Clint Eastwood’s polarizing, troubling biopic has its effective moments, but there are ultimately too many problems to ignore.
How do you write a review to an unreviewable film? Ever since its release, American Sniper has been the subject of immense controversy and deeply troubling debate that has had little to do with the film itself. I’ve sat on this review for weeks as I’ve watched critics, politicians, and celebrities alike get dragged through the mud for voicing any unfavorable opinion about the film or its subject matter. There have been death threats, accusations, and blatant distortions from all sides. We now live in a time where outrage is the flavor of the month (every month) and it has become damn near impossible to see the forest for the trees.
Films about the military (especially if set within recent events that hit close to home for the American social consciousness) are a prickly subject these days. There is an aggressively vocal group that will not take kindly to any sort of criticism of these types of films because they see it as an affront to our men in women in uniform. There is no question that the American public maintains their freedoms because of our brave service members who fight so fearlessly for their country. Their sacrifice must never be forgotten, but we must also remember that they fight for one of the strongest and most powerful tenants of our constitution – the freedom of speech. Every American citizen has the right to voice their opinion, no matter how boneheaded one might perceive it. We must also remember that a criticism about a film, its subject matter, a policy, or an individual is not an attack on the military, the government, or our way of life. Nuance matters, but when it stops becoming of import and large generalizations begin to be thrown around, then I fear for the future of criticism as a whole. And so I’ve continued to sit on this review and watch the media explode in a frenzy of disturbing mudslinging.
The film has done exceptionally well after a brilliant ad campaign, surprising last-minute Oscar nominations, and a dedicated following of admirers. Indeed, American Sniper has cleaned up at the box office with the second-highest-ever opening for an R-rated film and $213 million dollars to date. That’s an impressive feat, especially when you consider most films about our military involvement in the Middle East have struggled to even recoup their budgets. Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker (which covers very similar ground to American Sniper) grossed a paltry $16 million by comparison. But box office does not indicate a barometer for greatness. Though American Sniper has clearly struck a chord with the American public, what of its quality? It’s a bit of a mixed bag really, handsomely mounted and acted, but plodding with underdeveloped ideas and war film genre clichés that it can’t overcome while failing to rise above its recent contemporaries. And so let the mob begin to gather, because it only gets worse from here.
American Sniper is based on real life war veteran Chris Kyle’s memoir of the same title. Kyle is considered the most deadly sniper in the history of the United States and his tragic demise makes this story ripe for the telling. Much has been reported about what director Clint Eastwood has left out of his film and how that may very well have changed Kyle’s depiction, but all films require artistic license and it’s clear that Eastwood is more concerned with the effects of modern warfare than any alleged shortcoming of his protagonist. That is his prerogative and the film is somewhat successful in addressing a topic through Kyle’s experience that is woefully underrepresented and discussed in our post war culture – PTSD and the mental health of our returning soldiers. But most of that depiction comes in the film’s back half which is rushed and unfocused. The first three quarters of American Sniper is a deluge of bullets, shrapnel, and spousal depression. That isn’t to say that Eastwood’s depiction of war is ineffective; much of the combat is visceral, but it’s ground that has been covered extensively in the annals of war picture history.
The film begins rife with tension, in a disturbing scene where Kyle is forced to gun down a young boy attempting to attack a US convoy. Later in the film there is a mirror scene where Kyle must again face that decision, but openly begging for a different outcome. This is when Sniper is at its best. But after that prelude, the film hops back in time to show Kyle’s origins in Texas where he was taught to respect guns and learn the importance of the kill. The film then drags along, following him from his rodeo days to him watching the attack on the World Trade Center which spurs his decision to join the Navy SEALS. Around this time he also meets his soon-to-be wife Taya, who is presented with little fanfare.
As Taya, Sienna Miller gets saddled with the film’s most uninspired and underwritten role as she is tasked with googley-eyed devotion, sobbing hysterics, and understandable doubts met with constant worry. She isn’t so much a character as an exclamation point. Military wives have it rough and their own sacrifice cannot be overstated, but American Sniper is content to let her be sidelined with painfully clichéd scenes such as an interrupted phone call as her husband comes under fire in a hail of bullets. These things certainly do happen, but it feels cheap and easy to gain the audience’s sympathy that way. And Taya’s final moment — looking prophetically worried as she closes the door behind her husband, on what would tragically be his final day on earth — is so on-the-nose it hurts.
As for Chris Kyle himself, Bradley Cooper does an admirable job, but the performance is so internal that at times it’s difficult to read anything into the character. Kyle is presented as a man so dedicated to his job that he fails to register as human. Surely the real Chris Kyle was more than just the label of “soldier” and “husband.” War is all-consuming and that is clearly Eastwood and Cooper’s intent in this depiction, but frankly because of this decision the film becomes a by-the-numbers slog. It hits all the highlights without delving into specifics. It’s when Kyle returns home and struggles with his own fallout from the war that Sniper gets interesting and his connection with fellow veterans suffering from injuries and emotional trauma is touching. But this section feels tacked on and undernourished as if Eastwood was reluctant to fully explore the terrible ordeal the men and women in uniform go through when they come home.
American Sniper has been labeled as conservative by many a critic, but that isn’t really accurate in terms of its perspective on the subject matter. Eastwood is careful to walk the middle ground, showing both loyal patriotism and increasing doubt in our military role in the Middle East. Where the film is conservative is in the filmmaking itself, neither offering any new insight into the realities of modern warfare or fully exploring its more daring and pertinent subject matter, namely PTSD. But American Sniper isn’t without some nuance, unlike the foam-at-the-mouth reactions surrounding it. At the end of the day the film has touched a large percentage of the American public, and neither my mixed reaction nor any negative criticism against it is going to make much of a difference. I only wish that a real discussion about the filmmaking could be had without the need for accusations, rhetoric, or threats.