American Sniper is no longer a film but a point of discussion, debate and political commentary. Regardless of where you stand in relation to the film’s politics, it should be acknowledged that such debate is something to be admired – films should encourage discussion. That said, I’m not sure what I could add to said discussion in addition to what the film has already endured in the midst of the minefield of commentary and bickering the award season has prompted.
Depicting the military career of America’s ‘deadliest sniper’, Navy Seal Chris ‘Legend’ Kyle (skillfully played by Bradley Cooper), American Sniper takes us from America’s call to arms in the wake of 9/11 through to Kyle’s service in Iraq and then his death back in his home country in 2013. In parts a straightforward war film, mixing in the tense, sniper versus sniper interplay of Enemy at the Gates, director Clint Eastwood additionally factors in aspects of Kyle’s home life both before and after his tours of duty.
Broadly speaking, I was generally uncomfortable with American Sniper‘s political orientation – a rather simplistic affair of good versus evil which it never seemed intelligent or articulate enough to transcend. There is definitely something to be said about the fact that I am not American and therefore decidedly outside of the parameters of the film’s intended audience. It is so bound up in questions of national identity, authority and power that it seems fundamentally unable to take a step back and view the subject of ‘America’ from an external perspective, despite the objectivity its title may suggest – encompassing all aspects of what it means to be an American soldier. In contrast, it’s interesting to consider how last year’s big award season winner 12 Years a Slave was a film that similarly tackled America’s history and national identity, but was approached from the perspective of an outsider, British director Steve McQueen.
I don’t believe that American Sniper is in fact the nightmare of brash, gung-ho right-wing rhetoric which many have denounced the film as being. Simply put, I think the film is confused. Eastwood seems to allow elements into the film which seem to undermine the kind of world-perspective many believe Chris Kyle stood for. But at its core American Sniper idolises its chief protagonist, a problematic construction given the complexity and biography of the divisive real life figure which the film does not fully capture. However, even when the film appears to be addressing Kyle’s faults or the often troubling ideological traits of America’s armed forces and its pairing of gun-worship with masculinity, such instances feel more like the film is paying little more than lip service to the sentiments of the subject’s detractors and politically oppositional voices. Eastwood seems to bury or sidestep most of these ideas, introducing jumping off points for discussion whilst refusing to take the plunge himself. For example, the irony of Kyle’s squad utilising the skull symbol of Marvel anti-hero ‘The Punisher’ is something I suspect will be lost on the majority of the film’s audience. Another missed opportunity is the fact that American Sniper creates a parallel between Kyle and an Iraqi sniper, both of which have families and are each obviously fighting for what they deem to be the right motives. Yet the idea of balance is taken no further than this superficial mirroring; the Iraqi sniper does not have a single line of dialogue and therefore remains more or less a nonentity. The film’s clumsy final act, however, is by far the most criminal aspect of Eastwood’s production: compressing and glossing over the struggle of Kyle’s post-traumatic stress disorder in the space of a few minutes. One moment Kyle is in the grips of psychological torture, the next moment he is once again a fully-functioning member of society.
Ultimately, I was never absolutely certain of the film’s intent in any given scene: whether something was being played sincerely or subversively. Eastwood creates this realm of idealistic American patriotism with Kyle as its figurehead and eventual martyr, but the film never seems convinced enough of its own validity. Can the world really be divided into ‘sheep, wolves and sheep dogs’ as Kyle’s father suggests in an early scene? American Sniper doesn’t answer that question but simply uses it as the metaphorical framework for its own perpetually distracted and uncertain narrative.