Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Jason Hall
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner
The opening shot of American Sniper, the new film by Clint Eastwood, is mesmerising. Bradley Cooper’s eponymous sniper is in position on a rooftop in Iraq covering ground troops below. Through his scope, an Iraqi woman hands her small son an explosive device. The sniper hesitates. Killing enemy combatants is one thing, killing children is a different kettle of fish.
This is pure cinema, conjuring up memories of iconic war movies such as Platoon, where the moral line of combat is thinly drawn and the choice must be made between preserving the lives of comrades or innocent civilians.
It is therefore regrettable that the film fails to build upon this morally opaque and interesting prelude, and too often retreats into chest beating and flag waving, which even allowing for Eastwood’s Republican leanings feels like a backwards step. The film is based upon the best-selling memoir by former US Navy Seal, Chris “Legend” Kyle, the most lethal marksman in U.S. military history with 160 confirmed kills. One suspects that Eastwood has presented a more sanitised version of Kyle’s story; Bradley Cooper’s real life counterpart was far more angry and conflicted than the film suggests, a man who freely admitted that he found killing “fun” and viewed the Iraqis as “savages”. Yet Eastwood fudges this issue. By presenting his subject as a quintessentially all-American hero endowed with essentially noble intentions at a young age, not only does Kyle a disservice, but also sacrifices the director’s chance to offer a more intelligent and interesting artistic vision as a result. This is disappointing coming from a director who has previously given nuanced and thorough examinations of both the consequences of violence (Unforgiven) and the artificial construct of heroism (Flags of Our Fathers).
That is not to say Cooper isn’t appropriately conflicted as Kyle. Significantly bulked-up and with a pitch perfect Texan accent, he gives an appropriately understated and powerful performance as a man who cannot fully articulate his need to continue returning to war, to the place where things make sense. His Kyle is engaged and active in combat, listless and withdrawn when dealing with his wife (Sienna Miller) and children. One poignant scene illustrates this perfectly, when Kyle returns to stateside but chooses to spend time in a bar rather than with his family. The battle scenes exude Eastwood’s customary tautness and tension, notably an excellent sequence in a sandstorm accurately conveying the chaos, terror and disorientation of combat.
There exists, however, a certain lack of direction beyond paying a conventional salute to the service of an incredible warrior and the price he pays for it, resulting in occasional stilted patches. Miller, despite her best efforts, is reduced to pleading tearfully over the phone for her husband to come home, and isn’t given a great deal to do (an occupational hazard for military wives in war movies). More disappointingly, the Iraqi people, arguably the real victims of the conflict, remain frustratingly faceless. Much like their counterparts in Vietnam pictures, they are swallowed by Eastwood’s efforts to crank up the American heroism, despite an underdeveloped subplot to give Kyle a nemesis in the form of an Iraqi sniper. And for all the skill of Cooper’s central performance, in the end his character arc (as a decent family man to troubled veteran and through to the solace he finds in counselling disturbed survivors) is both underdeveloped and engineered too cheaply. Tapping into the darker and more dangerous parts of Kyle’s psyche would have made for a more reckless and morally complex film. Despite the efforts of Cooper and Eastwood and regardless of the film’s six Oscar nominations, the fact remains that the war movie genre has outgrown this particularly flag-waving brand of patriotism.