I’ve was told that Clint Eastwood was a Republican, and while I never really doubted this, it was something you wouldn’t really know by looking at the great films he made through much of the politically fraught 2000s. He started his comeback of sorts by making a movie which starred two of the most outspoken liberals in Hollywood, moved on to a movie that takes seriously the idea of a right to die, then made a pair of World War II movies that questioned flagwaving patriotism and gave a sympathetic platform to one of America’s former enemy. In short, he was willing to look at serious subject matter with the kind of sober open mind that would seem to be the opposite of what one would expect from a post-freedom fries conservative movement. So imagine my surprise and disappointment when Eastwood came out on the Republican National Convention stage and make a complete ass of himself while talking to an empty chair. This was a stark reminder of the Clint Eastwood who played Dirty Harry and who was in many ways the inheritor of John Wayne’s role of the conservative Hollywood action hero. It was certainly a misguided appearance (from my perspective at least), not the least because it cast a bit of a shadow over his latest project American Sniper, a film about the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict that I would have given Eastwood a lot more of a benefit of the doubt about before his RNC performance.
American Sniper looks at the life of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a fairly typical Texas man who joined the military after the 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings and was quickly tapped to join the Navy SEALS. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq progress, Kyle quickly earned the reputation for being one of the deadliest snipers in the military and started to be called “the legend” amongst soldiers, who get a boost of confidence when they know that he’s watching over their urban battlefields and can pick off insurgents who are planning ambushes. After a few tours of duty Kyle is assigned to take part in the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his vicious second in command called “The Butcher” (Mido Hamada), and an elusive Iraqi sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik). At the start this pursuit is simply business, but as Kyle starts losing fellow soldiers the hunt begins to consume Kyle through one tour of duty after another as his constant absence becomes more and more of a burden on his wife Taya Renae Kyle (Sienna Miller).
American Sniper has largely been sold with a bold trailer in which more or less lets an early scene play out in which Kyle spots a woman and child who may or may not be holding a bomb approach a group of soldiers. He radios in to report the movement and is told it’s his call to make as to whether or not to fire and his spotter tells him “they’ll fry you if you’re wrong.” As the pressure builds you start to hear a heartbeat and are given flashes of the rest of Kyle’s life with each beat. It’s a damn good trailer which sells the film as being viscerally exciting not just because of the way it uses military procedure but also because it would analyze the pressure of not really knowing the right thing to do and having to decide in an instant whether or not to pull the trigger. The trailer ends on a cliffhanger and you can’t help but want to go to the movie just to see how Kyle would handle situations like that and what effect it would have on him… it’s also kind of misleading. Spoiler alert, he shoots the living shit out of that kid, and rather than being put into an existential crisis he is almost immediately told in no uncertain terms that he did the right thing, saved his brothers in arms, and he accepts this assessment without much hesitation and never seems to think of it again.
That’s the thing about this movie, there’s endless room for introspection and complexity but the movie largely fails to really explore these things because the character at the center of the film is largely incapable of introspection. The Chris Kyle of this film is not a very relatable character, at least not very relatable to a blue state liberal like myself. The movie doesn’t necessarily come off as a piece of flag-waving jingoistic propaganda but Kyle is a single-mindedly gung-ho “patriot” who sees the world in terms of black and white, good guys and bad guys, and willfully ignores any of the complexities around him and the movie mostly reflects this worldview rather than challenge it. There is not a minute spent stepping back and questioning America’s role in Iraq and there’s not a single sympathetic Iraqi or Afghan in the film. Kyle simply decides there’s evil there, enlists, and never looks back and neither does the movie. When he’s finally questioned about whether or not he regrets the hundred plus people he kills from afar he basically just says that the shots he took were to protect the people his targets were going to shoot, which is more or less the same reasoning that Gary Cooper’s character gave seventy some years ago in Sargent York. I suppose that’s an accurate summation of the real Chris Kyle’s attitude but there’s no reason that the real the film itself couldn’t have been a little more thoughtful than its protagonist.
The more successful parts of the film are probably the ones relating to Kyle’s homelife and his marriage. I’m generally baffled by the phenomenon of servicemen re-enlisting for tour of duty after tour of duty and most movies don’t do a very good job of explaining why people do this (yes, even the ones which show them being bored at supermarkets). Here it makes a little more sense, in part because the protagonist is this legendary soldier who actually would have a good reason to believe that his presence would make a real difference in the war. It helps that Bradly Cooper really does a great job of portraying Kyle. Cooper put on a lot of weight to play the part and dramatically changes his demeanor. He’s pretty far removed from both the somewhat douchey yuppie persona that made him a star and also from the slightly unhinged characters he played in the David O. Russell films that really signaled that he was an actor worth keeping an eye on. This and The Place Beyond the Pines are probably the first entirely un-comedic roles where he’s really knocked it out of the park and at this point I’m probably ready to admit once and for all that I misjudged the guy on my first impression.
I could have easily gotten past any political misgivings about the film if it had really been a uniquely compelling experience otherwise, but at the end of the day it just felt like a kind of average war movie to me. At the very least I expected the movie to be an interesting look at what goes into being a military sniper, but Kyle spends less time actually sniping in the movie than I expected. Most of his sniping exploits are established in a single montage and afterwards he takes a more conventional soldier role in this central mission where he’s hunting an Abu Musab al-Zarqawi lieutenant and an elusive Iraqi sniper. Even if Kyle’s military career did take the form a cinematically structured mission (and no, it didn’t) this would still feel a little too convenient to be believed. Otherwise this kind of felt like the Iraq war by numbers. I’m not really sure why the Vietnam movies of the 70s and 80s could be as stylistically varied as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and The Deer Hunter while every Iraq/Afghanistan movie of our modern era just kind of looks the same (Desert Storm, by contrast, has provided some much more adventurous cinema). That said, this is a Clint Eastwood production so it’s nothing if not competently made. There are some interestingly rendered action scenes here and the storytelling is mostly clean and well rendered.
So what do I ultimately have to say about American Sniper? Well, it could have been a lot worse but it also could have been a whole lot better. The movie never quite dips into Act of Valor levels of pandering and troop worship, but it still could have done a lot more to explore the rather tricky morality that surround both the act of sniping people for a living and the nature of having to live up to being a living legend. As such the movie just kind of feels oddly non-committal and middling. In fact I probably preferred last year’s surprise hit January war movie Lone Survivor, which at least committed to an ideology and ran with it while also having much more exciting combat sequences. Still, I can’t really dismiss this movie. It has some a lot of strong moments and Bradly Cooper’s performance really carries it. Clint Eastwood has been stuck in a weird dry spell ever since he made the solid but oddly forgettable 2008 film Changling, and while he actually had made movies in that stretch that are probably better than American Sniper but none of them had the same impact or relevance. Then again we are talking about the man who made one of the greatest war movies of all time in Letters for Iwo Jima and given that this movie is a pretty big disappointment.
*** out of Four