Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Running time: 132 mins
UK release date: 16 January 2015
It is difficult to overstate how cliché-ridden this film is – revenge, heroism, good guy versus bad guy, a final showdown in the form of a shoot-out. It has all the superficial hallmarks of a classic Western, but none of the substance.
American Sniper is based on the true story of Chris Kyle, who served 1000 days over four tours of duty in Iraq, becoming the most deadly sniper in US military history with 160 kills to his name and earning the nickname ‘legend’ from his comrades.
Chris is an all-American boy with an all-American boyhood who was brought up to protect his family (he takes on the bullies who tormented his younger brother) and to avenge wrong-doing; after 9/11, this vengeance is on a grand scale. His parents instilled in him the values of God, country and family; but at points in the film, as his own family life is falling apart, it seems that only the ‘country’ of this triad survives, and family values are too often conflated with US interests. His belief in ‘God’, meanwhile, seems more like some form of deism than faith in the Christian God – one of Chris’ comrades comments that he always carries his Bible, but has never been seen to open it.
The film is built around this clean-cut, all-American guy with a gift for shooting that was obvious even when he was training to be a cowboy in his youth, who is pitched against a clean-cut, all-Iraqi guy who happens to be an Olympic medallist in sniping – but there is no sense of irony at these mirrored worlds. The film is about a certain kind of heroism, and it shows us the cost to the hero’s humanity. Does it praise heroism and the military values that underpin it? Or does the film question the effects and the costs? In Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11, one soldier says, ‘When you kill someone, something dies inside you too’. Such effects of war on Chris are considerable: he insists ’I’m fine’, despite a blood pressure of 170/110; but while he comes back physically, he does not come back psychologically and emotionally. The hero comes to see himself as part-protector, part-saviour and part-Messiah – what he finds hard to live with is ‘the guys I didn’t save’.
His is a simple black and white world where there are good guys and bad guys (it is not hard to guess who is who is this moral universe), and yet it is not clear who the defenders are, when the other side are either invaders or insurgents. The film does not deal with the moral ambiguity of the war situation: frequently Chris is left as judge, jury and executioner, being told it is ‘Your call’ when there is a decision to be made about whether to kill a woman or a child who may be a suicide bomber.
Ultimately, I found it hard to care about these characters. One finds machismo amid all soldiers and soldiering, but the American military braggadocio, with their grunts and ‘ooh-hah’, sounds crass to British ears. This is essentially a cowboy film, complete with cowboy star in the midst of a cowboy adventure of a war, and towards the end of the film there is even the Iraqi equivalent of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. You will not find it hard to guess who wins.
Bradley Cooper, bulked up for the role, puts in a competent performance, though the strong Texan accent is often difficult to understand. He portrays the journey of decline well, but his return to family life after a brief chat to a psychiatrist, and his redemption through helping other veterans to deal with their trauma – through shooting! – is implausible and too easily done. However, the film’s end is very moving.
This film has taken well over $100 million at the US box office, far more than other films about Iraq and Afghanistan. However, other recent films are far more successful in conveying the reality of war and its effects – try Kajaki and Testament of Youth, respectively. American Sniper has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor: but if you want to see a better picture, try Foxcatcher; or a better actor, Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything.