A complicated, unsettling movie, American Sniper is torn between rah-rah hagiography and sober anti-war lamentation. Director Clint Eastwood takes the story of Chris Kyle, the late Iraq war veteran the military credits as the deadliest American sniper in history, and makes a movie that’s simultaneously proud of those accomplishments and sorrowful when confronted with the mental and physical toll warfare takes on soldiers and civilians alike. It’s a film that sees the same black and white, good and evil dichotomies as its protagonist, showing enemy combatants terrorizing the war zone, giving the sequences there an omnipresent danger (and stereotypes). Then it follows him home to Texas between deployments, where the remembered sounds of war echo in the silences of daily life. Eastwood wants his audience rooting for the home team, and then wondering if the carnage is worth it.
This is a charitable interpretation of Kyle’s memoir, which was riddled with exaggerations and inventions. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall have pared back red meat pandering into something murkier. That’s ambiguous enough to make for some queasy responses, especially from those prone to take Kyle’s story as unambiguous heroism and American-might-makes-right flag-waving. But surely only the most sociopathic patriotism could lead someone to watch the opening scene, in which Kyle stares down the barrel of a sniper rifle and makes the decision to shoot a child, in purely heroic terms. Sure, the boy clutched a grenade mere blocks from an oncoming convoy of American troops. But who could watch the boy flung back with the force of the shot, blood splattering out behind him as his mother cries, and feel any amount of pleasure?
Eastwood spent the first part of his career playing the macho American, gun-slinging cowboys, soldiers, and rogue cops who’d do whatever necessary to get their version of justice done. The last few decades, he’s been directing films that dismantled the myth and saw its poison. This film straddles the line uncomfortably. It says some people need these myths to survive, without knowing what to make of that idea. We see Kyle sign up to be a Marine to help his country, with every intention of killing terrorists. He ends up serving four tours in Iraq, where Kyle’s fellow soldiers often call him a hero, especially as his reputation grows. But he’s quick to downplay his accomplishments. When he’s met with questions about the conflict, doubts expressed by his wife, a buddy, or a psychiatrist, he’s equally quick to shrug them off. What does he truly, deep down, think about himself? It’s hard to say, and Eastwood’s not quick to provide his answer.
The answer may be in Bradley Cooper’s performance, one of his best, which brings shadings to a role that could’ve easily been one-note. He plays Kyle as a man stubbornly convinced of his duty, single-minded in his unquestioning pride and instinctual humbleness. This is partly symptomatic of a simply unreflective personality, but Cooper lets us see it as coping mechanism as well. A clear-cut sense of right is the only thing keeping him going after all he’s seen. Down bombed out Iraqi streets, he’s terrorized innocent civilians, invited collateral damage, driven into ambushes, and seen friends die. He’s most in control when hidden on rooftops, looking through his rifle’s scope, hand on the trigger, armed with his sense of purpose. The only way he can maintain his sense of duty, his righteousness, is to shut out dissenting voices. Cooper brings a lumbering physicality to the role, sturdy but carrying clear uncomfortable feelings when others try to tell him who he is. He has a look in the eyes betraying a storm of emotions that never comes to the surface.
The film follows Kyle’s war exploits, presenting them in an amped up, stripped down Hollywood style. Eastwood’s visual stillness and simplicity (from frequent cinematographer Tom Stern) provides crisp, coherent energy to the combat, but at worst fills the frames with swarms of enemies that threaten to look like Call of Duty at times. It’s at once intense and depersonalized. It’s a simple worldview on display. American soldiers are good, individualized, imperiled. Anyone else is there to be suspicious, dangerous, or dead. Sick thrills in the combat sequences let pulpy actioner clichés creep in around the edges, like the enemy sniper who’s a sneering, unknowable villain who leaps to his next perch with parkour moves.
It’s part of the film’s inability to land on any specific ideological perspective. This is a serious and sobering movie (grim gore, funerals, PTSD, tearful phone calls and portent) that also has a scene where a SEAL makes an impossible shot complete with slow-mo bullet arcing through the air (ridiculous) and a last minute dash through an increasingly chaotic sandstorm (thrilling). The film’s able to both satisfy patriotic bloodlust with vaguely true-to-life, but exaggerated, action-thriller filmmaking, and give those of us grossed out by such displays enough grey area cover to feel okay about being unsettled. It’s strategically politically ignorant, and in some moments the head-spinning cognitive dissonance is perhaps more effective and destabilizing than either approach would’ve been alone. It’s evenhanded in its sympathy for every American viewpoint even as it reduces foreign bodies to set dressing and cannon fodder. The film shuts out implications as a way of narrowing the focus, keeping its gaze on its lead.
In the film’s most politically complicated scene, Kyle and his wife (Sienna Miller) attend the funeral of a fallen soldier whose mother reads a letter explaining the deceased’s belief that the war was wrong. Driving home, Kyle blames the man’s death on that perspective. He calls it weakness, though it sure looked like hard-earned skepticism to me, especially considering the man died of enemy fire no pro-war stance would shield. Kyle clings to a black and white world because he needs it to be that way, because he needs to feel 100% justified to survive. Eastwood’s film is an ambiguous inhabitation of that worldview, putting it on display and letting the audience take it for an inkblot test. I saw it as messy, but ultimately more sorrowful than celebratory. Eastwood features real disabled vets in the final scenes, then rolls footage of Kyle's funeral over the credits. Here was a man good at war. Look what war does.