Being a long-time fan of Clint Eastwood as both actor and director — in particular his work of the last 20 years or so– I had intended to see American Sniper in the week that it was released. For whatever reasons, I didn’t. Now I’m sorry, because I know more about the eponymous title character than I did before – which was nothing, in fact. It was hard not to take notice of Michael Moore’s comments following the film’s premiere about snipers being cowards; and that led to hearing about the Jesse Ventura/ Chris Kyle legal battle (which in fact only ended after Kyle’s death).
So I went into this knowing that Eastwood as director seems to be accused of letting his right-wing credentials show. That’s not the first time, of course, and I never get the big deal. Well, I can see quite a few things wrong with American Sniper but that’s not really one of them.
Eastwood opens on Kyle (Bradley Cooper) about to save some of his men by shooting a woman and a boy who are ready to throw a grenade and at the moment of the shot we flash back to see his formative years. “You’ve got a real gift”, his father tells him as they go trailing deer; “you’ll make a fine hunter.” He also tells him a nice little parable which is designed not just to make him patriotic but a protector of the weak. He is to be neither a sheep nor a wolf, but a sheepdog.
Well, I guess that’s as good a way as any of putting how America would have portrayed itself for most of my life; but whilst I’m still an admirer of the country overall, I doubt that many take such a simplistic view anymore.
It seems that Kyle becomes a U.S. Navy S.E.A.L. almost as a knee-jerk reaction to terrorism. Well, maybe that and being told that he’s not much of a cowboy – and perhaps that’s the way it was for a lot of Americans. Whatever the reason, Eastwood keeps the now-familiar training months down to a minimum. We see that the army is turning young personalities into something else, but he and scriptwriter Jason Hall are aware that an audience today gets the point pretty quickly.
Before he is sent to Iraq for the first time he meets and marries Taya (Sienna Miller); and we are then back to him taking the shots that we have seen at the beginning. This is very effective because at the opening we think that we’re looking at a hard-bitten soldier, but now learn that this is his early days. It’s a nice subtle way of getting the viewer on Kyle’s side.
He discovers that, as his father predicted, he is indeed an excellent hunter. In fact, he goes on through a staggering four tours of duty to be the sniper with the highest number of kills in U.S. military history. Yet to my mind – and taking into account all the hoo-ha about Copper’s acting, I never really knew much about this guy at all. The film contents itself with scenes rather than a coherent story. Eastwood as usual avoids (in the main) drawing attention to his style; although there is one thrilling shot where we start on a drone (I think; how the hell would I know?), follow it over the city and pick up from high overhead a convoy that Kyle is travelling in.
And the script stays low-key and fairly unsentimental except on a couple of occasions.
There is also one scene at which it is hammered into us rather crudely that Kyle is more comfortable on Iraqui soil than with his family. As he returns for his second tour he is told ‘welcome home’, only for his brother minutes later to say as he heads back to the States that he can’t wait to get home. And then, as Kyle stands looking not only puzzled but actually offended, he adds: “Fuck this place!”
A series of scenes almost set Kyle up as a dark angel of death, watching over his buddies from his rooftop; and this isn’t me being overly dramatic because at one point he is asked if he has developed ‘a messiah complex’.
Well, as we know from his visits Stateside he’s a mess all right, but he’s no Messiah. As he becomes more and more disconnected, his wife becomes increasingly at her wits’ end. And Sienna Miller is terrific in this role– far better than the more acclaimed Cooper, in my opinion. In fact, one could wish to have seen more of her if the film wasn’t already long enough at over two hours; and in any case it’s not called American Sniper’s Missus.
Also, this thing with the mobile phones: is that possible, having a conversation with Taya whilst lining up potential targets. She even asks him if he wants her to talk dirty to him! And then there is another scene where he drops his phone whilst speaking to her as she comes out of hospital after a pregnancy scan and she gets to hear an entire battle.
I have no idea if this accurate; but it’s surreal, if true.
Look: I never believed that America should have been fighting this war to begin with; but I just can’t find anything to be offended in here. I don’t think that the enemy are made to be demonic, in fact I felt very sorry for them on more than one occasion. Nor did I think that Kyle was particularly heroic. If anything, I thought he was a bit of a nutcase.
Eastwood hasn’t made a war film on the grand scale and I don’t think that he meant to; but I wonder if he hasn’t played it too safe. In the end, I just find myself shrugging my shoulders.
Certainly, it didn’t set me on fire as Kathryn Bigelow’s double-whammy of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty did. In fact, if I didn’t know that it was directed by Clint Eastwood, I wonder if I would even expend this many words on it at all.