Review: American Sniper (2014)

In all the media hubbub surrounding American Sniper’s unprecedented $89 million haul this past weekend, many commentators have been quick to call its subject, Chris Kyle, a real life Captain America. This reveals a lot about the picture’s relationship to an idealized American hero (whatever that looks like), and is a good entry point into discussing the film itself. American Sniper is an ambivalent war picture about a jingoistic action hero who racked up the highest kill count in American military history. It is based on a book written by that hero, Chris Kyle, and follows his perspective while serving in the U.S. military, depicting the world as he saw it, good and bad. It shows his loyalty, his racism, his patriotism, his refusal to recognize his own PTSD, and his own stalwart belief in the U.S. mission in Iraq. Does all this make the film patriotic or conservative or even jingoistic? I’m not convinced that depiction equals endorsement here, nor do I think that the film is unquestioningly supportive of the War on Terror. It just follows a soldier who is. Moreover, American Sniper is a fascinating film regardless of that debate: it is tense, often thrilling, conflicted, and curiously ambivalent towards its character’s mindset. It depicts a conservative U.S. Navy SEAL sniper who believed he embodied American ideals by killing Iraqi insurgents, and it lets us sort out what that says about America in the here and now.

Clint Eastwood’s film begins with Chris Kyle—played by Bradley Cooper, who tones down his natural charisma and lets the character’s physicality do much of the talking for him—on a rooftop in Fallujah spotting for threats to an American convoy moving through town. He spots a guy on a roof talking on a cellphone, then sees a woman holding a grenade move into the street with her son. Does he shoot? Eastwood doesn’t answer the question right away. He cuts back to Kyle’s childhood, where his father teaches him to use his natural aggression to defend the defenseless—to be a sheepdog, instead of a wolf or a sheep, in his father’s parlance. Kyle clutches to the role like a dog to a bone. In the following scenes, where we see Kyle working in the rodeo and then joining the SEALS, he is trying his best to create the narrative that he is a sheepdog: a defender of justice and protector of the innocent, instead of just another wolf.

It’s pertinent to remember that this movie is based on Kyle’s memoir, which means that it’s based on a man writing his own narrative. Kyle tried throughout his life to live up to the expectations of a good patriot, to be a real life Captain America, if you will. The fact that he lived up to it in many people’s eyes, or that he might never have lived up to it, or perhaps even that his worldview allowed the government to turn him into an impersonal killing machine, gives the film its interesting wrinkles, despite the fact that it’s based on his supposedly triumphant first-person account. This tension makes American Sniper fascinating and worth dissecting.

Just because a man says he’s a patriot doesn’t mean we ought to believe him, nor does it mean we should immediately dismiss him. Kyle speaks of killing insurgents in order to save his fellow soldiers and stop terror from spreading to the U.S., but he wears a Punisher emblem on his helmet and on his ammunition cartridges, like he’s a character out of a comic book. He talks of duty to God and country and family, but he never reads the Bible he carries with him and seems eager to leave his family when enjoying shore leave. Chris Kyle is a contradictory figure. The film doesn’t ignore these contradictions, even if it never makes a grand declarative statement about them either. It’s also important to understand that Chris Kyle isn’t the director of this film. Clint Eastwood is: a man who’s made a career of exploring the relationship between violence and masculinity and whether men can ever abandon their violent pasts. Be sure to keep that authorial distance in mind.

After showing Kyle’s formative experiences, which include his joining the SEALS and meeting his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), we go back to that rooftop in Fallujah and follow Kyle through four tours in Iraq. American Sniper doesn’t give much of an external perspective to any of these tours. We’re never even sure of what year it is. There are scenes of Taya at home in Texas, but they’re always connected to Kyle’s direct experiences in some way, like through a phone call. We’re experiencing the war as Kyle does, not as an objective observer would. These experiences are often tense and terrifying. Being a sniper is all about patience, and Eastwood is patient in depicting the film’s numerous action scenes. His camera isn’t chaotic. He loves to push in on Kyle’s face as he’s looking down the scope of his rifle. The camera tracks parallel to the barrel, emphasizing the natural lines on screen. He favours a point of view perspective from the scope in many instances, spying on possible targets, allowing us to feel the tension of whether Kyle will or won’t shoot. Eastwood knows what he’s doing here and his best scenes are as tense as moments from Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.

However, not all of American Sniper is as expertly crafted as the scenes on tour in Iraq. Some of the scenes of Kyle at home with his wife and kids grow tiresome as Taya constantly protests Kyle’s abandonment of his children to do another tour of duty. Perhaps Sienna Miller’s representation of Taya Kyle is true to reality, but she fills the stereotypical role of the nagging wife. Her frustrations are understandable, but that so much of her characterization relies on them is disappointing. Surely Taya Kyle had other struggles that defined her as much as her frustration with Kyle’s absence. But, then again, this is a character study of Kyle, or at least, of how Kyle wanted to see himself. Perhaps he put Taya into the role of the nagging wife in the narrative of his life and career. Another unanswered question; another complexity.

Eventually Kyle finishes his tours and we follow him back home where he struggles to readjust to normal life away from other soldiers. He even seeks out to help wounded veterans, not seeing his mission to protect his fellow soldiers as finished. The film closes with real life scenes of Kyle’s funeral (title cards indicate that he was killed by a fellow veteran suffering from PTSD), complete with patriotic flag waving and military salutes. I was reminded of Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, about a very different American soldier fighting in the War on Terror. While Tillman’s liberal atheist contrarianism and Kyle’s traditional conservatism are as far apart politically as you can get, both men saw themselves as unequivocally doing what was right by joining the military. Both men also fueled the military propaganda machine, directly or indirectly. Their narratives were co-opted and became another narrative that served another purpose.

Is Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper further fuel to the propaganda machine that drives recruitment and glorifies trauma-ridden soldiers? Or is it simply commenting that this is the state of the United States military culture, whether the viewer agrees with it or not? Clint Eastwood is too smart an individual to blindly glorify a killer of hundreds without questioning what drove him. This is the man who made Unforgiven, after all. American Sniper is a fascinating look at this complicated man, this American killer. Chris Kyle might not have been a real-life Captain America, but a significant number of people believe he was. Eastwood’s film explores why so many people do, and what that says about America. “American” Sniper indeed.

8 out of 10

American Sniper (2014, USA)

Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Jason Hall, based on the book by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice; starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.