Clint Eastwood’s admittedly patriotic American Sniper is far more well-constructed and nuanced than the internet wants you to believe. With a hype that has been inescapable and perhaps more interesting than the film itself, we have seen critics, celebrities, and political nutjobs on both sides of multiple spectrums come out of the woodwork to offer their two cents, often founded on their opinions regarding Chris Kyle as a person, rather than the actual, tangible content of the film itself. In essence, Eastwood’s somewhat awards-baiting biopic is an interesting and mainly faithful adaptation of Chris Kyle’s autobiography of the same name, an exploration of a conflicted man searching for his place in the world and trying to reconcile his old-fashioned, conservative values in a modern era. It’s cheesy at times, and occasionally heavy-handed, however it is undeniably captivating throughout.
Considering the response the film has received online (“Republican propaganda” is a regular catchphrase), it’s worth distinguishing the film from these claims.1 While American Sniper’s subject Chris Kyle is obviously a born-and-bred Republican, the same can’t be said of the creative minds behind the film.2 Star and co-producer Bradley Cooper is a Democrat who has contributed to multiple political campaigns.3 While Clint Eastwood’s Republican leanings are now infamous, courtesy of his chair-duologue at the 2012 Republican National Convention, he describes himself as more of a libertarian. 4
Claims of racism also hang over American Sniper; the knee-jerk response that the lack of characterisation of the Iraqi military opposition renders Eastwood a racist filmmaker tends to overlook the fact that he was also the creative mind behind Gran Torino and, more importantly, Letters from Iwo Jima, a film told completely from the perspective of Japanese soldiers at the Battle of Iwo Jima that never attempted to humanise their American enemy. It’s a little ridiculous to demand Eastwood makes his film sympathise with Iraqi forces when the film is told completely from the perspective of an elite American sniper indoctrinated into the Navy SEALs. This is not simply some Republican propaganda piece and to write it off as such is reductive; it’s far more likely that it was the chance to explore the intriguing (and somewhat infamous) life of Chris Kyle that drew Cooper and Eastwood to the film. The ability to explore Kyle’s attempts to embody a sort of John Wayne-esque cowboy archetype in a modern era seems like a clear fit for the filmmaking style of Eastwood.
Throughout American Sniper, Kyle is portrayed as an uncertain man seeking to convince himself that what he is doing is right. A particularly strong scene at a funeral sees Kyle wrestle with his devotion to his fellow marines and their disillusionment with the war. The mother of a dead SEAL reads out a letter from her son, in which he questions the meaning of the war. Kyle blames this death on the soldier, stating that “we walked right into an ambush, but that’s not what killed him, that letter did” even though the scenes that immediately precede it tell us otherwise – you’d be hard pressed to convince me that a nuanced scene like this would appear in a film as simple and didactic as its detractors claim.
The film does, though, present the audience with a lot of grey area and ambiguity, allowing one to read any desired message into it; if you want to read it as some racist, hard-right, anti-Iraqi propaganda it’s not too hard to conjure that up, even though you’d still be hard-pressed to accuse the film of being pro-war. It depicts the horror and futility of the US occupation in Iraq with great proficiency; with each additional tour of Iraq it seems like the their military forces are making less and less progress at the cost of even more lives on both sides, the motivations for their ongoing occupation appear increasingly murky. By the film’s end it becomes startlingly clear that Kyle’s ongoing tours of duty have left him mentally unhinged and lacking perspective on why he joined the army in the first place, something Eastwood harnesses to make clear the distinction between the perspective of Kyle-as-character and himself as filmmaker.
In the act of adapting Kyle’s book, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall have distanced the film from Kyle’s rhetoric post-publication. We are talking about a man who has referred to killing people as “no big deal”, who preaches the Christian values of tolerance in his autobiography before describing Iraqis as “savage, despicable, evil”, a man who started a company bearing a stylised Punisher skull encircled by the brand motto “despite what your momma told you violence does solve problems” as its logo.5 It’s undeniable that the Kyle that returned from the Iraq War was a man obsessed with creating his own idealised image of himself in the fashion of many other niche celebrities like Dan Bilzerian or Paris Hilton, socialites who feed off of polarising opinions. Eastwood leaves much of that on the cutting room floor, employing a more classical thematic overlay lifted from Westerns – the transformation from a sheep dog (protector of the innocent) to a wolf (antagonist and vengeful killer).
It’s true that the film quite extensively downplays the grotesqueness of Kyle, although to say it completely shies away from most of the problematic aspects of his story is false. Although the film never goes as far as to say he “hates” Iraqis, something Kyle himself said repeatedly in his memoir, throughout the film Kyle refers to them as “savages”. Along with the rest of his squad, Kyle dons the logo of Marvel’s The Punisher, a particularly fascist Vietnam war veteran who is a physical embodiment of retributive justice.6 There’s a murky grey area to a substantial portion of the film and while it’s clear that a lot of the more negative, conservative aspects of Kyle’s autobiography aren’t present here – choice quotes from his memoir like “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis” are omitted –Eastwood never has the film blindly champion Kyle, always managing to maintain a distance from his actions.
Unfortunately Eastwood is a touch too simplistic in his depiction of war zones. Whilst playing off of the simplistic good vs evil mindset of Kyle himself, the film doesn’t do much beyond recycling cinematic horrors of war already seen. In saying that, though, he does a far better job than many other recent additions into the war film canon, he never particularly glamorises combat or war generally.
The minor quibble regarding the depiction of combat are nothing compared to how laughably bad a select few scenes are. Chris Kyle’s wedding is so incompetently directed you would be forgiven for thinking it was straight out of a cynical, overly-patriotic, made-for-TV movie from some unknown hack director. The line delivery is dire and the performances from Sienna Miller and Cooper are extremely stagey; the beat where Kyle’s squad gets called in for duty immediately following the ceremony is almost cringe-inducing. There are also, of course, those now infamous sequences with a completely unrealistic baby doll, which Eastwood may have got away with in a pre-internet age, but in a modern context where goofs and inconsistencies spread like wildfire upon a film’s release are completely inexcusable and totally immersion-breaking once you know what to look out for. 7 These scenes feel like they’re straight out of a bad high-school play and detract from everything that goes on around them.
In saying that, these are pretty minor gripes in the grand scheme of things, and only constitute less than five minutes of the film’s 130-minute runtime. Thankfully, nearly everything else works. Eastwood’s exploration of Kyle as a modern cowboy, works on a thematic level – especially in a final sequence of combat that mirrors the fantastic finale of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Eastwood is also one of the first directors I’ve seen to really nail the video game aesthetic that many modern war films aim for.8 The progression of combat mirrors that of increasingly difficult gameplay and increasing stakes of modern military shooters, reminiscent of Spec Ops: The Line, a game heavily influenced by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that aims to challenge the player’s perceptions about the portrayal of war in video games by adding weight to the death of innocent people and overtly confronting players with the consequences of their bloodthirsty actions. Eastwood also proficiently pushes a ‘support our troops’ message without trying to justify the actions of these SEALs, or use a pro-war agenda, and the decision to focus on Kyle’s transformation from self-styled cowboy into short-sighted, vengeful monster is really what makes the film a compelling, albeit overlong, watch.
At the end of the day, the narrative derives from the perspective of Chris Kyle, much like the way that The Wolf of Wall Street uses Jordan Belfort’s perspective as a launching point, only with much higher stakes.While Kyle was most likely a liar obsessed with building his own mythic legacy, truth is not the objective of the film. Eastwood is interested in exploring the individual plight of a soldier, the transformation from protective saviour to vengeful spirit holding much more dramatic potential than dodgy Republican propaganda. You can argue for days about what’s exactly in the “true story” in American Sniper, for the record I think a fair portion of this film is total garbage, but at the end of it all, American Sniper is a proficient adaptation of one man’s perspective on war.9
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