‘American Sniper’ film a controversial hit

By Barry Ramirez

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, then “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.
Any intelligent spectator will be surprised that it didn’t headline as propaganda.
Under the direction of Clint Eastwood, “American Sniper” recants the story of Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper, the most prolific marksman in U.S. history.
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: 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.
Most of the film is spent following Kyle’s four tours in Iraq after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 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 post-traumatic stress disorder, like tuning his wife out when she is talking to him because a lawn mower is roaring outside. 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 named 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.
Hero-versus-nemesis gunfights compose 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. 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.
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.