be a readjustment away from leaving the battlefield with his life and a few more notches on his belt. When a sandstorm kicks up over a late-film op, it’s merely one more shade of beige.
Plenty has been made of the fake babies used to simulate Chris Kyle’s newborn children, which betrays that there’s really not much to American Sniper that’s worth discussing. There’s the political angle and the race-baiting of Kyle’s memoir, but Eastwood seems decidedly uninterested in why we’re at war and what Kyle thinks of the people he is shooting. That’s a problem perhaps, but one of adaptation and not morality. It’s been impossible to log in online without seeing dozens of tweets from morons who saw this film and said how it made them want to kill Arabs, but I suspect the folks responsible for those missives harbored their racist feelings before seeing American Sniper, just as I suspect that the editors responsible for publishing those tweets on every website that leans even slightly left know that morons on Twitter draw a lot of clicks. But I’m a white guy myself, and all I know about movies like this is that it takes a really good one or a really offensive one to get my attention. That’s a failing on my part, I know, but I thought I was going to leave this film convinced of its evils. Instead, I’m at something of a loss. What this film should have done with its subject matter is a matter for debate until the next film about war during the Bush presidencies is made. What it did, however, is nothing.
American Sniper is further evidence that Eastwood is continually regressing as a director, or that time has finally passed him by and is no longer as interested in the merits of American muscle as he is. I don’t think that filmmakers are necessarily obligated to create pictures that take a hardline stance on the War on Terror, but that this is the story Eastwood has chosen to present as a somber occasion set to taps is disingenuous to all parties involved, including Kyle. Cooper plays him as a man who is somewhat uncomfortable with his notoriety, but Eastwood is set on making him a paragon. So be it. There are better films about this war out there, and still more yet to be made. In terms of fiction, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty diptych remain the best place to start.
American Sniper. With Bradley Cooper (Chris Kyle), Sienna Miller (Taya), Luke Grimes (Marc Lee), and Kyle Gallner (Goat-Winston). Directed by Clint Eastwood from a screenplay by Jason Hall, based on the memoir American Sniper by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and Jim DiFelice.