The Interview had an entire country in enough of a hissy-fit to (allegedly) declare war on Hollywood, but American Sniper became the most controversial movie of the year simply because the left-leaning crusaders of the internet would never shut up about it. Much has been made about the movie’s direction – whether it glorifies war, demonises war, or why that baby was fake – with some of the loudest cries of dissent coming from those who refused ‘on principle’ to actually watch it. True, everything about this movie screams gung-ho ‘Murican patriotism on paper: it’s based upon the life of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the U.S. Navy SEAL whose prolific kill streak, ethics and all, have been in constant debate since the release of his memoir, in which he unwittingly constructed the image of himself as a sociopathic mass murderer. But the fact of the matter is that Clint Eastwood at least attempted to turn Kyle’s story into a balanced argument, only that’s easier said than done given the material at hand.
What Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall come up with is a guy who apparently doesn’t like killing foreign people, despite having applied for a job that specifically requires killing foreign people. A crack-shot apparently since birth, and with a deeply ingrained propensity for violence as revealed in childhood flashbacks, Kyle naturally aces the task of killing foreign people, but because he seriously doesn’t like doing that, he becomes a shell-shocked figure unable to relate to his family, and equally unable to resist the prospect of killing more foreign people (towards which, he reveals, he’s actually indifferent). With so much effort put into reconciling with the real Kyle’s abhorrent worldview, American Sniper explores the dehumanisation effects of war in similar ways to which they’re usually explored, only with barely any conviction, and it resultantly comes across as a lily-livered impression of far greater war pictures (albeit with marksmanship as a selling point). There are some interesting ideas regarding the complex nature of heroism that almost land – particularly Kyle’s shocking assessment of precisely why his friends were killed in action – but American Sniper, like its protagonist, has its flimsy heart too firmly set upon the battlefield to convincingly present the counter argument it likes to think it’s presenting.
The movie feels as though it’s using Kyle’s story as an attempt to update The Deer Hunter for the War on Terror, even though Kathryn Bigelow already did that with The Hurt Locker in 2008, the same year Eastwood patronisingly assessed racism in Gran Torino. He and Hall bring much of that attitude to this film, which features just two non-evil Iraqi characters in total: one is an informant for the American army, and the other is his son who exists solely to have a terrorist run a power drill through his skull. Both are useless, and are killed off before being genuinely humanised in any capacity. While this would land the movie in the same boat as Argo, which undermines everything director Ben Affleck stands for in his otherwise respectable views on the Middle-East, it’s worth noting that American Sniper doesn’t even attempt to humanise any of its American characters either, besides its central marksman. For instance, Kyle’s anchor in reality is his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), who constantly harasses him about his lack of presence in the family, and that’s about it for her; because after all, the movie treats its subject as though the hero of war is its only victim.
Indeed, Eastwood’s hallmark in acting and directing has long been centred around the anti-hero, and he and Bradley Cooper do give considerable depth to their depiction of Kyle, even if it is at the expense of basically everything else in the movie. This goes for many of the action sequences, especially the giddy central set piece which struggles to keep track of all the characters’ positions, and thus loses any sense of weight in the process. The CGI blood is a minor yet irksome offense in a movie that feels flat with little captivation, merely drifting along as amiable entertainment. Worse still, American Sniper tries to explore various ideologies of war by focusing upon just one character’s tunnel vision perspective, which was obviously never going to work. Had the filmmakers decided to go balls out without attempting to conceal the patriotic stance that shines through anyway, it would have been a better movie; at least then it would have a little soul.