There’s been much hemming and hawing regarding the war drama “American Sniper,” especially after it shattered box office records last weekend, opening the floodgates for a nationwide debate on everything from the film’s merits to the merits of Marine sniper Chris Kyle himself. Be it those criticizing historical whitewashing, or Twitter tweeters expressing racist vitriol as prompted by the film’s admittedly gung-ho zeal for killing some Iraqis, Clint Eastwood’s latest has provoked a variety of conversation. At first glance, “American Sniper” appears to be a pandering, right-wing propaganda piece for the Call of Duty generation, but look a little deeper, and it’s a tale of two films: a pragmatic look at war and war’s home-turf aftermath from the point of view of a soldier, and a jingoistic hooah crafted in the spirit of classic westerns. These conflicting experiences make for a flawed and confusing narrative, but one that’s held together by a strong central performance from Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle.
If we accept that the entire film is told from Kyle’s point of view, which may very well be the case considering it’s adapted from the man’s own memoir, then the myriad of Arab stereotypes and moments that demonize or dehumanize the Iraqis make a lot more sense. Multiple scenes feature Kyle and his comrades referring to them as “savages,” but Clint neither celebrates nor condemns this behavior. This is the way Seals spoke, we assume, in particular Kyle, someone who’s been called a bigot and a sociopath in the wake of his fame. Such labels might be apt, but if anything, the slurs run contrary to the notion that the film sanctifies Kyle. “Sniper” doesn’t sanctify, nor does it duly scrutinize, but how can it when the man’s widow and children are still alive? Further arraignment of his character would glean more truth, but in the end only really serve to denigrate the personal memory his family holds dear, and that’s simply not a worthwhile endeavor. Whether Chris Kyle was the type of person to ruminate on the ramifications of his rifle’s aim doesn’t matter, as the film is more concerned with what happens when a soldier returns from the ultimate adrenaline dump. Cooper, assuming an authentic Texas drawl and beefy stature worthy of a Seal, sells the psychology of Kyle’s interior quandaries and probable PTSD so that the script doesn’t have to. After a while, as hellish as it is, the battlefield becomes Kyle’s home, not the house housing his distressed wife and kids. It’s in those scenes where the soul of the picture reveals itself, not in the midst of desert mayhem and over-watch overkill, but as Kyle attempts to re-adjust to life away from the kill, to spousal doting and driving to the mall, to playing with his kids and talking to Taya. He’s intoxicated in Iraq, and when he comes home he’s forced to come down to Earth again, forced to face the naivete that is violence without consequences. Cooper makes you believe a man can be both moral and unrepentant. As written here, Kyle isn’t so much a cold-blooded killer as he is a guy obsessed with protection. At one point a fellow soldier asks him “you got a savior complex?”
But that’s only half of it. It’s not at all difficult to walk away from the film and run straight into a local recruiting office if you’re young, impressionable, and full of piss and vinegar. Battle sequences like a climactic shootout in the middle of a raging sandstorm, while giving new meaning to the phrase “fog of war,” are technically thrilling and emotionally swelling, but carry the burden of an unjust war on their shoulders. Kyle’s point of view or not, it’s often uncomfortable watching scenes that seem to celebrate our envoy in Iraq. When music brims at the beck of impending revenge or a character shouts “get some, motherfucker” to faceless enemies across the way, there begins a sinking feeling of director’s bias. Is Clint Eastwood urging us to root for the casual murder of these foreigners, some of whom aren’t Al Qaeda, but civilians defending their home against invaders? Most likely not, but he makes it hard to tell, and it’s made all the more difficult by Cooper’s solemnity, Sienna Miller’s pleas, and the occasional question posed by his peers. A superior questions the purpose of their mission, and Kyle’s “there’s evil here” rhetoric gives way to “there’s evil everywhere.” Then immediately after, more rah-rah of the flag-waving ilk as bullets fly and brown villains die. The insurgents are devoid of motivational nuance and usually positioned like the savage Indians of yore, as if the team behind the scene wanted to apply western aesthetics to a complex quagmire, a dubious decision that must be the biggest failing here if indeed that was their goal. Once a rival black-clad sniper asserts his presence as Kyle’s primary antagonist, completing the image of two gunslingers competing for the plague of best killer in the east, comparisons to the Hollywood western suddenly become an unfortunate reality. These disparate ideas create an interesting contrast, but they’re also a distraction from that all-important soul, the character study that’s obviously of utmost interest to Clint and co. Perhaps that sinking feeling is the result of unfair baggage we place on the film, but the opposing reactions throughout social media and elsewhere can’t be denied.
While fiction, or historical fiction in this case, can never be blamed for all it may provoke, if that many people are driven to espouse hate by a movie they believe confirms their hate, there’s a problem at hand, and it can’t be chalked up to mere misunderstandings of the interpretive kind. This legendary filmmaker and soon-to-be legendary actor have created something for the betterment of veterans around the world, a piece of work they can relate to and use as a means of coping with what they’ve seen and what they’ve done while under the influence of war, but they’ve also created something that’s confusing in equal measure, and not always in a good way. There’s a fine line between brilliant ambiguity and muddled intentions, and “American Sniper” jumps that line on more than one occasion, at times showcasing the mental anguish of 160 confirmed kills, and at others encouraging the worst of rampant nationalism. With reservations, Bradley Cooper’s external transformation and internal provocation are just enough to recommend the film to rational liberals and conservatives, soldiers and veterans alike. If you’re the irrational sort, stay home, and stay off the internet.