I remember when Clint Eastwood was supposed to retire after Gran Torino. It probably would have been better for everyone if he had kept that promise. Instead, Eastwood had to go and ruin that perfectly good swan song by churning out one hopeless mediocrity after another.
Invictus. Hereafter. J. Edgar. Trouble with the Curve. The 2012 Republican National Convention. So many humiliations, each worse than the one before. By the time Jersey Boys bombed, it seemed like there was nothing left of Eastwood’s career to take seriously. Eastwood was completely washed up, and nobody could deny it.
Yet somebody did.
Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL who served four tours in the Iraq War. He reportedly racked up 160 confirmed kills out of 255 probable kills, which would easily make him one of the deadliest snipers in U.S. history. He was also something of a racist dickbag who constantly mouthed off about how proud he was to kill so many of those “damn savages” over in Iraq. He also bragged about murdering looters during Hurricane Katrina, though that was never confirmed.
The guy was controversial, to say the least, but that didn’t stop Warner Bros. (by way of Bradley Cooper’s 22 & Indiana Pictures shingle, with whom WB has a first-look deal) from buying the film rights to his memoirs before his tragic murder in 2013. And who did Kyle want to direct the movie? Clint fuckin’ Eastwood.
So far, the film has been a blessing for Eastwood’s waning career. The movie scored six Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, but not Best Director) and it’s on track to break all manner of January box office records (which, for the notoriously awful month of January, may not be saying much). I’ve heard a variety of mixed reviews from critics and correspondents, but that’s hardly surprising, given the controversial nature of the subject. The film has been accused of glorifying bigotry against Muslims, and the wisdom of lionizing an unrepentent racist has been called into question.
But here’s the thing about this movie: Chris Kyle (played here by Bradley Cooper) is not portrayed as the raving bigoted cockmonger that he apparently was in life. Those attitudes are there — he refers to Iraqis as “savages” and other epithets quite a few times in the movie — but they’re considerably toned down. No, instead of concentrating the xenophobia and dichromatic morality into a single character, they’re spread into a thin sheet coating the entire movie.
Very early on, we’re treated to a flashback of Chris Kyle’s father. Wayne Kyle (played by Ben Reed) states that there are three kinds of people in this world: There are the sheep who either can’t or won’t defend themselves, there are the wolves who prey on the dumb and defenseless, and there are the sheepdogs who stand and defend the flock. That, in a nutshell, is the sum total of this film’s morality. There is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. That’s all there is to it.
In this movie, Kyle’s reasons for going to Iraq (and by extension, America’s reasons for going to war with Iraq) are never in question. He’s there to keep his fellow Marines safe and they’re all there to keep Middle Eastern terrorists from launching attacks on American soil. As for the people who live and work in Iraq, every single one of them is either a militant extremist or someone who enables militant extremism. Yes, the film does make a token effort to show the moral conflict of Kyle’s job, which was so masterfully demonstrated in the trailer. But that nuance counts for precisely nothing when every single person that Kyle kills — without exception — is shown by the movie to be a dangerous insurgent who’s willing and able to take American lives.
Never mind America’s political and economic reasons for going to war. Never mind all the innocent Iraqi civilians whose lives are ruined beyond repair for getting caught in between two armed factions. Never mind the sadists and racists in the American ranks who take advantage of the situation to blow up brown people (to say nothing of torturing detainees or the soldiers who sexually assault each other). Never mind the possible reasons for al Qaeda’s hatred of America, or anything we’ve done previously to intervene in the Middle East.
No, this is a very straightforward conflict of good vs. evil. In fact, there are a couple of Iraqi militants (most notably Mustafa, the Iraqi sniper played by Sammy Sheik) who are played like honest-to-god supervillains right out of a Marvel picture. And we’re just supposed to take the film’s word that these are demons made to look like humans because they’re brown, they wear keffiyehs, and they were apparently born with AK-47s in their hands. Likewise, the American troops are supposed to be sympathetic entirely because they’re American. Looking at the film from an outsider’s perspective, pretending that I’ve never had any allegiance toward the States, I doubt I would ever want to root for a bunch of crude cavemen with more muscles than brains and barely an ounce of character development between them.
Now, let’s take a step back for a moment. Nobody’s going to argue that Islamic militants have their good points. The film states that there is evil in the Middle East and al Qaeda committed horrible atrocities for which they deserved punishment, and it certainly isn’t wrong about that. In fact, after seeing so many films taking more measured approaches toward our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was actually kinda refreshing to see a film so overtly patriotic.
The drawback, however, is that we know so much more now than we did in 2003. A lot of disturbing information has come to light about what we did in the Middle East and why we went over there to begin with. And none of that stuff is anywhere on the film’s radar. The filmmakers couldn’t find a single fuck to give about any of it. They just went and barreled ahead into a subject that’s become a very sensitive political topic, leaning entirely toward one side of the spectrum without the slightest care for the other side. That was very foolhardy, to say the least, but there’s no denying that it took a set of solid brass balls. Also, there’s something to be said for a film that knows its audience.
Getting to the other side, I must admit that the film’s portrayal of American soldiers lines up superbly well with what I’ve heard about them from friends and acquaintances in the armed forces. I think the most important thing is in the film’s portrayal of the die-hard camaraderie between the troops. The soldiers’ interplay is strong enough to give the battlefield sequences an emotional hook, and it shows that the filmmakers care intensely for our veterans.
Which brings me to the film’s statements about returning veterans. Sweet Uncle Sam, does this movie have a lot to say about the soldiers who return home. A whole ton of screen time is given toward showing how the VA Hospital system is woefully incapable of caring for the needs of our veterans, and PTSD is made into a huge part of Kyle’s story arc. This stuff is easily the best part of the movie, partly because of how decidedly uncontroversial it is and mostly because it’s a discussion we very badly need more of.
This seems as good a time as any to comment on Bradley Cooper, who really is worth the hype in this picture. I can’t remember the last time I saw a genuine character instead of Bradley Cooper acting onscreen (with the obvious exception of Rocket Raccoon), but Cooper spared no effort throwing himself into this role. He physically, mentally, and emotionally transformed himself into a man tortured (and ultimately destroyed) by his compulsive need to save others, and the results are spellbinding to watch. Cooper puts so much passion onto the screen that it’s painfully obvious how much this project meant to him.
I’ve heard considerably less praise for Sienna Miller (playing Taya Renae Kyle), and that puzzles me. Her work in this film is no less incredible, and I personally find her character to be far more interesting. Not only is her chemistry with Cooper absolutely scorching, but she faces the very heartbreaking dilemma of being married to a man who can’t be there for her. Even worse, she has to live with the knowledge that he could die at any time while he’s over in Iraq protecting other soldiers. It’s not that she doesn’t understand, it’s just that she’d rather have her husband defending his family from home rather than Iraq. It’s a tough situation to be in, one that wears down on on Taya very dramatically, and Miller plays the downward spiral beautifully.
As for miscellaneous notes… how do I put this? Imagine if Katheryn Bigelow shot a movie that was edited by Michael Bay, and you have a pretty good idea of how the battle scenes look. The movie isn’t shy about spilling blood, and the film has a general “dark and gritty” aesthetic for the purpose of making it feel immersive. Yet the action is presented with a captivating energy that’s very satisfying to watch. Then again, a lot of that energy comes from the fact that we never have to wonder who the good guys and bad guys are. I really do have so much pity for anyone on this set who looked the least bit Arabic.
Oh, and special attention must be given to a shot at the climax, in which Kyle successfully makes a kill shot from a distance so great that everyone says it’s impossible. But we get to follow the bullet in slow-motion to see Kyle successfully make a very bloody head shot on the first try. It’s so shamelessly over-the-top that I couldn’t help laughing.
American Sniper is propaganda. Pure and simple. It’s a film driven entirely by jingoism, without even the slightest regard for logic or moderation. That said, the film does have its good points. The action scenes are solid, the statements about veterans returning home are incredibly potent, Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller both turn in career-defining work, and it’s obvious that everyone behind the scenes was very passionate about this material.
Even so, it’s clear that this movie was made by and for American pro-war conservatives. Anyone of that mindset will absolutely love this film. Everyone else can take it or leave it.