by Nathan Sacks
The greatest strength of American Sniper is that it depicts combat like no other movie. It bears the stamp of 84-year old director Clint Eastwood, who in the last decade has crafted movies of incredible subtlety, maturity, and nuance like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. American Sniper hones in closely on one subject, the famous Navy sniper Chris Kyle, with any amazing degree of empathy. It has something more, too: a gifted, experienced filmmaker at the top of his craft, who knows how to let his unobtrusive yet assured style enhance and serve this portrait of a very guarded man.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Producers: Bradley Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Andrew Lazar, Robert Lorenz, Peter Morgan
Writers: Jason Hall, Chris Kyle (book), Scott McEwen (book), James DeFelice (book)
Cinematographer: Tom Stern
Editors: Joel Cox, Gary Roach
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Kyle Gallner, Cole Konis, Ben Reed, Sienna Miller
US Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014
US Distributor: Warner Bros
The film’s major flaw is that it has a rough start. In typical biopic mode, American Sniper begins in media res with the adult Chris Kyle about to make a vital, life-changing decision and then flashing back to his childhood. In the flashback, young Chris goes out hunting with his father. His father tells him he’s a natural shot, and also cautions him about the seriousness of taking a life. All of this so far is on-the-nose boilerplate biopic and unnecessary.
The young boy grows up into Bradley Cooper, as a Texas hillbilly alpha male type. Already a good shooter, he joins the Navy SEALs and goes through their horrendous recruiting process. Meanwhile, he finds a wife Taya (Sienna Miller) who is about the only major character in the film apart from Kyle. Again, nothing of their courtship seems to play to Eastwood’s strengths, while the recruiting scenes are funny but stagnant. The film doesn’t really take off until Kyle sees 9/11 happening on television and then we are whisked to Iraq.
Eastwood depicts war and violence in Iraq with random, sudden brutality. Very early in the film we see Kyle’s first kills: a young boy and his mother. Kyle sits on a flat stone roof with his rifle, his spotter pattering mindlessly about the violence he hopes to inflict on Iraqis. The woman comes out gives an explosive device to her son. Kyle pauses, breathes (Eastwood and his sound mixers expertly use silence punctuated by breathing as well as minimal background noise or music in many of the sniping scenes), and then takes the shot that goes directly through the boy’s heart. The violence is sudden and savage, and has immediate blowback. The woman tries to pick up the explosive where her son fell, and gets put down too. Eastwood’s camera lingers on Kyle’s crosshairs with the dead boy in his sight. The spotter cheers and attempts to congratulate Kyle, who flinches and says “Don’t fucking touch me.” Eastwood’s camera makes you feel the weight of the action when Kyle pulls the trigger, and the weight gets heavier as he racks up 160 kills and becomes a minor celebrity known for his death-dealing.
Anyone who says this film glorifies violence is deliberately ignoring this scene and the obvious point it makes. Critics of Eastwood’s politics probably forget about the 1992 anti-western Unforgiven, a film very explicitly about the seriousness and finality of murder and the bloodless violence of many classic westerns. Eastwood won one of his two Oscars for that film. The other was for Million Dollar Baby (2004), which was the target of a boycott from Christian conservatives, who claimed the film celebrated euthanasia.
Those critics back then were right-wingers, while most critics of American Sniper are of the left. What unites these voices, I think, is their willingness to misinterpret and make up Eastwood’s political intentions without evidence or reasoning. In the world of Internet criticism, this is common. Some have argued that this film justifies unchecked American aggression (this isn’t Red Dawn), that it implies a causal link between 9/11 and Iraq (nope), that it celebrates “psychotic murderer” Kyle (thanks for the amateur psychoanalysis), that it hates Islam, that it’s racist, etc.
The thing about these criticisms painting Eastwood as a frothing war supporter: this isn’t his first war film. A decade ago he made Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, two films telling separate stories about American and Japanese soldiers at the battle of Iwo Jima. The two films displayed both sides of the conflict with equal craft and consideration. At no point do these films “celebrate” war, unless you believe as Truffaut does that all war films do this by default (which I don’t buy, as someone easily revolted by violence).
I don’t remember anyone, for instance, complaining that Letters from Iwo Jima was insufficiently condemning of the Japanese imperial army and their genocide and grotesque eugenic experiments on the Chinese. The film had nothing to do with that. So, in the same way, does American Sniper have nothing to do with the righteousness of the Iraq war, our war on terrorism, the behavior of soldiers in combat, rules of engagement, or anything like that. For Eastwood to pronounce on such issues would be a betrayal of his goal, which is a very close examination of a single person, not a Battle of Algiers-type exegesis of a conflict.
But even on top of that, even if the film was the biggest saber-rattling celebration of Iraqi murder, even if it was pure propaganda, which it definitely isn’t, would that matter? Narrative films work or they do not work based on the quality of the story being told, the way in which it is told, and the craft used therein. Whether or not Eastwood agrees with my personal politics is not a consideration that matters. This is why you can admire Potemkin and Triumph of the Will all the time.
And even given that, in no way does this film “celebrate” the violence Kyle inflicts on others. What makes the film great is the way it provides a different narrative of a soldiers’ dissolution than more dramatic examples (Born on the Fourth of July and Coming Home). Kyle does not come to see the fallacy of war and begin to rail against his government. We’ve seen that type of movie before. But he does slowly become unraveled by what he sees as his kill count hits the triple digits, and his inability to see or address this behavior, his singular focus on the mission, make the interiority of this character endlessly fascinating. The psychology and Cooper’s sensitive, varied performance of this macho character is what makes the film Eastwood’s best in years—that and the high-level depiction of chaotic combat.
By its finale, American Sniper is another reminder that Eastwood is one of America’s best filmmakers because of his age, not in spite of it. He seems to have taken the lessons of his filmmaking heroes Sergio Leone, Don Siegel, and Akira Kurosawa to heart, growing more sensitive and nuanced in his old age, judging by a string of post-aughts masterpieces that rival filmmakers half his age in terms of prodigiousness and quality. He is one of the last great filmmakers in the classic Hollywood mold, and is as good at choosing the highest-quality scripts and coaxing the best performances out of his actors as anyone. Eastwood’s style isn’t flashy and doesn’t call attention to itself, but his economical storytelling, visual precision, and highly attuned spatial awareness in American Sniper beats a Wes Anderson symmetry tableau any day.
The film does stumble at the beginning but it continues to get stronger all the way to the climax, which is foregrounded by a beautiful aerial shot of the Iraqi battleground where Kyle makes his last stand. Writing about Oliver Stone’s Platoon in 1986, Roger Ebert spoke about how “[Stone] abandoned any attempt to make it clear where the various forces are in relation to each other, so that we never know where ‘our’ side stands and where ‘they’ are.” This movie goes takes that lack of clarity further, literalizing the confusion and opaqueness of combat by setting it during a gathering dust storm. As the siege continues and the situation gets more desperate for Kyle and his men, the action becomes more and more difficult to see, until the gathering dust makes Kyle’s fate in the conflict literally opaque.
The cumulative effect of the slowly diminishing visuals and corresponding tension is brilliant, almost Hitchockian. Eastwood opens with that aerial shot, establishes with direct filmmaking economy where everyone will be spatially, then gradually takes that awareness from the viewer. It is one of the best sequences Eastwood has ever directed, and one of the best climaxes to any war movie.
For some, Eastwood’s 40+ years of distinguished filmmaking merit less consideration than that one time he talked to a chair (as this article demonstrates). For me he is a legitimate old Hollywood master, one of the few left. Only a man of 80+ years could have made American Sniper the way he did. Yes, it isn’t a statement on the futility of war or the evilness of American neoconservatism. And thank God for that, as the movie would be much worse if it was.