(MA) Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Chris Kyle was the deadliest sniper in US military history. Across four tours of duty in Iraq, the soldier had 160 kills. To Iraqi insurgents, he was enemy number one – there was a $180,000 reward offered, for killing him. To the US military, he was their guardian angel. Kyle became a US military legend. Unfortunately, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is more concerned with showing us the legend than the man.
As a child, Kyle’s father taught him there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep who won’t stand up for themselves and will be abused; wolves who seek to bully and harm others; and sheep dogs who are blessed with the gift of aggression and use it to protect the weak and innocent. Kyle is a sheep dog.
Inspired by embassy bombings in East Africa, he joins the Navy SEALS. Before long, Kyle finds himself in Iraq. As he grows in standing, his missions become more specialised. Having been assigned to team to take out the infamous Al Qaeda operative known as “The Butcher”, he also becomes obsessed with capturing an Iraqi sniper named Mustafa (whose skills rival his own).
In a magnificently intense opening scene, we see Kyle in action. Positioned on a Fallujah rooftop, he looks down on a US military convoy, eyes peeled for anything suspicious. He sees a woman and child leave a house ahead of the convoy. The way she moves leads him to suspect she might have something concealed under her burqa. She hands something to her child, who starts to run towards the convoy. Is it a grenade? Kyle’s not sure. He radios for confirmation but no-one else can see what’s going on. His commanding officer gives him the green light. Kyle now has to make a choice. Does he shoot or does he not? This sequence is a different experience of combat to what we are used to seeing on screen. We have seen the fast and frantic battle, where split-second decisions are the difference between life and death. But this is slow and calculated. Kyle has time to think, to consider the repercussions of his actions, to make a decision. This is the most interesting element of American Sniper. With such a strong opening, it is a shame that nothing that follows can equal its intensity.
With its primary concern being to anoint its focal point as a hero, Eastwood’s biopic of Kyle dedicates no space to debating the merits of the Iraq War. There is an acknowledgement that this is a different type of war, one in which women and children are being used as soldiers, but the film deems the war to be a noble cause of which questions are not to be asked. This is largely the result of events being presented from Kyle’s point of view. He has a blinkered approach to this conflict, viewing Iraq as an “evil” place and the Iraqi people as “savages.” Eastwood makes no effort to humanise the Iraqi characters; in particular, Mustafa is shot like a comic-book villain. With no sense of the overall purpose of the war, Eastwood reduces it to a series of gun-battles, or, more to the point, reduces it to Kyle’s personal effort to catch Mustafa and “The Butcher”.
The film does give some time to issues such as PTSD and the struggles of veterans to re-acclimatise to civilian life. Kyle is shown to become increasingly more comfortable with his unit in Iraq than he is back with his family in the USA (an idea explored slightly more effectively in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker). However, these issues are largely peripheral. They sit uneasily next to those more frequent moments in which Eastwood can’t help but play up the heroism and inspiration of this real-life story.
The struggle when trying to tell the true story of an admired war hero is the pressure to honour them, at the expense of honesty. This pressure is heightened when one considers the absolute reverence in which the USA holds its armed services. American Sniper is undoubtedly a heartfelt film, and both Cooper and Eastwood seem really invested in it, but the film’s over-the-top heroism and chest-thumping patriotism will be harder for non-American audiences to get behind.