As if often the case when a film is the subject of back-and-forth, hyperbolic, politically-minded screeds, American Sniper is more of a litmus test of the predisposition of the viewer than a film making fiercely argued points on either side of the argument raging in its wake. As best as I can tell, those who decry it as a patriotically-blinded, neocon agitprop are ignoring the film’s undercurrent consideration of the way recurring wartime military service tears apart a life and a psyche. Interestingly enough, the film’s more fervent defenders’ common penchant to paint it as a sterling testament to the unyielding honor of those who serve ignores the exact same aspect. As extreme and even puerile as some of the reaction has been (and do note that I’m referencing both images at the hyperlink, even the one that I believe the post intends to commend), it is no more automatically attributable to the actual content of Clint Eastwood’s film than it would be if viewers of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds decided Nazis were all right guys because Christoph Waltz was really entertaining. The movie is far more neutral than the tumult around it suggests, which is both its strength and its damning weakness.
Adapted from the memoir penned by Chris Kyle (with assists by Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice), American Sniper tells the story of a young man, largely adrift, who finds his calling after watching the towers fall on live TV on September 11th, 2001. Chris (Bradley Cooper), already in the U.S Navy, becomes a sniper with the SEALs. Serving multiple tours in Iraq, he becomes known as the deadliest sniper in the history of the U.S. military. The film is strongest in the earliest passages, when focusing in quick hit style on his progression through basic training and into combat. The scattershot focus mirrors and conveys the unsettling randomness of war, from the mundane exchanges of information in makeshift plywood structures to the tense heat of modern, uncertain battle, when life and death decisions must be made with horribly limited information. When Jason Hall’s script shifts to settle on a more singular narrative in Kyle’s pursuit of a particularly deadly enemy sniper, the film loses much of its potency. The more conventional narrative feels especially false within the confines of modern war, when enemies are more distant than ever before. True or not, it smacks of Hollywood invention.
By most accounts, including his own, Kyle was a complicated, troubling figure, frothing with animosity towards the enemy and prone to inflating his own accomplishments — or at least macho bravado — away from the battlefield. The film version of American Sniper sheds that complexity, not out of any evident attempt to lionize Kyle, but stemming more from disinterest in that particular experience. It shifts noticeably from the specific to the general. The movie was developed as a potential project from Steven Spielberg, and it feels like it was shaped to his preferences. This isn’t to imply that Spielberg was disinterested in the full, harrowing experience — Saving Private Ryan alone argues against that glib dismissal — but that he is more interested in finding more subtextual means of delivering the emotion of a piece. A master manipulator, Spielberg would capture the unsettled tone in individual scenes. Handed off to Eastwood, the film suffers under his more literal approach. Eastwood makes pictures, not films. That distinction is more than semantic. He is an adherent to the text. If a script explicitly states its thesis, as does Unforgiven, Eastwood will provide a sturdy conveyance. If it requires additional insight imbued into the film through the other stages of the creative process, that’s simply not likely to happen. Those who’ve imagined a grand artistic statement onto the whole of Eastwood’s late career oeuvre — and there are many that have done so — are indulging in fantasy.
The film needs something or someone to break through and find the depth in the material, and no one is fully up to the task. Cooper gives a nice performance on the surface, but getting fully under the skin of Chris is beyond him. Sienna Miller fares a little better as Kyle’s beleaguered wife. In her opening scene, a barroom meeting with Chris, she builds an entire character with indications of heavy history in a single exchange. There’s only so much she can do, however, when the bulk of the film relegates her to repeatedly explaining the distancing turmoil Chris is experiencing as he is boomeranged between the homefront and time in country. That diminishment of Miller’s role is in keeping with the film’s prevailing compulsion toward subtly reshaping woefully complex reality to readily palatable fiction, best evidenced in the diminishment of Kyle’s tragic, ironic end to a blandly mournful graphic at the end of the film.
Various pundits and op-ed writer can keep trying imagine American Sniper as a forceful statement about the nation that resides in its name. The actual frames of the film tell a different story. It’s less than anyone supposes it to be.