In my recent piece on the accuracy/truth of Oscar season biopics, I consciously avoided digging into the topic of Chris Kyle and American Sniper to avoid spiralling out into many thousands of words. My article landed in the general vicinity of “it’s more important to stay true to the spirit of your subject than stress about precise factual accuracy” but it’s hard to deny that a film like American Sniper complicates that conclusion. After all, what obligations do you have to the spirit of a man who is, fundamentally, a state-sanctioned mass murderer.
For those unaware of the backstory, Chris Kyle was America’s “most lethal sniper,” accumulating well over one hundred kills serving in the military. His memoirs dug into his character and those kills (among a large range of questionable assertions, ranging from punching Jesse Ventura to shooting civilians on government orders after Katrina). Murdering a lot of people is apparently a recipe for celebrity in America, and celebrity becomes cinematic immortality in this film about Kyle’s experiences , directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Jason Hall.
The film has kicked up a fair bit of controversy from left-leaning film critics (of which I am one, of course). Seth Rogen compared it to Inglourious Basterds’ Nazi propaganda film-within-a-film, while plenty of commentators on Twitter have staged a right-vs-left, American Sniper-vs-Selma battle centring on the Oscars (and the former destroying the latter at the box office). Many of these criticisms have merit, with Eastwood’s film leaving an uncomfortable aftertaste (and inspiring some reprehensible reactions on Twitter, which I won’t give any oxygen). But regarding the film as an entirely propagandist piece of army recruitment is short-sighted, if not without merit.
American Sniper regularly – if not consistently – undermines its subject’s worldview. This is a subjective film, only briefly absconding from Kyle’s perspective to peer at warzones from a distance, as though an unseen sniper is perpetually present. But we sense from the camera’s fearful lingering on Kyle’s father’s unbuckled belt – threat and promise combined – or the shot of Kyle framed by dozens of animal skulls that Kyle is not the great man the screenplay appears to represent. The presence of Punisher comic book iconography throughout suggests that Eastwood is at least peripherally aware of the violent, gun-fetishising fantasies that fuel Kyle’s death toll.
Bradley Cooper, playing the lead role, goes a long way towards destabilising the film’s apparent advocacy of Kyle’s unthinking jingoism. In my experience, most conversations around Cooper as an actor revolve around the word “over-rated” and thus far I’ve agreed with that assessment. But Cooper’s good here; he’s dumb here. He channels this kind of slack-jawed vacancy that is necessary for the kind of blunt appraisals of foreign policy that are the foundation of Chris Kyle’s ability to be a killing machine. Note his discomfort having a personal conversation or talking to his wife, but the supreme sense of calm – and occasional happiness – that seems to overcome the man when he’s in a war zone. Whether or not the screenplay fully understands it, Cooper recognises that to kill over a hundred men you don’t need to be a hero – you need to be something less than human.
But I can’t entirely justify this kind of contrarian take, because the screenplay – the third from Jason Hall, who also wrote the forgettable thriller Paranoia – unapologetically promotes its subject as a hero. American Sniper’s fantastic trailer is built on moral conflict; conflict that is almost entirely absent from the tale of a man who shoots women and children without compunction (which is consistent with Kyle’s memoirs, as I understand it). This might make him a good soldier but it doesn’t make him a good person …while Hall’s screenplay links the two inextricably.
Of particular note is the way the film refuses to acknowledge the possibility of Kyle killing an innocent, even inadvertently. The closest we come is a split-second confrontation with a superior officer claiming that a man Kyle shot was carrying a Quran; our ‘hero’ sneers that he doesn’t know what a Quran looks like, but he sure knows what a Kalashnikov looks like, and that’s the end of that. Every man, woman or child Kyle shoots is shown as an unambiguous threat to US soldiers – even when our protagonist can’t see them clearly himself, Eastwood grants us a close-up of the bad guy fondling a sniper rifle or grenade lovingly. The complexity of war and questions about why we need men like Kyle – and why we celebrate them – are avoided for a monochrome portrayal of good-vs-evil.
American Sniper isn’t an awful film. If nothing else, Eastwood demonstrates he’s still capable of directing a gripping setpiece, aptly utilising the handheld pseudo-realist approach favoured in depictions of modern warfare. But by holding true to the spirit of its subject, it is an uncomfortable film to watch (at least, unless you’re the kind of person who’s comfortable with ignoring the humanity of enemy combatants, whatever their ideology). The potential for American Sniper to interrogate the kind of country that produces this kind of man is hinted at but, sadly, unmet.