When a film as divisive and controversial as Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper arrives, it’s difficult to watch it without the swirl of hype, think-pieces and social media crowing somewhere in the back of the mind. In the case of American Sniper – an adaptation of the memoir of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in US military history – the controversy surrounds the politics of the film, the questionable morals of the real-life Kyle and its surprisingly impressive haul of Oscar nominations.
What surprises then is that the film itself largely steers clear of making any real statement about anything. In typical plain-spoken Eastwood style, the film is essentially a semi-factual run through the life of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), from his enlistment in the Navy SEALS up until his death on the home front in 2013, with a quick detour to his Texas childhood to provide some background for his very black-and-white moral code. To Kyle, there are good guys and there are bad guys and in this war, the Iraqis are the bad guys and he must protect the US from them.
It’s an outlook that has helped make the real Kyle a troublesome character and certainly the content of his memoir suggests a flawed and worrying worldview. However, in Eastwood’s film, Kyle is a more humble and sympathetic character; a man who believes who is doing an essential job and takes pride in doing it well, even as the mental and emotional strain of killing begins to take its toll. Considerably bulked up and affecting a convincing Southern drawl, this is the role of Cooper’s career to date, suggesting many depths to the man who became known to his military colleagues as ‘Legend’.
The film’s early scenes are its weakest, showing a teenage Kyle protecting his younger brother from some bullies, before his father explains there are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs, and the sheepdogs are there to protect the sheep from the wolves. It plays out almost like a superhero origin, establishing Kyle’s moral compass before a clunky scene of Kyle, now in his thirties, watching the horrifying footage of 9/11 on the news and deciding it’s time for him to step up and be a sheepdog.
Where the film is most effective is in its war scenes and it hits its stride once Kyle arrives in Iraq. Though Kathryn Bigelow’s superb Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker might have done it better, Eastwood rings immense tension out of Kyle’s time patrolling the rooftops of Fallujah, protecting his squadron as they move through the largely evacuated streets. The first time we see Kyle in action, he is faced with a mother and her young child approaching his fellow troops with what looks like a grenade. It’s a near impossible situation but Kyle approaches it with calm professionalism and makes the right choice. While his colleagues whoop and holler, Kyle quietly gets to grips with what he’s done, and will do many more times over the course of his career.
Where the war scenes fall down though is their characterisation of an Iraqi sniper known as Mustapha (Sammy Sheik), who is built up as some kind of arch nemesis for Kyle, particularly when the American’s reputation lands him with a six figure bounty on his head. Not only is Mustapha an Olympic marksman, he also seems to be a parkour expert, given the ease with which he hops from roof-to-roof anytime he hears Kyle is in the neighbourhood. One baffling scene shows Mustapha at home with his wife and baby – presumably as a “we’re not so different, you and I” scene – but all he seems to be doing is waiting for a call about Kyle while twirling a bullet on his coffee table like a preposterous action movie big bad. Though their final showdown, as ridiculous as it might be, is hugely tense.
Waiting back home is Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and their young child. Kyle’s time away puts a strain on their relationship, particularly as he is distant and reluctant to talk about what he’s going through. Though the dynamic is well worn and the couple move through various stock scenes of troubled husband/concerned wife interactions, Cooper and Miller are both terrific, elevating the material with their believable chemistry that brings a raw energy to their scenes together.
Ultimately, American Sniper is another solidly constructed Eastwood film about a man coping with the mental toll of killing. While the film could be perceived to be romanticising Chris Kyle and war in general, the problem is more the oversimplification of a lot of issues that could’ve been explored in more depth. Nonetheless, the Kyle we get on screen is a character who Cooper imbues with enough inner turmoil to remain engaging, regardless of how accurate a portrayal of the real man that may or may not be.