Overview: Based on the true story of Iraq War veteran Chris Kyle, who is known as the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. 2014; Distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures; Rated R; 132 minutes.
Target in Sight: There’s no denying Chris Kyle’s heroism or dedication to his country. I have the utmost respect for him as well as all of America’s armed forces. I say this to make it clear that my views on the film are separate from my views of the men and women who make up the U.S. military. Unfortunately, this separation is one that director Clint Eastwood is unable to make. Eastwood is so concerned with reverence, with upholding Kyle’s legend, that he fails to really delve into the cost of the war’s violence, or Kyle’s rationale for joining in the first place (a decision the film treats as a distressingly casual, alcohol-influenced choice). The film’s early flashback to Kyle’s childhood, with its pat platitudes, lay down the groundwork of a tall tale rather than an honest portrait. Bradley Cooper’s performance elevates the film’s script, which suffers from cliché dialogue and abrupt scene changes that feel straight out of a first draft. The sincerity and conviction with which Cooper portrays Kyle is the film’s bright spot. But the film dances around Kyle evaluating his choices and his need to return to war, opting instead to focus on the most outward tragedies.
The Good, The Bad, and The Simplistic Portrayals: It should come as no surprise that the film is saddled by Eastwood’s political views. The film opens with a call to prayer, Eastwood’s way of cementing the Muslim faith with terrorism. This issue is furthered by the fact that nearly every Muslim in the film is given a negative portrayal as a killer, liar, or coward. They, like the film’s fictional main antagonist, Mustafa, are not actual characters. They are simply dark faces to shoot at and hate. A large part of my dissatisfaction with the film stems from the sporadic cheers and claps that came from the audience when Kyle made a kill, highlighting Eastwood’s ineffective handle of violence. Eastwood shoots firefight scenes like they are something to enjoy (there’s even a slow motion sniper shot), action movie beats meant to whet the appetites of the Call of Duty generation. Eastwood’s direction is the equivalent of yelling “headshot” at a gun victim’s funeral.
Missing the Shot: American Sniper is so beholden to its simplistic views on the War in Iraq that it’s incapable of challenging perceptions. While it could be argued that the story of one man shouldn’t be saddled with that kind of responsibility, I counter that notion by asking, what is the point of making a film (especially one that relies so heavily on clichés) about something so recent if it doesn’t raise any questions? It’s a film devoted to mythmaking, fearful and ignorant that anything more could be controversial and necessary. There has to be a balance between respect and pointed examination. The story of Chris Kyle seems primed to examine the call of violence, of America’s handle of veterans and PTSD, and the sides that make up this long-running war. But in the hands of Eastwood, this is just background noise, something to shoot around. Ultimately, American Sniper is just target practice.