Film review: American Sniper
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Chris Kyle is a contentious subject for a Hollywood movie. A Navy Seal and prodigious marksman who claimed to have killed more than 250 people during four tours in Iraq, he earned the title “legend” from co-soldiers and attracted a six-figure bounty from insurgents. American Sniper is based on his 2012 memoir of the same name, a bestseller with the subtitle The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in US Military History.
While his confirmed “kill rate” of 160 from the Pentagon is not under dispute, Kyle’s character has come under scrutiny and has stirred a controversy across Hollywood, with filmmaker Michael Moore tweeting: “My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes. And invaders r worse.”
In the book, Kyle boasts shamelessly about killing – “fun” – and describes enemies as “savages”. He was killed in 2013 at a shooting range.
Whatever motivated Kyle – played here convincingly by Bradley Cooper – it remains clear he had a talent for killing. It was a useful tool in the United States’ war on terror, perhaps, but a dubious subject for a potentially glamorising biopic.
Director Clint Eastwood has a proven track record of documenting recent events in film – Invictus had Morgan Freeman as a newly freed Nelson Mandela and Hereafter dealt with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
In American Sniper, he directs with a metaphorically steady hand and an ambiguous moral compass. US soldiers are heard regularly describing the people they are liberating as “savages” and are seen to kill needlessly and for revenge. Throughout, Kyle’s world view is presented as narrow, a former rodeo-loving Texan driven by sheer patriotism. “I wanna shoot the bad guys,” he says, when a friend offers doubts about the morality of the mission.
The problem is, Eastwood doesn’t probe these ambiguities enough. With a cursory viewing it would be easy to interpret this as a celebration of an American hero – something US right-wingers have done. This view is not helped by the faceless, half-formed picture Eastwood offers of Iraqis. Like 2011’s J Edgar, one fears the politically conservative Eastwood may have compromised his filmmaking integrity for his deep-rooted patriotism. Or, perhaps, it was respect for his subject – maybe Eastwood would have dug deeper had Kyle remained alive.
Audiences are left to make up their own mind, and clearly that was the director’s intent. Yet he didn’t bring enough fire for the furnace to truly spark.
But he did bring a very experienced eye. The lengthy conflict scenes are directed with the same brutal intensity of 2006’s Letters from Iwo Jima – frantic, messy skirmishes, presented with little or no music, choreographed to bombard audiences with the barbarity of war.
American Sniper deserves credit for offering such a contemporary account. After 2008’s The Hurt Locker, this is the most savage on-screen depiction of the conflict in Iraq we’ve seen. This film demands to be seen and is rightfully sparking debate – but doesn’t tell the full story.
Updated: January 21, 2015 04:00 AM