After six Oscar nominations and huge box office numbers its opening weekend, 2 Shot guest writer and media studies scholar Nathan Blake takes a hard look at director Clint Eastwood’s latest effort, American Sniper.
American Sniper (2014)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Jason Hall
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Running time: 132 minutes
Budget: $59 million
Production Company: Malpaso Productions, Mad Chance Productions, Village Roadshow Pictures, 22nd & Indiana Pictures
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
American Sniper is a prime example of what can go wrong when you try too hard to please the family of a real life person. I have no doubt that director Clint Eastwood, screenwriter Jason Hall, and actor/producer Bradley Cooper were attracted to this film as a way to honor our men and women in the military and to shed light on the struggles that remain after their tours are over. The problem is that while trying to be respectful, they have created a film that asks very few questions about the controversial statements made by the real life Chris Kyle (played in the film by Bradley Cooper), who is considered the deadliest sniper in U.S. history.
Though never substantiated, Kyle claimed to have shot looters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In passages of the book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, Kyle also spoke of his killing as they were part of a competition and spewed racist views about Iraqis. The only time the film hints at any of this behavior is one brief scene where Chris refers to Iraqi citizens as “savages.”
I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to make a film about Chris Kyle. The very behavior described above, when depicted correctly on screen, could result in a thought provoking experience. Instead, the film sides unquestioningly with Kyle’s belief that every kill was justified. In fact, the script goes to great lengths to depict him as someone who did not enjoy killing. A scene where he sets his sights on an Iraqi child who picks up a rocket launcher from a terrorist Kyle shot moments earlier shows the sniper quietly pleading, from far away, for the child to put the weapon down. Later on, after his final tour of duty in Iraq, Kyle takes his son on a hunting trip and tells him that it’s a hard thing to stop a beating heart. Without contrasting these moments with the boasting Kyle frequently did about his kills in real life, these scenes come off as absurd and blatant attempts to placate members of Kyle’s family as well as the most hawkish filmgoers.
Yet there are some moments that keep American Sniper from being a completely pro-war film, particularly the scenes depicting Kyle’s PTSD. I believe the film would be stronger if it spent more time on this issue than taking audiences on repeated missions inside Iraq to watch Kyle kill people. Some killing would need to be in the film, of course. The only way to understand the PTSD is to show the brutal acts that he committed. As plotted here though, the action comes at the expense of thoroughly addressing Kyle’s recovery from PTSD during the time between the end of his fourth tour of duty and his death at the hands of another veteran suffering from PTSD.
Another problem with American Sniper is the lack of Iraqi characters that are given anything close to a personality. As written in the screenplay, they are merely one-dimensional targets. There are terrorists, there are fearful Iraqis who aid terrorists, and then there are Iraqis who seem to put up with the Americans and offer them help but ultimately turn out to be terrorists.
I don’t think American Sniper is a terrible film. But I think it is a missed opportunity that makes some dangerous mistakes even as it does try to expose the toll war and killing takes on those who serve. It is great that because of the film there is once again discussion about the mental health issues that America’s veterans suffer. It is also great that it has inspired so many articles about the troubling behaviors this entertaining, but in many ways cowardly and manipulative film, fails to address.
On its own terms, however, Eastwood’s film fails to ask enough of the hard questions about Chris Kyle’s behavior as it should. It would take only a couple of small changes to the script to make this a very good film. Instead, it is too cautious, obeying the warning of Chris Kyle’s father, who reportedly told Eastwood and Cooper, “Disrespect my son and I will unleash Hell on you.”
Wayne Kyle is probably happy with the final product. The rest of us should be wary of the legacy it constructs.