The following contains spoilers for American Sniper. You have been warned.
Alright, this was a huge mega-hit over the weekend and people seem to be really divided over this movie, so let’s get into it. Let’s start off with general reactions . . .
Greg: I will say that I was not a fan of American Sniper, thought it seemed overly simplistic, and at times played like pro-war propaganda. However, some people seem to be seeing something in it that I’m not…so where do you guys stand?
Tyler: I was actually surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie. Going in, I feared I would have a similar reaction to yours, particularly that the movie would be pro-war propaganda and for the first 20-30 minutes I had that same reaction. However, as the movie went on and more scenes showed the negative effects that going to war had on the Chris Kyle character, I grew to appreciate it more.
James: I felt that nearly all of the nuance and grey area of the film came from Bradley Cooper and perhaps not from the script itself. For most of the time watching the film, I was pretty impressed with Cooper’s portrayal of Kyle but wished the film had more a backbone to it, that it shed a bit more light on the emotional response to being at war and basically being a hitman. The film felt to me too much in black and white, and Cooper’s performance ultimately got lost in the patriotic gloss.
Tyler: I definitely agree that parts of the movie tread into that area. The one thing about some of that, and this goes for a lot of modern war movies, is that American Sniper makes a point of getting the audience to ask themselves, “What would I do differently in that situation?” Because once you’re there, the only thing to really think about is surviving and protecting your fellow soldiers, if you can.
Greg: That’s interesting that you say that about protecting fellow soldiers, because that’s certainly a theme or an idea that Eastwood seems intent on getting across in regards to Kyle. However, I guess what bothers me about that or seems insufficient, is that his behavior in war isn’t any different than what we know of him outside of war. In other words, we’re not seeing a change in character brought about by war. Kyle is a hero at home and a hero at war. He only wants to do good. There’s no flip side to that coin. There’s no depth. At the end of the movie I didn’t really feel like I knew the man at all, outside of this “myth.” And I guess that’s really my biggest beef with the movie, that it’s just a perpetuation of this American soldier hero type that doesn’t really exist – at least in my world.
James: The word “myth” is interesting to me here, especially since Kyle’s memoir (the basis of the movie) has come under scrutiny recently for maybe not being exactly truthful. I haven’t read it, but the movie doesn’t really attempt to dirty his name even in the slightest. I agree, what’s really distressing is that American Sniper isn’t really concerned with the reality of the what comes after war. I can understand a black-and-white perspective in the middle of battle (“He’s the enemy, we are the heroes”), but there’s little examination afterwards, even though I think there are subtle hints in Cooper’s performance every so often. The movie as a whole just doesn’t seem interested in fleshing Kyle into a fully-fledged person, instead retaining that “myth,” and when it comes to the tragic end of the story, the movie ultimately showed its cowardice, I think.
Tyler: I want to go back to this being an adaptation. This certainly isn’t the first piece of source material to come under scrutiny when the movie is a success. The Social Network comes to mind. I typically choose not to worry about that where the movie is concerned. I’m much more interested in a well-made movie, and I am usually willing to sacrifice accuracy for a more interesting/entertaining narrative. Obviously, this taking place during a war, and one that is still very fresh in our minds, so that adds weight. I’m curious, though, what did you both think about the main story that basically turns into a revenge tale that could be seen in any number of action movies?
Greg: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. The “villain” that Eastwood & co. invented here is an aspect of the movie that feels very disingenuous. You can almost see the makings of a really awful sniper vs. sniper movie that could have been. Again though, it’s just another example to me of Eastwood placing all this window dressing to cover up the fact that there’s no “there” there. Kyle isn’t an interesting character, he doesn’t change, and the movie has nothing to say about the war itself, so we have these made-up battles with a sniper to keep us occupied, which is then one more thing that Kyle can become “victorious” over.
Tyler: You’re right. A sniper v. sniper movie with more character development on the opposing sniper a-la-Enemy at the Gates, would be very interesting, and I might have enjoyed this movie more if it dedicated itself to being just an action movie set during a generic middle eastern war – even though it’s full of the genre’s cliches. However, it was this lack of direct agenda about the war that I really enjoyed. I feel as though that, paired with Cooper’s performance, allows the audience have their own opinion of what’s happening on screen.
Greg: I wouldn’t have a problem with the lack of agenda in regards to the war if it was in service of a more interesting character study. But for me it wasn’t, and I think that leads back to one of my biggest problems, which is the lack of nuance and sophistication throughout the movie. Several scenes played like they were out of a bad TV movie of the week. I knew what kind of movie I was watching the moment they showed the characters reacting to 9/11. It was literally characters seeing it on TV and then reacting in horror – just about the least interesting way to handle that. Also, the scene where Kyle gets news of his wife being pregnant just as he’s being shot at overseas. It all just seemed really hacky, to be honest.
James: I had trouble with those scenes as well (particularly the 9/11 television moment – it just felt so predictable.) The thing is, character development clearly wasn’t on the agenda here. The sniper vs. sniper route perhaps could have been something, though also predictable. The thing is, I think the real movie is about a sniper trying to reconcile with the aftermath of war (particular when his assignments included killing women and children) and with how Kyle tried to cope. The more interesting story here, I think, is relegated to text at the end of the movie when Kyle was killed by a mentally ill soldier he was trying to help – that might have been an interesting perspective. Instead, it’s a through-the-motions piece of rah-rah “America is awesome, everybody else is not” propaganda.
Greg: It’s definitely shocking how little screen time or thought is given to PTSD and Kyle’s troubles after the war. It literally feels pasted on in the last 15 minutes, and when the movie ends, it’s almost a shock, like, “They can’t be serious?” It does seem like the more interesting story might have been Kyle’s time at home in between tours and after he was done, but for me, those scene were among the worst of the movie.
James: Well, you need an entirely different movie altogether for that to work. The home scenes were almost embarrassingly bad. The dialogue was terrible and the chemistry between Cooper and Sienna Miller (playing his wife) just wasn’t there. Plus, and I’m not sure if you noticed, they used a plastic baby in one of the scenes where Kyle’s wife gives birth and that was just ridiculously distracting. All the sudden, I wondered if this was meant as camp.
Tyler: I definitely agree with you both about the 9/11 scene. I understand that day compelled a lot of people to join the military. As true as that may or may not be for Kyle, I always cringe when it’s used to move the plot forward. The last shot of the ending where Kyle’s wife looks out the door at the veteran who would kill Kyle was full of unnecessary foreshadowing. I feel like Eastwood was going for a sense of suddenness in Kyle’s death. Up until we see his killer, I thought the scene mostly succeeded at that. I wonder how much the real-life video footage of Kyle’s memorial service played into the overt feeling of patriotism the film is seeking. Would it feel more natural if we got that epilogue over a black screen?
Greg: Glad you brought the memorial service stuff up, because for me that was a really tacky ending and I found it almost insulting. It just added to the feeling of Eastwood creating this piece of pro-war propaganda where every soldier is a hero and the soldier who kills the most is the best soldier.
Tyler: It’s definitely eerie that Kyle is seen as a hero for having the most kills of any SEAL Sniper, especially when the character does plenty of things that make him more qualified as a hero.
James: Yeah, the third act was unsettling, and not in ways I felt were appropriate. It just goes into my feelings that there was a certain degree of cowardice involved. The movie was either uninterested in something more nuanced or afraid of alienating audiences with any shade of grey. It’s further proved, I think, in that throughout the entire film, multiple characters actually call Kyle a hero. That note slaps any complexity the movie might otherwise think it has going for it. And well, maybe I’m wrong – American Sniper is now a certified blockbuster and earned six Oscar nominations.
Tyler: You’re right, the movie definitely didn’t need to have characters congratulating Kyle for holding the “Kill Record,” or even have guys at the lunch table call him a hero. All of his heroic actions were well displayed in the film, for better or worse. The one scene though that stood out to me and warranted a character calling him a hero was in between one of his tours where Kyle is at the mechanic with his son. A soldier played by Jonathan Groff comes up to Kyle to thank him for playing a part in his rescue – he also shows prosthetic leg. It’s a scene we’ve seen before in other movies, particularly when the soldier tells Kyle’s son his dad is a hero, but it’s handled differently here. There’s no swelling music and Cooper seems uncomfortable with the whole situation. Did the scene stand out for either of you, and what was your interpretation of it?
Greg: I’ll be honest, that scene was really lost in the shuffle for me because it was sandwiched between so many similar scenes of people telling him he was a hero. You’re right though, there is something interesting in Kyle/Cooper’s reaction in that scene . . . which is emblematic of why I didn’t connect with the movie. That reaction scratches the surface of a theme that would seem to warrant further exploration. As that scene ends it seems to want to send the movie on a different, more interesting trajectory . . . but then it never really does, and the movie keeps on with the same simplified beat. James, did you read it any differently?
James: I had a similar reaction. Like most of the movie, it felt kind of one-note.
Tyler: It might just be my being a fan of Groff on the HBO show Looking, but it certainly crossed my mind that Kyle thought Groff’s character was gay. While Kyle’s background would suggest he would have negative feelings about that, he would also have a lot of respect for someone who served his country. If this were true, I think it points again to the films indifference to making any political statements and leaving those interpretations up to the audience. That ambiguity is inconsistently spread throughout the movie but it was something I really appreciated.
Greg: I certainly wish it had more of a defined point of view on things, or at the very least a very specific and detailed study of a character. But for me it was a sort of generic look at a soldier who happened to be good at killing. But as James said, clearly people are connecting with this movie, as evidenced by its insane box office numbers and Academy Award nominations.