American Sniper is an unremarkable film about an undeniably remarkable man. In one minute contemplative and intelligent, in the next chest-pounding and exploitative, this biopic of historically lethal U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle provides brief glimpses of a better movie, only to trudge on without turning back in a “no regrets” sentimentality lifted straight from its main character.
This is a curious, entertaining film that simply undercuts itself one too many times to make a lasting impact. It wants us to lean forward in anticipation of a kill, then later, briefly, think about if this is damaging to Chris. Never does it ask if this is damaging to us. And yet the “will he or won’t he shoot” device, which purposely implicates us in the burdensome day-to-day decisions of a military sniper, is used twice, once with frustrating exploitative zeal. The first instance is tense and effective, although unnecessarily prolonged by flashbacks. The second instance is played for the exact same effect (in case the first one wasn’t enough), but in a way that is so absurd it’s impossible to feel anything but cheated and condescended. This is a feeling you get used to as the film goes on.
At one point in the film, Chris declares an evil presence in Iraq. “There’s evil everywhere,” counters another soldier. If that’s true in this world, it’s not true in this movie. While Americans are seen at worst as invasive, rude and hostile in their multiple home invasions, the Iraqi people are barely human. They are always culpable and seem only to exist for war and deceit. To be clear, a movie doesn’t have to highlight both sides of a conflict. In most narratives, especially ones that focus on an individual, a limited perspective is simply a fact of storytelling. Nor does a movie have to champion both sides of a conflict in a grab at sympathy. But there’s a crucial distinction between not telling the other side’s story and telling it ineptly.
Watching this film, one forgets that in 2006 this same director produced the companion films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, both devoting over two hours to exploring the Battle of Iwo Jima from the American and Japanese perspectives, respectively. (Letters is even audaciously (for a Hollywood production) performed in Japanese with English subtitles.) Gone is that empathy for universal humanity – in its place, this film pits our protagonist against a veritable super villain named Mustafa, a notorious Iraqi sniper with his own sizable body count, thanks to his almost inhuman ability to execute improbably long shots. Mustafa is the kind of guy who we’ll cut to in the middle of a scene, only to find him sitting on his couch, ominously spinning a sniper round on his table while his wife and child watch. He’s the kind of guy who jumps from rooftop to rooftop like Spider-Man in search of the perfect sightline. He’s the kind of guy who smirks after yet another kill shot. This last moment in particular feels most egregious, since the movie never stops to wonder if anyone on the American side (or in the audience) possess a similar bloodlust. Such simplistic characterizations should never be necessary to convey a film’s message. They only prevent us from engaging the real issues. Chris Kyle’s story has significance without such devices.
Despite my misgivings, certain scenes that initially seemed too hasty to take seriously have since settled nicely into my memory. Most of all, I ponder Chris’ discomfort in an encounter with a veteran whose life he saved in combat, and his similar reaction when a navy doctor confronts him on his insatiable need to save those overseas when there are plenty to save on the home front. Bradley Cooper brings much of the film’s potency to the fore. In the fleeting moments where others challenge Chris’ determination, Cooper’s thoughts seem to wander, his face reverting to its comfortable grimace. At a funeral, a mother of a fallen soldier reads a note written by her son just before his death: “When does glory fade away or become a wrongful crusade, or an unjustified means by which consumes one completely?” On the ride home, Chris’ wife Taya (Sienna Miller) asks him what he thinks of this. He responds with another automized dictum: “That letter killed [him].” But does he believe this? And if so, does he hear what he’s saying? In scenes like this, Cooper makes us believe there’s more than muscle between Chris Kyle and his heart.
Alas, American Sniper‘s character study lands on the wrong side of subtle, with Kyle’s guilt and trauma present enough to pique our curiosity, yet mysteriously absent in pivotal moments, which instead feel played for visceral theatrics (including a climactic bullet-time shot that holds for awkward applause). The film prefers to gloss over its inquiries into Chris Kyle and mistakingly expects us to share its interests. By the end, the film has largely abandoned its inquisitive pursuit and shuffles off in a clumsy final scene that serves as a fittingly respectful tribute to a decorated soldier and father of two, but leaves us with little to say except condolences.
As a director, Clint Eastwood has a long history of challenging our oversimplified, unflappable perceptions of heroes and masculinity. So perhaps misguidedly, though not at all unnaturally, many have criticized American Sniper because it seems a dissent from his intensely argumentative demythologizing films in the past. Yet when examined as a standalone piece, the film’s contradictions prove its critical flaw. The problem becomes not that this film is ‘pro-violence’ or ‘anti-violence,’ but rather that it makes its audience choose one of these sides, paring the discussion down to its plainest terms. To call this film toothless is unfair. It just has baby teeth.