Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Chris Kyle was the deadliest sniper in US military history, with 160 kills across four tours of duty in Iraq. For the Iraqi insurgents he was enemy number one – there was a $180,000 reward for killing him – for the US military he was their guardian angel. Knowing he was looking over them made them feel invincible. Kyle was a man that became a US military legend. Unfortunately, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is more concerned with showing us the legend than the man.
As a child Kyle’s father taught him there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep who won’t stand up for themselves and will be abused, wolves who seek to bully and harm others, and sheep dogs who are blessed with the gift of aggression and use it to protect the weak and innocent. Chris Kyle is a sheep dog. Inspired by the embassy bombings in East Africa he joins the Navy SEALS and before long finds himself in Iraq. As he grows in standing his missions become more specialised. Having been assigned to team to take out the infamous Al Qaeda operative known as ‘The Butcher,’ he also becomes obsessed with capturing an Iraqi sniper named Mustafa whose skills rival his own.
In a magnificently intense opening scene, we see Kyle in action. Positioned on a Fallujah rooftop he looks down on a US military convoy, his eyes peeled for anything suspicious. He sees a woman and child leave a house ahead of the convoy. The way she moves leads him to suspect she might have something concealed under her burqa. She hands something to her child and he starts to run towards the convoy. Is it a grenade? He’s not sure. He radios for confirmation but no one else can see it. His commanding officer gives him the green light. He now has to make a choice. Is it a grenade or isn’t it? Does he shoot or does he not? This is a different experience of combat to what we are used to seeing on screen. We have seen the fast and frantic battle, where split second decisions are the difference between life and death. But this is slow and calculated. He has time to think, to consider the repercussions of his actions, to make a decision. This is the most interesting element of the film. With such a strong opening it is a shame that nothing that follows can equal its intensity.
With its primary concern being to anoint Kyle as a hero, American Sniper dedicates no space to debating the merits of the Iraq War. There is an acknowledgement that this is a different type of war, one in which women and children are being used as soldiers, but the film deems the war to be a noble cause of which questions are not to be asked. This is largely the result of the film being presented from Kyle’s point of view. He has a blinkered approach to this conflict, viewing Iraq as an “evil” place and the Iraqi people as “savages.” Eastwood makes no effort to humanise the Iraqi characters, with Mustafa in particular shot like a comic book villain. With no sense of the overall purpose of the war, Eastwood reduces it to a series of gun-battles, or, more to the point, reduces it to Kyle’s personal effort to catch Mustafa and the Butcher.
The film does give some time to issues like PTSD and the struggles of veterans to reacclimatise to civilian life. Kyle is shown to become increasingly more comfortable with his unit in Iraq than he is back with his family in America (an idea explored slightly more effectively in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker). However, these issues are largely peripheral and sit uneasily next to those more frequent moments in which Eastwood can’t help but play up the heroism and inspiration of the story.
The struggle when trying to tell the true story of an admired war hero is the pressure to honour at the expense of honesty. This pressure is heightened when one considers the absolute reverence in which America holds their armed services. American Sniper is undoubtedly a heartfelt film, both Cooper and Eastwood seem really invested in it, and it has some very strong moments but the film’s over-the-top heroism and chest-thumping patriotism will be harder for non-American audiences to get behind.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen American Sniper? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.