Directed by: Clint Eastwood.
Written by: Jason Hall based on the book by Chris Kyle and Scott McEwen and James Defelice.
Starring: Bradley Cooper (Chris Kyle), Sienna Miller (Taya), Kyle Gallner (Goat-Winston), Cole Konis (Young Chris Kyle), Ben Reed (Wayne Kyle), Luke Sunshine (Young Jeff Kyle), Keir O'Donnell (Jeff Kyle), Sammy Sheik (Mustafa), Tim Griffin (Colonel Gronski), Luis Jose Lopez (Sanchez), Brian Hallisay (Capt. Gillespie), Erik Aude (Thompson), Jad Mhidi Senhaji (Omar), Navid Negahban (Sheikh Al-Obodi), Sam Jaeger (Navy Seal Lt. Martin), Chance Kelly (Lt. Col Jones), Ayman Samman (Father).
It`s always a shame when a film becomes a political football – to be punted back and forth between people who seem to only be capable of seeing things in terms of black and white, liberal and conservative, good and evil. It’s an even bigger shame when that movie is a film like Clint Eastwood's American Sniper – which is a much more nuanced film than many seem to want to think it is. Going into the film, I was confused by the rhetoric being written on both sides that the film was a rah-rah, pro-gun, pro-America, pro-war anti-Muslim, xenophobic screed. It confused me because while Clint is certainly guilty of making himself into a caricature on film, and in his infamous speech to empty chair Obama at the RNC, as an artist he has always had a more nuanced, complex view of violence. This is the man who made Unforgiven with its famous line “Hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he`s got, all he`s ever going to have”. The man who made Flags of Our Fathers, which was one of the more complex looks at American heroism in WWII put on film, and then followed it up with Letters from Iwo Jima, which looked at the war from the opposite side without demonizing anyone. American Sniper fits neatly in with those films in that it looks at the consequences of violence on a man who apparently has the most confirmed kills of any serviceman in American history – consequences that he both realizes and doesn’t realize. I’m not going to say that American Sniper is an anti-war film – it isn’t – or that it is a perfect film – it rushes through the post-war years of its main character in 10 minutes when it needed a hell of a lot longer. But while the film doesn’t offer a complex political view of the Iraq war – there are no debates about the rightness or wrongness of it at all, or the enemy – who the main character simply sees through his gun site and kills them – I also believe that is the point of the movie. It locks in on the main characters viewpoint, and sticks with it from beginning to end. There is value in that as well.
The film opens with Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in Iraq, locking his sites on a child carrying a bomb, and his mother who gave it to him. He isn’t sure if he should take the shot or not – he hesitates for a moment, and then the film flashes back to Kyle as a child – being instructed by his father about the way of the world. Kyle is told there are three types of people in the world – sheep, who look away from violence, wolves who use violence to terrify others, and sheepdogs who use violence to protect the sheep. His father isn’t raising any sheep – and he will kick their ass if they become wolves. That leaves only one option left for Kyle. Eastwood flashes forward a little bit more – to 1999, when Kyle, now 30, sees a news report about embassy bombings and gets angry. "They’re attacking us" he says – and he immediately decides that it is time to sign up for the military. He’s already a good shot – and he wants to fight – so he ends up a Navy SEAL. He meets his future wife, Taya (Sienna Miller) and falls in love – and after 9/11 he is sent to Iraq. It’s only then they we get a resolution to the dilemma he faced in that opening scene. Even here, it is more complex than Kyle realizes – he is congratulated for his actions, and immediately tells the person to shut up. When he takes those shots, he is changed – and he never quite realizes it.
The movie will spend most its running time flashing back and forth between Kyle in the field, and his life on the home front – which gets increasingly fragile. His family grows, but Taya starts to think she is married to a stranger. He isn’t there even when he is there. He sees his brother for the first time, and he is simply shell shocked. A soldier he served alongside is killed, and when he attends the funeral with Taya is shocked when the soldier’s mother reads a letter he wrote just weeks before he was killed – expressing doubt about his actions. “It was that letter that killed him” Kyle says – but he wants to believe that more than he actually does.
It is in moments like this, and others, that make me wonder why some people – who either love the film or hate it – think that the film itself is an “America, fuck yeah!” war movie, like last year’s Lone Survivor certainly was. It is there in Bradley Coopers fine performance as Kyle – who outwardly is confident, whose words never betray that he has doubts about what he is doing, that spouts offensive things like the people he is fighting being savages. But Cooper’s eyes tell a different story. He does what he does because he feels he has to – and I find the argument that he didn’t have to absurd – he is a soldier in a warzone, and he was doing his job, whether or not you agree with the reasons America was in Iraq or not (and for the record, I don’t), doesn’t really matter.
Some of the other criticisms of the film are easier to understand, even if I don’t necessarily agree with all of them. It is true that the film doesn’t give any insight into the Iraq war at all and why American went – but does it need to. Don’t you already know that? And if the film never questions that involvement, I think that’s more because Kyle himself never questions it, and the film is locked in on his viewpoint. Kyle doesn’t want to question it – if he did, the whole façade he has built up would come crumbling down. The film is perhaps on shakier ground its portrayals of the Iraqi people itself – given that the film doesn’t really give them any portrayal at all. There is only one sympathetic character – a man who agrees to help the Americans, and pays an awful price for that. The film certainly shows us Iraqis behaving in abhorrent ways (what happens to that man is an example) – but again, I think it’s because the movie is locked into Kyles viewpoint, and this is the way he sees it. The portrayal of a rival sniper – Mustafa, rumored to be a Syrian athlete, is more problematic – because the film never really explores that character in any real way. He’s used as a storytelling shortcut, to give a face to what for the rest of the movie is a faceless enemy. The ending of the film doesn’t really work at all either. There is a moment with Kyle in a bar that would have been a better place to stop the movie – but instead Eastwood plows on for another 10 or 15 minutes, and gives a shallow portrait of Kyles homecoming – that almost gives you whiplash, as one moment he is seemingly stricken with PTSD, and primed to explode, and then the next he is perfectly fine. If Eastwood wasn’t really going to examine that conversion, he shouldn’t have started at all. But he does this in part, because he wants to get to Kyles tragic death in 2013 – where he was killed by another soldier suffering from PTSD, and the resulting funeral. And don’t even get me started on what is probably the fakest looking baby in movie history.
But overall, I think American Sniper is an excellent film – one that resists the various black or white, liberal or conservative boxes that everyone seems to want to put it in. It doesn’t argue that Kyle should not have done what he did – it mostly argues, like many Eastwood films do, that violence is often necessary, but again, like many Eastwood films argues; it does say that the violence does have a cost on those who are forced to commit it. That makes it very much in line with the best Clint Eastwood films he has directed – and even if it doesn’t quite reach the level of a film like Unforgiven – well, most films don’t. This is a film that has haunted me for days now, and will continue to do so – so I think no matter what your thoughts on the war in Iraq or your own political leanings, than American Sniper is a film that should be seen. But it must be seen with a mind opened to be challenged. I don’t need a film to confirm my political ideals to think it’s a great film.