American Sniper

UK Release Date 16th January 2015
Director Clint Eastwood
Starring The Legend
Runtime 132 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 18th January 2015

It’s been a little while since a movie has left me with so many conflicting emotions as Clint Eastwood’s latest Oscar laden movie has. Off the top of my head, it was probably the idiot Bay’s Pain & Gain (which after vacillating for days, I finally came down on the positive side of - something that may come back to haunt me), not that I am for a second comparing the two movies. In this instance, I find myself still well and truly undecided as I write this….

So, for his thirty seventh directing gig, Eastwood has landed on what should be fertile land for a man defiantly right of centre politically - that is, the tale of the deadliest sniper in US history Chris Kyle. Kyle, a disaffected and predictably patriotic Texan rancher, has always liked shooting things, ever since the good old days spent bagging deer with Pa. Adult life has seen him drift from rodeo to rodeo with his bro, making easy cash and pissing off his girlfriends. Until one day some bad men blow up some US embassies. Enough is enough and Chris heads to the local recruitment office and is given a leaflet about the Navy SEALS. Chris is soon picked out from training due to his accuracy over distance and when 9/11 hits, he is shipped out to Iraq to perform overwatch for his comrades…

American Sniper (take good note of the first word in that title) has been nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor (though notably not Best Director, leading the smart money to go on other options) but I’m still unsure if its worthy of either of those top nominations. In the central role, Bradley Cooper bears a decent (if slightly slimmer) likeness to the actual Chris Kyle but for the sake of this review, I’m not going to spend a lot of time dwelling on the accuracy of the events to Kyle’s actual life. Cooper’s Kyle is a living stereotype (at least when judged from this side of the pond), his real life counterpart may have been even more so. Kyle is a brutish Texan with no interest in life beyond riding bulls. On his return from a rodeo, he discovers his girlfriend in bed with another man. Completely ignoring the girl’s pleas for attention, he smacks the man on the nose and kicks them both out of his life. His heavy breathing and barely disguised glee at the encounter give us an instant view into his psyche. This is not a man who ends up living out a peaceful existence and retiring happy.

The challenge Cooper has is that by necessity, certainly for the majority of the action, Kyle is a brutally blank page. Having being brought up in a predictably (there’s that word again) fundamental Christian household, Kyle has no idea how to deal with his emotions. An early scene with his father shows the old man explaining to his two boys that the world is divided into three types of people. Sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. That this is demonstrably false should ring out loud but this is a movie that expects you to take that view. Pa makes it clear that he wants none of the first two in his house so the two boys are expected to take the role of protectors. This sits more comfortably with Chris than it does with his brother Jeff (the younger and less physical of the two and therefore, in this weird macho world, in the other man’s shadow). Cooper deals with this well, reducing his character’s emotions to a series of deep breathing exercises and long, empty stares.

So far so impressive, especially when you take into account Eastward’s reliably confident handling of the horrible house to house warfare that was both Gulf Wars. The climactic escape scene in particular stands out as one of the better war movie set pieces I’ve seen. A swirling sandstorm blasts in as the soldiers find themselves trapped on a rooftop, desperately trying to hold out against the massing enemy. As the sand blocks almost all vision, the literal fog of war is there to see, leading to a genuinely disorientating and frightening scene.

But the doubts about the direction and the politics of this movie persist. This is a film with absolute moral certainty and you could argue this is deliberate because it is told from Kyle’s viewpoint. In fact, to make any sense of this, you have to view it from that point of view - the American in the title. Kyle’s worldview is a truly frightening one but you have to suspect that this is not how the movie sees it. Kyle’s world is as black and white as his good old Pa’s description. Kyle is a sheepdog, here to protect his wonderfully righteous country. Much like the US itself, he gets to view his actions mostly from a distance and his moral certainty never waivers once. Consequently, the enemy is reduced to just that, an enemy. The cause is right and Chris is there to enforce that cause. All he sees through his scope are threats and non-threats and that is all we get through Eastwood’s camera lens.

And that would sit better with me if the movie made any real attempt to deal with Kyle’s post traumatic stress. Eastwood shows effects of it on Kyle’s marriage to Sienna Miller’s Taya, but you never sense for a second that anyone involved really understands what is going on here. Kyle spends his time at home clutching a beer bottle, staring at the TV (even when it’s not on) and threatening the family dog at a barbecue. When he finally cracks on his fourth tour, a brief visit to a psychiatrist and some R&R time with veterans sorts him right out and back to being the loving husband we never really saw, even before his tours. A painfully simplistic recovery for a horribly complicated and debilitating condition. Again, this may be viewed from the point that this is how Kyle would have seen it but it’s at this stage I started to feel deeply uncomfortable about what this movie is presenting us with. 

To be fair to American Sniper, you have all the information you require in the title. This is a movie about a man who was lionised for killing more than 160 men, women and children, it was never likely to be one that made everyone feel the same. BUT. Ah, but, but, but. This movie seems to flirt with looking in other directions, it’s just that it only gets the briefest of chances as it speeds past on it’s morally certain roller coaster. So, we get a short scene where Chris bumps into Jeff as the former is shipping out again and the latter returning home. The younger brother is clearly shattered by his experiences and leaves his older brother on the runway with the quietly muttered words ‘Fuck this country’. It’s a huge distressing moment but one that is never followed up, much like Chris’ treatment is never dealt with properly.

And so, I’m in danger of reviewing a movie I wanted to see, rather than the one Eastwood has made. I’m prepared to take that criticism though because this movie made me so uncomfortable that I can’t just pass this off as one man’s twisted view of the world. It’s one man’s twisted view of the world impressed on all of us without the option to reply. This is a man who protected all of us from Evil and how fucking dare you suggest that there may be more to it than that. The whole thing reminds me of the great Jack Nicolson speech in a Few Good Men and that made me pine for the version of this movie where the enemy is a person too and not just a copy and paste drill wielding lunatic. Eastwood has dealt with this before with his Flags and Letter movies. So, Clint, how about Iraqi Sniper? You up for that one? Because that would be a genuinely impressive piece of work. 

As it stands what we get is a compelling, horrific account of a single man at war but, as the cringeworthy real life footage at the end credits shows, what we also get is the horrible feeling that too many people will take this account of Life as read and too few will question the moral landscape that's painted. Which is a real shame because we could have had so much more.

Check out the trailer here.

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