American Sniper opens in Iraq, with U.S. Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle prone atop a roof, one eye to the scope of his rifle, as he provides overwatch for a convoy of United States Marines. The air, his spotter declares, “Tastes like shit”. As the armoured fighting vehicles rumble across the scorched earth and kick up columns of dust behind them, a woman and a child emerge from a nearby doorway. They are passing something between them; it looks bulbous and unsightly, like a grenade. It might be one. It might not. The kid takes it, and sets off running. Kyle, through the scope of his rifle, watches him bolt towards the convoy. His finger tightens on the trigger.
The camera pulls away before we find out whether or not Chris Kyle took that shot, and we won’t return here to get our answer for some time. But this moment of decision serves to establish all the things the movie is going to be about, and it does so with assurance. And what is American Sniper about? Not war, or terrorism, or the political and cultural changes which spiralled out of the tragic events of 9/11: it is, for better or worse, a movie about Chris Kyle.
This distinction is an important one, especially in a movie landscape which more or less demands any piece of art grounded in real-life events have a point; a moral or a political stance, at least; and that if it doesn’t then it is in some way bad, wrong or disrespectful to the lives which were lost or irreparably altered by the events in question. In a way I understand that, and people’s expectation of it. I just think it’s bullshit.
Everything is political. It has to be. Media doesn’t just spring into existence fully-formed; it’s created, and creators are individuals with opinions and backgrounds and experiences that all inform their work in different ways. No movie or book or video game is truly apolitical, and it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise. It might be below the surface, but it’s definitely there. And sometimes, those subdermal politics are enough.
Clint Eastwood eschews introspection and moralising. His personal politics might be out-of-touch, but as a director he favours a boilerplate presentation of facts. It’s a stylistic calling-card which serves him very well here. Chris Kyle’s life is extraordinary enough that presenting it in a series of often context-free combat engagements and scenes of strained, unsettling domesticity is the most logical and effective way of telling his particular story. In his book – and, to a lesser extent, his movie – Kyle is so uncompromisingly pro-military and pro-Iraq that there is no question where he stood; reiterating that would be unnecessary, and grafting some kind of anti-war sentiment onto his life would be disingenuous. Either, more importantly, would be beside the point.
It’s not that American Sniper is uninterested in the broader implications of war and violent action, but that it is simply more interested in how they relate to Chris Kyle specifically; a man who is decisive in the moment, but gravely affected by the long-term consequences of those decisions. It is a demonstration, rather than an exploration, of the toll war takes on the men who fight it.
Chris was compelled to enlist in the Special Forces in his mid-20s, after seeing television footage of the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Before that, he and his brother led aimless lives as rodeo stars and wannabe-cowboys. SEAL training gives him a new sense of purpose, and a target for the patriotism instilled in him by his old-fashioned, fire-and-brimstone father’s stern oversimplifications of life and people’s roles in it. In the process, he meets his future wife, Taya, and has a plastic baby.
Sienna Miller (who was also in Foxcatcher, though given much less to do) turns in a complex performance as the wife who has to grapple with the fact that the qualities she most admires about Chris – his loyalty, determination and desire to “save” everyone he can – are the very same ones which make him a less-than-ideal husband. In other hands Taya could have fallen into the trap of being a generic, whiney military spouse, and she treads a fine line here and there, but she is mostly admirable and occasionally sympathetic. There is never a sense that the couple do not love each other very deeply. Even when Chris is quite blatantly seen to be neglecting her, she sees his constant re-enlistments not as a personal affront, but as an indication that each time he deploys and returns home he is leaving more and more of himself in Iraq.
In real life Kyle racked up over 160 confirmed kills – several of them women and children. He is the deadliest operative in U.S. Navy history, earning him the moniker of “The Legend”, and cementing his place in the annals of military history as the most eerily-talented sniper to ever put eye to scope. In the context of gung-ho militarism, he’s looked upon with awe as the quintessential All-American Hero. But American Sniper shows him to be an anguished, tormented man who is as haunted by the horrific things he has seen and done as he is by the overwhelming guilt of not being able to save more lives than he did. The movie looks at him largely how he looked at his targets: in extreme intimacy, but with detachment.
A bulked-up Bradley Cooper plays Kyle not as an arch, cartoon hero, but as a man, and it is a quietly powerful performance which, to Cooper’s credit, never comes off as too pandering or respectful to be sincere. Kyle is not always likeable or relatable – it is easy, in the movie’s later stages, to be fearful of him and for the safety of those around him. Cooper proved in American Hustle that he was more than just a ruggedly-handsome face which could sell movie tickets, but this is his best work to date. It’s a delicate balancing act of a performance, and a large part of the reason why American Sniper is so effective.
And American Sniper absolutely is effective, both as a gritty, confident portrait of a warrior, and a depiction of the psychological burdens one must endure in order to be one. It is a piece of excellent craftsmanship, from Eastwood’s grim, purposeful direction to Bradley Cooper’s transformative performance. And it’s okay to be okay with that. I know the temptation is there to condemn any media that glorifies Western imperialism; to declare, proudly, that Chris Kyle was a mass-murderer, that there were no nuclear weapons in Iraq, that we never should have been there, that the fake baby is ridiculous. All of those things are probably true, to some extent. But that isn’t American Sniper’s fault. This is the life of Chris Kyle, zoomed all the way in. Zoom out too far, and you miss the point.
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