REVIEW: 'American Sniper'
There’s a scene near the beginning of American Sniper where a young boy named Chris Kyle is hunting deer with his father. Kyle takes his shot, and kills the deer effortlessly; his father congratulates him, saying, “Chris, you’ve got a gift for this”. With this sequence, director Clint Eastwood tells us that Kyle was almost destined to become “the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history”, as the film’s ads proclaim. Like a character from a Greek myth, Kyle’s talents are recognized at a young age, and he sets out to eventually become the elite soldier his men call “Legend”.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with setting up the story this way, and indeed, Eastwood is displaying his trademark efficient and uncomplicated style of filmmaking here, which continues through the rest of the movie. The downside is that the hunting scene, along with a number of other sections of the film, feel too much like war movie or biopic conventions. As finely crafted as American Sniper is, there’s not many memorable moments to be found. What’s most frustrating is that we get hints of the other movies that American Sniper could have been, if only we had seen less battle footage and more of Kyle (Bradley Cooper) at home, struggling to re-integrate with his family.
Is American Sniper a movie about post-traumatic stress disorder? I would argue that it isn’t – at least in the sense that it doesn’t graphically depict soldiers wrestling with the horrors of war. Kyle is obviously deeply scarred by his time as a soldier, but he’s an intriguing example: as presented in the film, Kyle doesn’t succumb to violent or self-destructive behaviour, and only has two (fairly tame) outbursts, both near the end of the film. The rest of the time, Kyle is a relatively stoic figure, quietly trying to reconcile his need to protect his fellow soldiers and his responsibilities as a husband and a father. We see such limited evidence of Kyle’s trauma that sometimes the pleas from his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) almost sound like unfair nagging.
So the question becomes: should American Sniper be a film about PTSD? Since I haven’t read the original script by Jason Hall, it’s hard to say whether the surplus of battle scenes was Hall’s decision or Eastwood’s. But I did read an excellent long-form article about Kyle in the New Yorker several months before American Sniper was announced, and I know there’s much more to Kyle’s personal struggle than we see in the film. Certainly, had some of this been included, Kyle’s apparent emotional turnaround in the final ten minutes would feel less convenient, and more like the tremendous accomplishment that it was.
Then again, we can only get so far by speculating about what the movie American Sniper “could have, should have, would have” been. Not to mention that Eastwood likely isn’t the director to make a searing, dialogue-heavy film about a soldier’s emotions. As the Toronto Star’s Peter Howell pointed out, Eastwood has “a fascination with taciturn men called upon to do a dirty but necessary job well”, and it’s easy to see how that interest influences the structure of American Sniper. Like Eastwood’s iconic Dirty Harry character, Chris Kyle isn’t happy about what he’s forced to do, but he also doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it. He’s making the most out of a bad situation, and we’re left to ask whether it’s the man who should be fixed, or the system.
Perhaps it’s merely a question of deciding what kind of war movie you’re looking for. If we want a twinge of sentimentality, we look to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. For a lyrical, otherworldly examination, there’s Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. For stylized, gory violence, look to David Ayer’s Fury from last year. And of course, to get a taste of the hellish madness of war, we have Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Maybe American Sniper, despite its flaws, will become part of a sub-genre of sober, straightforward war movies; films that don’t seek to hit us with a timely message or melodrama, but just relay simple truths.
At the moment, however, we don’t have the benefit of a sniper scope into the future of war movies, and so American Sniper arrives at a time when other movies and TV shows are doing a better job of conveying the many contradictory facets of war, and even after all the skill demonstrated by Eastwood and his cast, the film ends up reflecting an unintended, tragic quality of Chris Kyle’s life: accomplished, but incomplete.
American Sniper gets two and a half stars out of four.
What did you think of American Sniper? Where does it rank among your favourite Clint Eastwood movies? Does it have a chance at any of the Oscars it was nominated for? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!