A couple years ago, it felt like Zero Dark Thirty made waves because it was the first really good movie to attempt to capture the military zeitgeist of America in the last ten to fifteen years, hitting one of probably the two biggest buzzwords: “Osama bin Laden.” You could say that American Sniper is trying to do something similar with the second: “Iraq.”
The movie is a biopic of sorts following Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL and veteran of four tours of duty in Iraq who is credited as the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. But if American Sniper has one great struggle, it’s in finding significance in its story beyond the details of one man’s life, details which are largely remarkable only for their horror. Sniper finds some meaning eventually, but huge swaths of this film are devoid of it, while simultaneously embracing some truly brutal violence.
I do have to wonder, as I consider this movie, what role the immediacy of its subject plays in my perception. The war in Iraq happened entirely within my lifetime; we’re no more than a decade removed from the majority of events depicted, and often far less than that. Last fall, I gave the World War II tank movie Fury credit for its brutality as an artistic tool for exploring not only the technological mechanisms made to make war more hateful, but both peacemaking’s redeeming nature and extreme difficulty. Am I failing to see something similar in American Sniper because I can’t view it with the detachment of seventy years?
I don’t think so. Eventually the movie does come around to talking about PTSD and the struggle soldiers face coming home, so you can interpret every horrific image the movie shows as being part of putting us in the same headspace that Kyle and the other SEALS and Marines around him occupied. The PTSD angle is thrown into sharp relief late in Kyle’s service time and especially afterwards, when he returns home for good, but that’s not until at least two thirds of the way through the movie. Asking audiences to belatedly reinterpret everything they’ve been shown to that point isn’t effective. And you have to “reinterpret,” because director Clint Eastwood makes sure most of the movie shows Kyle as the consummate soldier, taking pride in his job as men and women do in any other profession. This includes embracing the violence inherent to his job as a sniper and military officer. Kyle’s self-image is shown to be that of a guardian, and occasionally avenging, angel. In fact, the movie makes a point of his restlessness when he’s home between tours in Iraq, driven by the notion that he could be protecting people instead of sitting on his ass. That’s a romantic idea, but the violence of the movie implicitly rejects the notion that he’s making anyone safer, particularly in a couple of scenes where Kyle is leading an operation.
That’s where the disconnect comes for me, and most of the fault has to be attributed to Eastwood. He’s trying to say one thing with the movie – that Kyle was a man who did a great service to his country and countrymen while surviving an experience that pushed him to the limit physically and mentally – but in attempting to tell the story he actually focuses more on the horror of the violence Kyle committed in that service, undercutting any glory that could be found. The choice to show Kyle’s pre-military life early on only makes this worse, as we understand Kyle as somewhat misguided and potentially violent before he ever becomes a SEAL, when the lines between morality become a lot fuzzier. Eastwood wants the viewer to identify with Kyle’s worldview, but while I appreciated that by killing one man he often prevented the death of several, I never saw the world in the black and white tones Kyle insists on. Bradley Cooper, for his part, gives Kyle plenty of expressiveness in the moments when it’s allowed and does more with Kyle’s detachment than many actors would be capable of the rest of the way, but he never alters the Eastwood vision of the man.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
When American Sniper finally gets around to addressing PTSD, it’s actually pretty effective. There’s not enough time devoted to the complexities of healing from a soldier’s time at war, but it is a much needed shot of broader significance in a film that is far too much about one man’s life. American Sniper relies on the immediacy of the events it depicts to try to draw emotion out of the viewer, but the most of the movie becomes terribly lost in some poor directing on the part of Clint Eastwood. He intends one message in telling us the story of Chris Kyle; the one that emerges is something quite different and never to be reconciled.