Reviewed by cathal kavanagh
Bona fide cinematic legend, and renowned addresser of symbolic empty chairs Clint Eastwood’s latest film joins a long list of motion pictures with titles including the word “American” alongside another appropriate noun.
Unlike a number of those other films, however, “American Sniper” could easily be split into two separate, shorter films bearing the monikers “American” and “Sniper” respectively, so strictly delineated are its individual component parts. A bulked-up, thoroughly Texasified Bradley Cooper leads the line as Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL reputed to be the single deadliest sniper in U.S military history, confirmed as having killed over 160 individual people in his time serving his country in the Iraq war. Tragically murdered himself in 2013, Kyle left behind him a young family, and a country mourning his loss. Unfortunately for us, perhaps, the film has us believe that the first of those things (sniper-ing 160 people, fighting) is an awful lot more important, and more relevant to the art of storytelling, than the second (having a family, a relationship with one’s country, being a human). There’s a definitive privileging of the noun over the adjective here, a film that ends up being much more “sniper” than it does “American”, and one which must be said to squander some of its vast and intriguing potential because of it.
Cooper, to his credit, puts in a sterling shift as Kyle, with all the steely-eyed intensity and persistent confidence in the justness of his own actions that the portrayal of such an emblem of American militarism demands. After a brief introductory exposition of the lovely city of Fallujah, circa 2004, we are given a whistle-stop tour of the major events and influences in Kyle’s young life to the moment he found himself peering through the sights of an assault rifle above a desolated street in such a perilous province of the earth. Military service seems less of a moral decision and more the logical outcome of a life which relentlessly prepares our protagonist to begin it. Taught from a young age by a strict father to divide the world into “sheep” “wolves” and “sheepdogs”, Cooper and Eastwood’s Kyle grows into a naturally aggressive but generally decent individual who directs his aggression and anger, sequentially, at horses, friends, girlfriends, and, in the wake of the 1999 US Embassy attacks and the events of 9/11, the outward manifestations of “evil” he finds prowling the streets and back-alleys of the Middle East. Neatly dividing the film into sections explicitly titled “Tour One”, “Tour Two” and so on, we are from the get-go reminded that “Iraq” and “America” are two radically different spaces in this story, and that it intends for us to be highly aware of that fact.
Sandwiched between these tours of duty are interludes featuring the degenerating relationship between Kyle and his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), and later the new additions to his family, the aim of which is ostensibly to provide a striking counterpoint to the gung-ho terr’rist-slaying of the Iraqi segments. It is in these sections that we are most aware that we are in fact watching two different films, which the finished product has a hard time deciding between. Miller, doing her best with tragically underwritten material, her platitudinous pleas and invocations in many ways coming close to American Foreign Policy’s answer to “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa”. These sections receive something of a perfunctory glossing-over in comparison with the scenes of military action, ultimately plumping for the Call of Duty aesthetic when a much more nuanced psychological treatment could have been on offer.
While it’s undoubtedly important to separate the film from the actual life of its main protagonist (death of the author and all that, yes?), it is interesting to note how Kyle’s notorious self-mythologising (he famously did not punch Jesse Ventura, contrary to his own assertions) is completely left out. What is presented in its place, however, is a no less uncomfortable, seemingly unproblematic tidying up of the life of a man who must have had an awful lot more to deal with on the far side of wartime trauma than is ever alluded to here. While Sniper does not shirk from either the reality or the psychological effects of warfare (at least in part), it does seem to take Kyle at his word in his guiding us through the nasty business. What’s that, Chief? They use their own children as cannon fodder? Even the friendly ones end up being secretly and resentfully against you? The cumulative effects of the killing of well over 100 other people can be dispelled with a good day’s shootin’ down the range? Of course, you’re quite correct, allow us adjust the story accordingly.
Of course, none of this is to condemn the film as a blind exercise in militaristic propaganda or Bush Doctrine apologetics. The camerawork is tight, the set pieces tensely and tautly constructed, and Cooper fantastic in a role that must give him more than an outside chance of taking home the Oscar. Sniper can rightly take its place in the fine canon of films now built up that deal with the Iraq War and its perpetrators. It is merely that, having introduced the idea that war does indeed have effects on the mind and the soul beyond the “fun” that the real-life Kyle described, it is disappointing to see the film neglect to develop this idea to its proper, unfalsified conclusion.