Based on Chris Kyle's autobiography, this movie directed by Clint Eastwood follows Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a then-U.S. Navy SEAL, who is sent to Iraq with the mission to protect his brothers-in-arms. His pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and earns him the nickname 'The Legend'. Despite the danger, as well as the toll on his family at home, Chris serves through four harrowing tours of duty in Iraq, but upon returning to his wife, Taya Renae Kyle (Sienna Miller), and kids, Chris finds that it is the war he can’t leave behind.
Michael Herr was a minor film critic when he went to Vietnam to cover the war there in 1967 for Esquire. He dug in deep. In 1977, he published Dispatches, a collection of his reportage. On the back of my battered, much-read paperback of it is this review from Time: “Herr dared to travel to that irrational place and to come back with the worst possible news: war thrives because enough men still love it.”
Watching American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s impressive new film, I couldn’t help but think of Herr’s book and that review because it sums up what is so troubling about it, even if the movie’s battlefront is Iraq and not Vietnam. I’m not about to make any cheap parallels between two unpopular wars. But Dispatches, published two years after the fall of Saigon, was limned with madness and despair in the face of a phoney war. American Sniper arrives as Dispatches did with exquisite timing. That is, Eastwood’s pic will be understood as a statement, a salvo in a debate where a ceasefire, let alone a resolution, seems a long way off. No matter if its story is sad, small and bleak, and doesn’t seem calibrated to rouse or settle an argument. (Comparisons to 1968’s The Green Berets are a long way off.) Eastwood’s disquiet with such certainties as heroism is evident in the movie’s dominant image: its titular hero sitting alone, lost in half-darkness and brooding of things done and not spoken of.
American Sniper has already been cursed with importance. It is up for Oscars. It has inspired loathing and applause in about equal measure from left and right. Even its box office success has been seen as a sign that the American public are ready for a story about Iraq. If it’s making money, then that must mean Eastwood and co. have cast the US as the ‘good guys’? Well, not quite. It’s a moment similar to when The Deer Hunter (1978) arrived. Critics feel a duty to weigh in on its politics, inspiring outrage and admiration. Depending, of course, on the kind of picture one wishes for. Still, this is the Eastwood of Unforgiven (1992). So expect contradictions.
For here, in this well-tooled and moving film, combat is a drug, and its addicts are so swallowed up by its rage and convictions they can’t see or believe in much else. Maybe that’s what makes them worthy warriors. But in American Sniper, surviving means taking your work home with you. And are the folks Stateside ready for what that might mean? (It’s telling that amongst the film’s most striking moments are scenes of war vet amputees.)
In part, American Sniper is the story of a soldier who loves his job of work and can’t stand it when life doesn’t give him a chance to shoot someone in the line of duty. That would be Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). In real life, he seemed to cultivate an image of a good ‘Ol Boy, complete with Texas drawl and baseball cap, a gun lover, a cowboy and courageous Navy Seal, a veteran of four tours in Iraq, where he earned the nickname ‘Legend’. Kyle, a hardcore Christian and Republican, enlisted to fight Terror. He was already a celebrity when his memoir, the basis for the screenplay here by Jason Hall, came out in 2012. On talk shows he pulled off the neat trick of appearing modest while declaring he had over 200 kills to his name while serving. (Only 160 were confirmed.) TV hosts made it sound like baseball scores. In public, Kyle was careful to talk about how much he hated war. In his book, he writes of the importance of cool and the loathing he had for the “savages” he killed. (Kyle’s detractors call him bloodthirsty.) Kyle says at one point in his book how he found evidence of WMDs while on tour in Iraq. Fame brought scrutiny. The New Yorker tested claims made in his book – that he shot dead a pair of carjackers, that he decked Jesse Ventura in a bar – and found that Kyle was, well, something of a bullshit artist.
Eastwood and co. give us the broad outline here but don’t touch on his unreliable character. Perhaps because Kyle, while he was still alive, was involved in the film. (Spoiler: He was killed in February, 2013 in Texas by an Iraqi vet suffering from post-traumatic stress, an affliction that visits both the movie and real-life Kyle.) Obviously, American Sniper, the movie, has turned out to be an unintended elegy. But it is more than a re-construction of the Iraqi mis-adventure as some kind of symbolic victory. (Which is the fashionable reading of the film from both left and right.)
American Sniper, then, is about how hard it is for a warrior to come home. The urtext here is, of course, William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a story of three WWII veterans and their difficult transition into civilian life.
And this is where Eastwood’s vision and skill is so artfully at play. American Sniper is essentially a churning combat film interrupted with short domestic scenes: Sienna Miller is courageously good in a thankless role of Taya, Kyle’s wife. These bits are like commercial breaks advertising an impossible dream of family and peace where Kyle looks on helpless and useless.
We feel Kyle’s detachment and disorientation (and Cooper is excellent) because Eastwood, working with his long-time collaborators, have punished us with the best action scenes of his career: visceral, unpleasant, a confused experience of elation and disgust.
Indeed, this is Eastwood’s most energetic film in years, even if the style is the familiar one of wide lenses, long takes and terse to-the-point dramaturg. (With the addition of a highly mobile camera and some voguish effects like ‘bullet cam’.)
The film’s narrative thrust is myopic – we don’t learn much about anyone else – not the Iraqis, who are either victims or lethal, or Kyle’s mates, or even his wife. This is clearly a severe limitation and accusations of insensitivity aren’t out of order.
Yet, I’m not convinced that Eastwood is without irony here. The film’s story design makes Kyle a loner, and lonely. The character might spout a lot of crap about Al-Qaeda and having no regrets. But Cooper’s close-ups make a plea for guilt and uncertainty. That was never Kyle’s story. But it’s Eastwood’s.