American Sniper (2014) – Film Review
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes
by Jen Grimble
Surrounded by controversy and dividing audience opinions, Clint Eastwood’s latest movie, American Sniper, is one of the most talked about films of award season. But that doesn’t mean it is the best. Using the bestselling memoir of US Navy SEAL, Chris Kyle as its source, American Sniper is not so much a war drama, as a study of Kyle’s personal experiences.
During his 10-year career, Kyle kills an estimated 160 people. He is the most lethal sniper in US military history. Eastwood uses this to his advantage, but is unwilling to venture further than Kyle’s own depictions of war. This results in an incomplete portrayal of conflict. American Sniper ignores the alternative angles when they could form a far more compelling story.
Told through four tours of Iraq, American Sniper has a powerful cat and mouse game at its centre. Woven between war-scenes are small segments of the home life of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). Eastwood draws us in with a moral dilemma seconds after the opening credits. Enter Chris, aiming his rifle at a young boy whose mother has just handed him a grenade. Before we see the outcome, the film cuts to scenes of Chris’ own childhood. They echo the scene, as Chris is handed a gun by his father (Ben Reed), who is teaching him to hunt.
“Adjustment to civilian life is a struggle”
As an adult, Chris witnesses a terrorist attack on television. After this he enrols as a Navy SEAL. During his sniper training Chris admits he shoots best when his target has a pulse. This emotional detachment sets the tone for the entire movie. We skip ahead to Chris’ first tour of Iraq. These scenes do not explore the effect the war has on Iraq’s native people, or even the soldiers themselves. Instead, American Sniper pigeon-holes the Iraqi population as ‘savages’. Perhaps this is how Kyle perceives and describes them, but Eastwood seems to forget his diplomacy.
A mere 20% of the film dedicates to Chris’ home life, including his marriage to Taya (Sienna Miller). She gives a credible performance, despite her minimal opportunities. Chris’s unwavering devotion to America places a wedge between himself and his family. His adjustment to civilian life is a struggle. But Chris is not possessed with guilt about those he has killed, but more about those he has not.
This sentiment is confirmed during a therapy session later in the film. Here, Eastwood could have taken the dark underbelly of Kyle’s character much further. Instead he leaves this, and his moral viewpoint, entirely vague. American Sniper neither attempts, nor succeeds, in reaching the ultra-realism of modern war epics like Zero Dark Thirty. Instead, it is a 2D rollercoaster that leaves much to interpretation.
American Sniper is a post-modern fairy-tale, where the horse-straddled knight transforms into a gun-saddled defender. His goal is not only to save the damsel (his wife), but also the entire American race. This unapologetic portrayal of war is a blind exploration of human capability. Thanks to beautiful cinematography and flawless performances it somehow forms an enjoyable and not unsuccessful piece of cinema.