American Sniper (2014)
Editor’s Notes: American Sniper is currently out in wide theatrical release. For more on American Sniper, read American Sniper: Clint Eastwood and (Re-)Issues of American Masculinity by Ronan Doyle.
Feelings are such on American Sniper that a review is no longer just a review; rather, it is a statement, a thesis, a loaded op-ed. One would hope such a piece would not rest solely on where one leans politically, though that seems to be where the debate has shifted. For what it’s worth, I’m in stark opposition to the Clint Eastwood who talks to empty chairs, but I’m an enduring fan of the filmmaker who brought us Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby. I’ve wondered where that filmmaker has gone for most of the last decade, and I can state that on a purely visual level, he’s back in full force. In form and presentation, American Sniper is Eastwood’s most evocative visual effort in years. Unfortunately, though, in terms of textual and subtextual content, the chair-talking Clint evidently served as co-director.
In form and presentation, American Sniper is Eastwood’s most evocative visual effort in years.
Eastwood has always been a mixed bag ideologically, the gun-toting cowboy image of his iconic roles exuding a staunchly conservative exterior, with some of his later directorial efforts revealing an underbelly of social liberalism. American Sniper offers audiences a certain amount of both divergent points of view, and as one might imagine, that dichotomy does not result in a consistent and coherent thematic experience.
But of course, that’s not the film’s only issue, nor is it its deepest. In fact, a film that attempts to honor the service of a presumed “hero” with patriotic reverence while also examining the lingering and damaging effects said hero can exhibit as a result of that service is quite powerful and ambitious. The problem, if I may expand this discussion into an unthinkable realm, is the state of the American political system in general – how it has created two disparate ideological factions and driven an unmovable wedge between them. And without intending to, a film like American Sniper sets that wedge ablaze. We see the resulting reactions – social media was abuzz with all manner of “this movie makes me want to kill Arabs” tweets and Facebook posts, the kind of disturbing messages that send shutters up one’s spine. It’s a sobering thought to know viewpoints like that exist. Of course, what response does this trigger from those of us on the left? Outrage for one, much hand wringing and debate on social media, and a spray-painted billboard or two (actually, as far as I know, it was only the one). And so we are reminded that art is that most influential of mediums, and artists wield a mighty powerful brush. They best use careful brushstrokes.
Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall, clearly, have not – though it’s difficult to determine just how much Eastwood’s directorial influence ultimately overwhelmed the screenplay’s inherent ideas. Yes, the film attempts to blend multiple ideologies, resulting in enough contradictory material so as to engender the onslaught of hate speech and social outrage. What that indicates to me, perhaps good intentions aside, is an inelegance of thematic filmmaking, a movie that strives for nuance but doesn’t quite know how to achieve it. Case-in-point: the film’s relationship with the military machine, simultaneously critical and blindly laudatory. One of the screenplay’s most intriguing goals is to capture the result of military indoctrination – people enter the fire and come back forever changed. An important theme, yes – albeit one explored with more grace in other films (hello, Hurt Locker), and one the film doesn’t fully commit itself to.
Truthfully, the most glaring overall problem with American Sniper’s legitimacy as a film is that it flirts with complex issues and then abandons them, thereby taking the easy way out.
Truthfully, the most glaring overall problem with American Sniper’s legitimacy as a film is that it flirts with complex issues and then abandons them, thereby taking the easy way out. Chris Kyle’s father was an intimidating, bible-thumping, gun-toting wingnut, but we don’t ever get to trace how his influence affected his sons. Pre-military, Kyle (played with gruff force by newly-minted Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper) was a drunken, violent do-nothing, but rather than probe his psyche, the film uses that opportunity to make a crack about a cheating girlfriend. Then, upon seeing imagery of bombings on the news, Kyle stands up slowly and his eyes widen, as though he is suddenly possessed by heroism. It’s the clunkiest one-note first act of a movie I’ve seen all year. That’s not even a remotely hyperbolic statement.
The film improves markedly once it delves into Kyle’s four tours in Iraq, exploring the intensity of the military conflicts and then Kyle’s subsequent struggle to function away from the battlefield. It is in this expanded middle section where both Eastwood and Cooper are able to sink their teeth into the meat of this story and character. Once again, the screenplay seems to want to explore how war changes a person, but the episodic manner in which these scenes play out repeats the same premise without digging deep enough to touch a nerve. Later, when Kyle, broken, decides “enough is enough” and opts to come home, it’s only because he views his mission as accomplished, not because the horrors of war have burdened him into deeper realizations about himself or the conflict he has participated in.
After the battle section, of course, there isn’t much for the movie to do but end, and of that ending, it’s fair to say the screenplay takes a most delicate situation and essentially turns it into a straight-faced caricature.
There’s also the matter of all that’s missing from American Sniper, which is to say all those stories Kyle apparently fabricated in the book on which this film is based. Did he punch Jesse Ventura in a bar? No – and Ventura won a defamation suit to prove it. Did he gun down two would-be carjackers on a deserted country road? Nope. Did he stand atop the Superdome roof in New Orleans and snipe looters? Apparently not, though even if it were true, someone who would brag about it in their autobiography seems like the kind of person I would want to avoid at all costs. Essentially, it’s hard to take American Sniper at face value when the film casually sidesteps these wild inaccuracies. One might counter by saying “a movie is a movie…Eastwood was telling this story and not opening it up to that larger post-military narrative.” And I would respond by saying that this movie elevates this character to a saintly status. So those omissions become ever-crucial to the audience’s perception. And now that the story has leapt off the screen and into the headlines, it’s difficult to separate the movie from the madness. Having a full knowledge of all the facts can’t help but color a viewer’s perspective and make one cautious to buy into the film’s text.
But of course, it is “just a movie,” and at times a powerful one. Every time it seems poised to capitalize on that power, however, it haphazardly shifts direction. Based on the kinds of ideas it seems the filmmakers toyed with exploring, American Sniper is a profound missed opportunity to provide a nuanced exploration of the war-torn psyche. But it hedges its bets, and as a result, we see how those people on the fringe are responding.
Based on the kinds of ideas it seems the filmmakers toyed with exploring, American Sniper is a profound missed opportunity to provide a nuanced exploration of the war-torn psyche.