Most biographical war films don’t outwardly identify as “action movies” because the pairing of the two genres sounds inherently unethical. Real-world combat involves real lives, after all, and to suggest that they be terminated in the service of an adrenaline rush is to appear callous if not downright inhumane. American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s biopic on the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, seemed destined to be the exception. Before his death, Kyle had 160 confirmed kills in his decade-long career as a Navy SEAL. That statistic, plus the film’s badass title, plus the fact that Bradley Cooper packed on 40 pounds for the role and would have fit right in among the Expendables, makes the implicit claim that, if any war biopic were to be an action movie and get away with it, American Sniper would be the one.
And so the film is, unequivocally and aggressively, an action movie. The movie’s trailer suggests that as much time would be spent on psychological warfare as its physical counterpart, but reality reveals the hushed machismo of the film’s title to be less ironic than we’d thought. For two hours fourteen minutes, we follow Kyle through four tours of duty, each of which presents new challenges to overcome. Much of the film has an episodic rhythm, sending Kyle on mission after mission like a character in a videogame. There are shootouts and standoffs and many suspenseful scenes. After a while, Kyle is no longer just a soldier but gung-ho gunman at war with a faceless mass of villainous Arabs led by a Final Boss master sniper, whom Kyle confronts in a climactic showdown.
That last sentence describes the first of many reasons why American Sniper is only half of what it promises to be: the film’s an actioner all right, but it gets away with very little. For starters, there’s the movie’s alarmingly one-sided representation of the Iraq War. One would think that, after films like Battle of Algiers (and Eastwood’s own Flags of our Fathers / Letters from Iwo Jima double feature) that Hollywood would have been more receptive to the truth that humanity exists on both sides of any war. It’s true that war movies typically focus on one side of the conflict, whether to streamline the narrative or evoke the existential limitations of an individual soldier’s perspective; to identify us with the marooned American soldiers in Black Hawk Down is to necessarily make us afraid of the Somali militants.
That kind of insularity is unavoidable. But the type of perspective American Sniper imposes is straight up propagandistic – it doesn’t simply elevate Kyle to mythic status but turns the Arabs into offensive cartoons designed to elicit our hate. There is a gruesome scene involving a power drill-wielding terrorist that, while maybe based on real events (I have my doubts), is appallingly manipulative. The violence is so outlandishly brutal and drawn out for so long that we are forced to withhold our sympathy from the Arabs, especially since the film presents us with not a single sympathetic Arab character. Then there is the enemy sniper, whose existence reduces the conflict of the war into a glaring good/evil dichotomy, and yes, he is dressed all in black. We root for Kyle not because we want to, but because we have no other choice.
And maybe this is all the better for the film’s pro-American sentiments because, had we been given more autonomy as viewers, we might have chosen otherwise. Kyle, while not lacking in charisma and charm, makes a disarming hero because he is portrayed as being so singularly patriotic that everything – his family, his life beyond the war – falls by the wayside. When footage of the 9/11 attack plays on the Kyles’ living room TV set, the focal point is not the terrorist act but Kyle’s face – rock-hard impassive save for the barely contained tremor that exposes not compassionate rage but the ardor of a man possessed by a psychotic level of nationalism. When asked by a psychiatrist whether he thinks about those he’s killed, he says he is more haunted by the people he couldn’t save, and we believe him. What his statement indicates could be, on the one hand, true compassion for his brothers in arms, but it also suggests a disregard for the other, equally human lives he’s taken. Nationalism is not the same as selective empathy (or bloodlust), but taken to an extreme, the first can descend into the second.
In these character-revealing moments, American Sniper seems poised to be a different, greater film – a uniquely unflattering portrait of patriotism-gone-wrong with enough tact not to reduce its subject to an anti-American lampoon. Unfortunately, the film goes for neither character study nor satire. Despite scenes that give a glimpse into the depths of Kyle’s person, the movie ultimately trades them all in for plot – mission after mission, bad guy after bad guy. By the time the film’s closing documentary footage salutes the passing of an American soldier, all sense of complexity has disappeared, replaced instead by the uneasy feeling that a potentially rich film had been sacrificed in the name of jingoistic hagiography.
You may argue that American Sniper shouldn’t be receiving this much flak for its staunchly unilateral approach to representing the war because, heck, Hollywood’s been making “Yeah America!” action movies for decades, and the “enemies” at the time have always been conveniently cast as the villains. You may cite “Die Hard” (John McClane vs. the Russians in the wake of the Cold War), the newest Rambo film (Stallone arbitrarily chooses the Burmese on which to project our nation’s fear of Third World dictatorships), and the slew of post-9/11 action movies that pit A-list actors against Arab Terrorist caricatures. Even though the argument that “my crime is okay because I wasn’t the first to commit it” is really no argument at all, there is some merit to the suggestion that American Sniper shouldn’t be blamed for a problem that is larger than the scope of just one movie.
With all that in mind, I still felt Eastwood’s film to be especially off-putting because it’s a biopic. Not only that, but it’s a biopic about someone who recently passed away in February 2013, and whose life involved people, places, and events still urgently relevant to our world today. What is most disconcerting is the fact that the film knows this and still tries to take the action-movie route. Sprinkled throughout the film are moments of moral crisis that indicate that Eastwood understood his story to be about someone who was flesh and blood – in the very opening sequence, an armed, Arab child approaches an American tank, and it is Kyle’s trigger that must decide the fate of both. But these moments are few and isolated. Before long, I got the queasy feeling that the film threw them in simply as tokens of moral struggle to appease critics looking to bash the movie for exploiting true-life war for the purposes of action-packed entertainment. All these moments could have happened in real life, except the way the film fails to use them to advance either narrative or character development suggests that they exist simply to convince dissenters that Eastwood is respecting the three-dimensionality of the real Chris Kyle. In reality, the critics are probably right.
It’s a shame, because the film had a lot going for it. Bradley Cooper has never given a more powerful performance (except maybe in Silver Linings Playbook), and that opening sequence I mentioned is dazzling – the vice-like tension generated by silence and narrative delay feels straight out of The Hurt Locker, and the scene culminates with an astonishing jump cut that captures the masterpiece American Sniper could have been. But it is impossible to think in terms of “could-haves” when a movie deals so completely with present-day circumstances. And once we’ve set our sights on the political context within which the film places itself, we realize that Eastwood has completely missed the mark. Grade: C