I remember seeing the Clint Eastwood-directed American Sniper trailer last year and thought the film would end up really riveting and emotively complex take on war. The trailer shows the central character, Chris Kyle, finger on the trigger and cross hairs on his Iraqi suspects – a woman and a little boy. The situation unfolds and he has to choose between the safety of his brothers and an Iraqi boy, not more than 10 armed with a grenade. As it turns out it’s a no brainer for Kyle.
Chris Kyle, a SEAL, is known to be the deadliest sniper in US military history, responsible for 160 confirmed kills. Insurgents in Iraq called him the Devil of Ramadi and his fellow soldiers held him up a talismanic presence in the war. The film’s script was adapted from his autobiography and it really does have a fist up for the troops like last year’s Lone Survivor. It has since its release made insane amounts of money at the US box office showing it really appealed to that inner patriot.
Kyle is played by Bradley Cooper in surely his best performance, but the film starts off with tonnes clichés; like Kyle as that one cool guy in the bar before he meets his wife-to-be played by Siena Miller or the fact that he was galvanised by terror attacks to really take that step for his country. I guess a lot of guys really did join the army after 9/11 and so on but it did come off as mundane. The final cliché, and funniest one at that, saw Kyle’s and his buds get the call to ship out at his wedding – a troupe straight from the 90’s.
The film does gain more substance on the ground in Iraq as Kyle is in the thick of the action and racking up his now legendary body count. He comes up against a Syrian marksman (Sammy Sheik) who is quite the adversary and every bit as deadly as he. At this point, I was hoping their rivalry would develop into something akin to the 2001 film Enemy at the Gates. That film had patiently intense duels between Jude Law’s character (also playing a real life sniper Vasily Zaitsev.) and Ed Harris’. We get nothing of that year here and the Syrian sniper is just broadly drawn as the enemy although we do get a glimpse of his wife and little boy.
The film excels on a technical level with the action filmed with such assured intensity as we scamper around the dusty streets of Falluja or try to make head or tail of the last stand firefight engulfed by a sandstorm. However, the film’s more chewy parts revolve around the central character. We see things through Kyle’s sights and he really seems oblivious to the grey areas in warfare and indeed life. There is very little nuance to Kyle but that isn’t necessarily a misstep on Eastwood’s part. He sets the tone for the central character early in the film as we see Kyle’s father tell him that people in this world are divided into 3 types: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs.
Kyle grows to see himself as a sheepdog, and a protector of noble causes and he carries this dogma with him to war as he racks up the kills. I found an interesting parallel with religious beliefs like Christianity which I can speak to. You are either hot or cold, for Him or against Him and so on and there is no room for dwelling on grey areas and being lukewarm. Think Meryl Streep’s character in Doubt and the warpath she embarks on although that feels nobler. It is the said paradigm that informs Kyle’s perceived hero complex and Eastwood does well to make us understand this as he confidently asserts the unambiguous tone on the film.
However Eastwood doesn’t ignore what it means to take a life much less 160 and Cooper doesn’t play Kyle as a drone. We understand that it really is “a helluva thing to kill a man” as Cooper so expertly conveys in a very measured and internalized act. The toll of battle wears on him and PTSD creeps up on him at home away from battle. He just bears it like his cross. The one area the film falls short is properly showing the strain on his family. Sienna Miller as his wife is broadly drawn and handed real scant material and limp dialogue to work with.
The film feels one dimensional because it’s striving for that. Hell, when I play(ed) football I don’t find myself thinking about the other side (forgive the weak analogy) and I can understand the unapologetic handling of Kyle’s outlook in this black and white kill-or-be-killed environment. Eastwood’s trade mark hands-off approach is evident as the script is executed in a raw and scrungy manner which never feels gratuitous. He doesn’t shy away from dropping very disturbing moments which truly jolt us into the action. American Sniper is by all accounts a terrific war film, best since The Hurtlocker, and it chews into its central idea and executes near flawlessly.