There’s a prevailing trend whereby movies capturing the zeitgeist, ones that, on whatever level, become pop culture events, just aren’t all that. It happened with Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic epistle to Roman Catholicism, The Passion of the Christ. It happened again, on an entirely superficial level, with James Cameron’s Avatar (look at that 3D go, and wonder how much carbon dioxide was created to make this environmental fable). Now there’s American Sniper, breaking box office records when most were probably expecting Clint Eastwood to topple headfirst into his grave before very long. And it’s kind of average, all told. It isn’t a terrible movie, and it certainly isn’t the reprehensible paean to misguided patriotism some have made out. But it isn’t a great movie either. By a long shot. In short, it’s pretty much what you’d expect from the Eastwood of the past decade.
But trying to extricate a film like this from the surrounding conversation is almost impossible. Seen in isolation, ignorant of the hype, would you wonder what all the fuss was about? Avatar’s a different case, in a way. It exploded globally thanks to the technological innovation it was selling. Sure, it needed Cameron’s well-oiled technique to see it along, but mostly people went along for the eye candy. With both Passion and Sniper, a good proportion of attendees went (and are still going in the case of the latter) to see what all the fuss was about, but a significant number also took a rare trip to the cinema because the picture spoke to them very specifically concerning a subject that was important to them. That, maybe even, speaks to them.
With Mel Gibson’s film, there could be little doubt about the intentions of the maker. No projection was needed, as Mad Mel was hell-bent on force-feeding viewers his particularly toxic take on Christianity. It poured from the screen with every bloody lash and tear of flesh. The key aspect of American Sniper, at least in terms of the film I saw, is that the point of view is so pervasively nebulous. Tepid even. As such, it’s easy to see why people might take away from it exactly what they want to take away. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall (who wrote the poxy Paranoia) pull their punches on every level and at every stage.
One would have thought it impossible to make a movie set in the frontline of the War on Terror and not comment on it, but Eastwood and Hall succeed. It’s a success of dubious merit. I wouldn’t even say its incumbent on a filmmaker to tackle the subject matter; it’s more the case that the results of not doing so leave the makers and their delivered picture looking lost and uncertain. Sniper has an additional problem in that Eastwood isn’t even able to create a degree of balance through serving his characters. In particular, the domestic, stateside drama is incredibly basic and crudely sketched. Ultimately it serves to unravel even the bits of the picture that work.
Another point of comparison between Passion and Sniper is that their successes are predominately US ones. That may seem bleeding obvious with the latter, but where Avatar made 73% of its money in the rest of the world (that’s more than average, but it does reflect global box office trends), Sniper so far has made 70% of its money at home, a direct inversion (Passion made some 60% in the US and Canada). The conversation about Sniper isn’t as precious, provocative or pernicious elsewhere, and the picture fails to muster the same level of interest; curiosity perhaps, but it doesn’t galvanise viewers. There have been better-directed movies based on this conflict, and there have been much better written ones, so the manner in which the film, without overtly intending to, has become a flag-waving event appears somewhat mystifying (mystifying too to the studios, who wish they could bottle this kind of hit).
I don’t intend to dwell on the disparity between the real Chris Kyle and movie’s version, and I haven’t read American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History (that title in itself smacks of self-proclamation, unlike the movie version of the character). I don’t consider the makers to have a responsibility to portray Kyle accurately. It’s a frequent and fundamental error to expect documentary accuracy from fictionalised narratives, and it becomes tiresome when it is raised time and time again. The key is how the movie works on its own terms. Many critics of Sniper’s accuracy would likely not give a second thought to praising a feature they saw as taking licence with the truth for artistically valid reasons. The problem with 90% of biopics out there is that they simply aren’t very good, not that they play fast and loose with the facts.
Kyle may have been an American Psycho rather than an American Sniper (he was a Metallica fan, so there’s a case for the prosecution right there), but I can’t see that Eastwood and Hall are making him out to be a hero. That’s also definitely not the performance I saw from Bradley Cooper. He’s the most impressive part of the picture, but he’s unable to ground it. His Kyle is huge and bearish, not a great thinker, with a cloud over his eyes. He isn’t an especially bright guy (except when called upon in the field, due to the expediencies of Hall’s plotting), and he’s weighed down with a traditionally God-fearing upbringing, and the fear of the rod from his father. He’s your red meat eating good ol’ boy. In due course, since he lacks self-reflection, he quite naturally passes his hunter skills on to his own son.
One wonders at a guy who unquestioningly accepts everything he was raised to believe in; from the greatness of his country, to The Bible, to the nature of evil, to the view that those he is sent to fight are savages. Eastwood and Cooper (even given the former’s Republican bias) may not be seeking to celebrate or venerate a man who is so fundamentally unable to comprehend the bigger picture and his place in it, but they lack conviction on how they do wish to present him. Yet it is surely Kyle’s tunnel-vision certainty and values to which Red State Americans are responding.
What I think Eastwood and Cooper do recognise is the craft of someone who is fundamentally good at his job, and that may indeed lead a blurring of lines (there’s a push-pull in the repeated announcements of his kill count; they’re both impressed and know it’s nothing to be proud of). Kyle is very good at killing people, and the crack shot, one who wields instant results, is by its nature a gripping profession; it’s the trade of a master, one who holds life and death in his hands.
The other side of this is the domestic Kyle, the one with the wife (Sienna Miller, barely recognisable) and kids at home. Yet this side serves only to underline the unyielding nature of his character. Taya keeps telling him he’s changed, and pleading with him to come back to her, but there’s little evidence that he was really there before he left for Iraq. It’s as if she always had a pipe dream of a husband, one who never existed. Miller is quickly saddled with a one-note character.
Taya is only there to brew babies and break down on the phone in the middle of a melee. She sees an altered Kyle who is suffering from PTSD, but its effects are limited to Bradley sitting in an armchair staring at an empty TV or getting a bit rough with a neighbourhood pooch. It’s very mild really, for someone used to blowing away women and children.
When Spielberg was nursing the project, he introduced enemy sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) as a narrative through line for Kyle’s four tours. The personified enemy is a contrivance (along with the legend-making, price on his head device of the western hero), although it’s no more playing to easily serviceable storytelling than Kyle’s battlefield calls to his missus. It’s easy to see why Spielberg’s instincts kicked in, though. Mustafa actually serves as the only motivating glue holding the war zone scenes together.
This is not a concise movie, and, by the halfway stage, I was wondering if it was going anywhere. The answer is, not really, the sniper aside, but it’s a device that also signals priorities; this is not a movie that is preoccupied with its message, certainly not over basic war thrills (it’s beholden to exactly the same kind of genre staples to which Saving Private Ryan, despite a bravura opening, succumbs). American Sniper is in thrall to the classical conventions of its genre.
That’s why we get Kyle doing the rounds and teaching the marines, retrieving vital information through interrogations and discovering a cache of weapons in the house of a loving father. It’s why the war movie section ends on a bravura heroic act, as he takes down his nemesis with a CGI bullet fired at a great distance. The latter sequence is built around kinetic, punch-the-air action movie making; so much so you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a sequel to the two-decades old Tom Berenger Sniper.
Yet despite these conventions, despite the seeming endorsement of the classic hero who is too modest to admit to his prowess (soldiers continually proclaim Kyle’s mythic status, to his genuine disinterest in such talk), despite the funeral cavalcade credits that look and sound as if it is aping the mournful tone of JFK, it doesn’t translate that we’re supposed to revere the man, or his undiluted patriotism.
There’s a passivity here, which I don’t think is intentional on Eastwood’s part. Or rather, I don’t think Eastwood really has a clear intent. He may have been opposed to the Iraq War, but it’s difficult to construe what he thinks of Kyle. Because, while he doesn’t eulogise him, he doesn’t get inside his head either.
I might have given credence to this being intentional; this is a portrayal of a man who doesn’t know himself, his every conviction a verbatim regurgitation of what he has been told. Such a take would be underlined by Kyle’s dazed reaction to chancing upon his fucked up brother (Keir O’Donnell) on an airport runway. His brother is coming back, Kyle is going out again. The latter genuinely can’t understand the abject mental state his brother has reached, until he gets to that place himself. At least, that’s where he appears to be heading.
Eastwood and Hall pull back from this entirely, offering Kyle complete rehabilitation based on his meeting with a few veterans. It’s a particularly perverse choice (and I bring this up only because it underlines what must have been intended explicitly with regard to forming his character), as the real Kyle didn’t kill any children (and said he couldn’t have). Eastwood and Cooper take time to show the impact this act has on the mostly unruffled Kyle, yet it is not lasting. It can be overcome through a couple of veterans’ meets and some time on the shooting range. In no time he’ll be running about the house with toy guns.
The biggest problem is that Sniper has the countenance of a picture that wants to explore what war can do to a man, but it never gets there. Indeed, it sacrifices any believability it has scraped together for a soft-touch Spielberg ending.
Nevertheless, there are some strong sequences. While Eastwood maintains a typical slackness – and repetition – overall (how many of his pictures are taut, making every scene and shot count; it’s no coincidence that Unforgiven is his best film), he does an undeniably effective job with specific scenes. We may get as little sense of Kyle’s comrades as we do the enemy they hunt, and Eastwood may leave Cooper to do all the (literally) heavy lifting, but there’s good clear geography amid the war torn streets.
In particular, the sequence were Kyle attempts to stop the Butcher (Mido Hamada) drilling a child to death, while under fire from Mustafa, is gripping and horrifying. The final defeat of Mustafa, bringing with it an enemy onslaught, is tense and compelling. Eastwood is also to be commended for not dialling up the sentiment – as Spielberg would surely have done – with a treacly score (except with the funeral ending, which feels like a botch).
American Sniper simply isn’t very good, however. As a war movie it doesn’t address the war in question, or its protagonist, while going through the motions of announcing itself as serious-minded (again, this is exactly what Saving Private Ryan did, or rather failed to do). It soft-soaps the traumatic effects of conflict, and Eastwood singularly fails to emphasise the escalating stresses and strains of such experiences on the psyche. He’s too meat-and-potatoes a director to get up close to Kyle’s claustrophobia and meltdown. He dissipates his opportunities in Iraq and then fumbles them at home.
Does American Sniper have a responsibility? To tell a good story and tell it well, yes. To portray the effects PTSD? If Eastwood, Hall and Cooper are claiming to reflect the reality, certainly (if the effects of PTSD shown here are unconvincing, then perhaps the physical losses suffered by veterans will give potential enlisters pause).
But to be wholly accurate to Kyle’s life? How many films can claim to be entirely accurate accounts of any actual person’s life? Any given picture is guilty of confabulating events or softening its subject matter. Maybe the discussion surrounding American Sniper will inspire a documentary discussing the perception of the man, and the arising themes of fact, fiction and the ground in between. Now that might be interesting. Hopefully it would also be a good movie.