January 15, 2015 Leave a comment
Discontent with his life as a rodeo cowboy, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) joins the Navy SEALs — prompting younger brother Colton (Max Charles) to sign up too — and is soon deployed to Iraq as a sniper. Over the next ten years he serves four tours away from wife Taya Renae (Sienna Miller) and his family, is promoted to Chief Petty Officer and is dubbed the most lethal sniper in US military history for his efforts, with 160 confirmed kills. Having earned a degree of notoriety among both allied and enemy forces, Chris’ attempts to identify and eliminate a figure known only as The Butcher are hampered by the price he has on his head — a reward assiduously sought by a Syrian master sniper (Sugar Shane) who is renowned for his ability to hit a target from over a mile away. Having developed something of a hero-complex, Chris feels increasingly uncomfortable when Stateside and unable to protect his friends on the battlefield.
Based on real events, or rather those recounted in Chris Kyle’s best-selling autobiography American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, Clint Eastwood’s latest is a meditation on what it means to be an American, a soldier and a hero. Neither quite celebratory or condemnatory, it instead explores the stark reality of modern warfare, in which the sniper must trust his instincts and yet remain accountable for his actions. Unlike most war movies it doesn’t limit itself to the overseas conflict alone, and though many of the film’s more potent scenes are seen through Chris’ cross-hairs just as many are coloured by his concerned wife, trying to raise a family back in Texas where the day-to-day dramas are less life-or-death but just as difficult to those enduring them. It’s a question of perspective, and Eastwood isn’t blind to the importance of family.
Although his main character might have started out as a cowboy, the director has little time for the bravado that proliferates in his chosen genre. When we meet Cooper’s character he’s perched on a crumbling rooftop with a child in his sights, attempting to decide if the object in the little boy’s hands is incendiary or perfectly innocent. It’s a stomach-churning scene, as the weight of Chris’ decision weighs heavily on all who are witness to it (bar his spotter, who gets a rollocking for his snark), and is later reprised after a flashback to his Texas upbringing, replete with rifles and rodeo. Chris couldn’t be any more American if he tried, but Eastwood just about tows the line between patriotism and propaganda; by pitting Chris’ duty to his country against his duty to his family the director is able to question his priorities without ever criticising them. American Sniper asks: is Chris nobly saving his squad and protecting his own family or is he simply killing foreigners and tearing theirs’ apart unnecessarily?
As tense and provocative as American Sniper often is, however, it never really gets to grips with the story it wishes to tell, and Eastwood slowly loses his impartiality as he slips into cliche. Being adapted from a memoir, it’s only natural that the film doesn’t necessarily follow a dramatically satisfying arc with clearly identifiable themes but there is an uncertainty to it that is nevertheless disappointing. Although measured, Chris is ultimately being immortalised, and this being such a sensitive and recent true story it is perhaps only natural that the man and his actions aren’t subjected to the scrutiny that they perhaps should be. American Sniper doesn’t seem particularly interested in context, or indeed the wider war, and as compelling as Cooper is in the lead role such a narrow view of one of the most complicated conflicts of the modern age is never fully justified. By sidelining the enemy so completely it’s impossible to judge Chris accordingly, and without due development it’s easy to forget that Chris is killing human beings. (They’re not all threatening children with electric drills.) Forgivable — perhaps even desireable — in the theatre of war, but not in the cinema.
Although better than many of his more recent efforts, American Sniper does not quite mark a return to form for Clint Eastwood. It’s a question of one man’s legacy versus another’s legitimacy, and his answer doesn’t exactly convince; Cooper and Miller both perform admirably, and the direction is deft and direct, but without an obvious target the film doesn’t really know where to aim.