If it isn’t already a principle of film critique that a movie’s worth hinges on the fresh angle and depth that it explores the infinite complexity of what it means to be a human being, “American Sniper” will convince you that it certainly should be. It’s so lacking in political and emotional context that it quickly degrades into a grand example of cliché and chauvinism; any cogitating spectator will be surprised that it didn’t headline as propaganda.
Under the direction of Clint Eastwood, “American Sniper” recants the story of Chis Kyle (Bradley Cooper)—lauded marksman (tallying 160 kills, the most in noted U.S. History), father, and husband. While I cannot attest to who Kyle may have been as a person, I can say that his character seemed borrowed from the mouth of a war hungry politician or a country music singer. He’s a stock character’s stock character: an indifferent, boozing, hunting, bronco bucking, Texan cowboy who is inspired to turn Navy SEAL after watching a newscast of the ’98 attack on the U.S. Embassy in East Africa. If that isn’t American or masculine enough he meets his wife, Taya Kyle (Sienna Miller), in a bar, pummeled his brother’s bully in grade school, and his father thinks he has the “gift of violence.”
Most of the film is spent following Kyle’s four tours in Iraq after 9/11. After his first tour, during which he earns the moniker “the legend,” a plot gradually begins to form. He begins to suffer from the rudimentary symptoms of PTSD, like tuning his wife out when she is talking to him because a lawn mower is roaring outside; not the type of scene that hasn’t been done. On returning to Iraq, Kyle is assigned to search for al-Queda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and this leads to a conflict with his minion “the butcher” and a rival sniper “Mustafa.” What ensues is the thoughtless dynamic that too many films about the war in the Middle East have followed: there are the “good guys,” the Americans, and the “bad guys”; the “good guys” chase down the “bad guys” and destroy them. This superficial treatment of intricate political and social realities of the war is nothing short of repugnant. One can easily guess the nationalistic sentiment “American Sniper” will continue kindle.
Moreover, it’s the gunfights incited by the hero/nemesis conflict that comprise the majority of the screen time. This isn’t inherently problematic. It’s a reasonable expectation that a film on war have the snore of machine gunfire, explosion, death and the whirr-whizz of bullets. However, if a film is to supersede being a mere action film—as the praised poured on it would seem to suggest it would—then it needs to soberly wrangle with the moral and emotional consequences of warfare on the human condition.
The chief disappointment of the film is that Kyle seemed a perfect character for this mode of study: a man splintered between domestic responsibilities and a throbbing sense of duty to his country. How can a man gun down women and children, yet come home warmly to his wife and own children? What does the killing of 160 people do to his humanity? What does this mean for his family? This is the type of internal conflict that would drive a masterpiece. But Eastwood only deals with the surface.
This has two ramifications: one, Kyle comes off as incredibly apathetic and, two, the scenes that would normally generate a cathartic experience seem insipid and cliché because a spectator cannot empathize with underwhelming, underdeveloped characters.
This is all the more troubling when you realize that Kyle is the most complex character, and that not one of the Iraqi characters ever exceeds being a potential enemy. Put shortly, they’re dehumanized—Kyle calls them “savages.” Eastwood never attempts to grapple with their perspective and the presence of the U.S. military in Iraq.
I’ve seen reviews that have claimed the film as the best performance of Bradley Cooper’s career; all the worse for Bradley Cooper. If you conceive of yourself as deeply American, feel stirred and the urge to weep when the anthem is being played, or simply enjoy war films for their action, you might like “American Sniper.” But if, like me, you’re interested in understanding the psychological impact of war, stay home and watch “The Hurt Locker” instead.