Review: American Sniper (2015)

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Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Jason Dean Hall
Based onAmerican Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History”, a memoir by Chris Kyle
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Max Charles, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Sam Jaeger & Jake McDorman
Runtime: 132 min // Certificate: 15

If you think that this war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong. You can only circle the flames so long.” – Taya Renae Kyle (Sienna Miller)

The mere existence of a film like American Sniper raises a number of questions about the relationship between art and reality and the cultural relevance of propaganda, both of which I shall address in more detail in a moment. However, if we are to take the film at face value – which I believe is necessary in order to offer as objective an analysis of its successes and failings as possible – then what we have here is a typical wartime drama, directed by a man whose efficient, no-nonsense style stands in stark contrast to the moral complexities of the story he is attempting to tell, that does little to change anyone’s perceptions about conflict in general, and that fails to effectively tackle and address the more problematic aspects not just of its central character’s life, values and beliefs, but also of the aggressive militarism of the United States post-9/11.

Based on Chris Kyle’s memoirs about his time as a Navy SEAL’s sniper in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, American Sniper explores – or at least attempts to explore – the psychological and physical difficulties faced by Navy SEALs both during and in the immediate aftermath of any given conflict. Kyle (Cooper; American Hustle) is portrayed by Eastwood (Gran Torino) and screenwriter Jason Dean Hall (Paranoia) as a moral man, albeit only through the eyes of white, Christian conservatism, or what you might call “traditional morality”. The film portrays him as a patriotic family man who goes to war not for the love of killing but because he believes absolutely in defending his country. To suggest that this is simplistic storytelling would be to overpraise it; it’s redundant, artificial and completely devoid of all drama and urgency. How can an audience be expected to care about a character (and for the purposes of this film, that is what Chris Kyle is) when the character is so lazily constructed?

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Does this poor characterisation mean, however, that American Sniper is propaganda and, if so, is this a bad thing from a cultural standpoint? Well, to both questions the answer is yes and no. Despite the simplistic characterisation, American Sniper isn’t some piece of flagrant, right-wing, gung-ho, “USA! USA!” chanting trash for the simple reason that Clint Eastwood, regardless of your opinion of him as a person, is a much better filmmaker than that. No, what American Sniper is, in layman’s terms, is a film that wants to have its cake and eat it; on the one hand it wants to argue that heroes don’t exist the way we like to believe they do and that all men are flawed, no matter how “great” their achievements, yet as a result of real-life circumstances and some unforgivably sloppy screenwriting, it’s also a film that cannot help but be utterly obsequious to the man whose story it is telling.

In this respect, American Sniper is a hugely frustrating watch. You go in expecting jingoism and that’s exactly what you get, yet there’s more beneath the surface that unfortunately goes thoroughly underexplored. The film flirts with the moral ambiguities not just of war but of the role of the sniper, who picks his targets off from an emotionless distance, yet whenever it threatens to go deeper and take a proper shot at its targets, it retreats back to its comfort zone of blind patriotism and crude hero-worship. Such little time is dedicated to exploring the psychological impact of the war on the central character that whenever this issue is raised it feels like a cynical afterthought; an attempt, if you will, to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. That Cooper is able to carry the film so valiantly on his shoulders and convey genuine internal conflict with a physical performance that is hugely understated and nuanced is testament to his skills as an actor and, to a lesser extent, to Eastwood’s skills as a director, because the screenplay offers next to nothing of value in that area at all. Moral quandaries are raised, “answered” and forgotten in minutes, while the complex ethics of sending psychologically damaged men to fight political wars in the name of “freedom” are barely given a thought.

As such, the more interesting question raised by American Sniper and, to a lesser extent, other recent Academy darlings such as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, is whether or not a film’s propagandist tendencies make it artistically or culturally redundant. For the record, I personally don’t think that American Sniper is propagandist, I just think it’s simplistic, lazy and unbefitting of a filmmaker like Clint Eastwood, but there’s no denying that it quite wilfully ignores the more “problematic” (for lack of a better word) aspects of the real Chris Kyle, a man who is quite open about how much of a kick he got out of his role as a SEALs sniper. That said, even if you do think it to be a conservative fantasy that wishes to idolise a murderer and a savage, to what degree does that make it bad? Are we to argue, then, that all propaganda has no cultural merit? Or, perhaps worse still, are we to suggest that the vulgar opinions of certain elements of the audience are to be blamed on a film rather than their own personal failings as people? Is this not simply a ludicrous extension of the “video-nasty” fanaticism of the 80s? Therefore, as uncomfortable as certain aspects of American Sniper made me, I’m afraid I can’t subscribe to the concept that because it has propagandist tendencies (though if you think it qualifies as “propaganda”, then you ain’t seen enough propaganda films…) that makes it automatically bad.

Of course, I’m viewing the film from a position of relative privilege; I won’t be attacked by a violent racist moron who can’t distinguish between fact and fiction because of American Sniper, and I readily accept that my opinion on the matter is less worthwhile than the opinions of those who might well feel a backlash. With that in mind, allow me to explore the film’s more obvious failings, which are primarily found in the crudity suggested by its very title; American Sniper. The reason it feels propagandist is because it is a film about war that isn’t remotely interested in the politics of conflict. It takes one side and offers little in the way of nuance, crudely pitting good against evil without a shred of authenticity. The Americans are heroes, the Iraqis are savages and there is no middle ground. It is, to pick a recent example, the Lone Survivor problem all over again. You can’t invest in the conflict because it is so crudely drawn. The audience isn’t left to decide for themselves because there’s no decision to make which, when you consider Eastwood’s past efforts, is both a surprise and a shame because he’s normally a much subtler director and storyteller than this.

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On a purely technical level, American Sniper is a fine film. Eastwood is a dab-hand at creating tension and he does a decent job of highlighting the dangers of the conflict to both the SEALs and the Iraqi citizens. The characterisation of the “villains” of the piece is laughably crude, and he struggles to tackle the more emotional beats when Kyle is back on American soil, but the film is at least very well made. Cooper’s performance is fantastic, adding to the stellar portfolio of work he’s built up over the past few years, and though Sienna Miller (Foxcatcher) is unable to deliver the goods in her role as the audience’s feint into Kyle’s psychologically damaged persona, there is just enough surface-level stuff going on to at least keep the film mildly engaging, even when it’s dabbling in some rather unpalatable patriotism.

American Sniper is not the propaganda piece it could’ve been but it’s still a very one-sided and lazy film. In the hands of a less “nuts and bolts” director, it might have felt a little less matter-of-fact, but at the same time it’s hard to imagine a better director than Eastwood to tackle the inherent dangers and miseries of the battlefield. Alas, when it really matters, Eastwood flounders and misses his targets. There’s a decent film about the moral ambiguities of conflict in here somewhere, but it’s smothered by gung-ho hero worship and jingoism that is overegged to the point of parody.