Over the last couple of weeks a number of people have been pushing us to go and see American Sniper and then to tell everyone what we think.
The film – which enjoyed the largest-grossing weekend for a movie ever when it launched in the USA – has divided opinion. Basically the left intelligentsia and many of those watching the film overseas have condemned it as at best simplistic and at worst American triumphalism, while some on the right have trumpeted it as a return to good ol’ USA values in movie making and a celebration of a folk hero.
We suspect the assumption is that, given our well-understood political preferences, we will immediately lapse into an anti-American rant full of left-wing certainty that the project is little more than an exercise in gung ho Tea Party patriotism and yet another example of director Clint Eastwood’s rightwards drift in his old age, epitomised by his dreadful Republican Convention discussion with an empty chair.
Actually, our reaction was much different.
As both its Oscar-nominated maker and Bradley Cooper have argued, the piece is above all a closely observed discussion of the effect of war on an individual who measures his life by some fairly simple yardsticks – love of country, love of family, and distaste for bullies. Some will be put off from seeing the film because of its subject matter. That would be a mistake.
Chris Kyle and his wife
Christopher Scott “Chris” Kyle was a United States Navy SEAL and the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history with 160 confirmed kills. Kyle served four tours in the Iraq War and was awarded several commendations for acts of heroism and meritorious service in combat.
Iraqi insurgents dubbed him the “Devil of Ramadi” and placed a series of ever increasing bounties on his head, purported to have eventually reached the low six figures.
Kyle was honourably discharged from the U.S. Navy in 2009 and wrote a bestselling autobiography, American Sniper, which was published in January 2012. On February 2, 2013, Kyle was shot and killed at a shooting range near Chalk Mountain, Texas, by a fellow veteran he was seeking to aid, along with friend Chad Littlefield. Their killer is awaiting trial.
We suspect that much of the criticism of the film is based on the shock that it is presented in very spare tones. It is brutal. Elemental. Nowhere to hide from the subject matter. For those who prefer their war neatly packaged on the nightly news and with the blood and guts removed, this movie will be confronting, indeed.
There is no attempt to gloss over the utter nastiness of war for the ordinary soldier. Indeed, quite the opposite. War is not presented as a cheery exercise for America or Americans, or anyone. It is shown in all its bloody reality. When Kyle shoots a young boy carrying a grenade, and then his mother (or sister, it isn’t clear), the horrific nature of the moment is presented with stark realism. The fact that it is his first “kill” is explored in a few simple sentences when he later returns to barracks. His regret at the incident is expressed exactly as a working soldier would express it – he hadn’t wanted his first engagement with the enemy to be like that. His colleague closes down discussion with the ultimate justification. Kyle had saved his colleagues’ lives. That was his job. Job done. Move on.
The film makes no attempt to consider why a young woman and a young boy would be running up a street holding a hand grenade to try and slaughter American soldiers. It neither justifies nor condemns their action. The reason is clear: that’s not what Eastwood is examining. On the other hand, it is also a simple and effective way to encapsulate that the war in Iraq was also about a war with the local population, not just hardened Jihadist fighters.
If this movie is about anything it is about the horror of war and the stoic determination to endure it in support of principles. One can question the principles – one can argue that America should never have been in Iraq, or even that Al-Zarquari and his hoodlum army were justified in fighting the invaders. That is to entirely miss the point. The movie is a character study, and it is engagingly effective in that study. Yes, naturally, it is viewing that study from the American perspective, but it makes no attempt to sanitise the reality of American actions, which were bloody. Because war is.
The movie also unflinchingly reveals the reality of the opposition the Americans faced – at times well organised, determined to the point of fanatical, but also frequently very cruel towards its own population. To reveal one of the film’s more gut wrenching scenes would be an unreasonable spoiler for those who have yet to see it, but it makes grim viewing. That it is likely to be entirely true is merely emphasised by the current barbarity of ISIS burning people alive, beheading, mass murder, raping and kidnapping, reducing populations to slavery and so forth.
Above all, despite lifting Chris Kyle up as a figure to be exemplified, (and the final scene sent everyone in this one Australian cinema out in to the streets in near silence), the film is an anti-war monologue. It would be hard to imagine a more immersive experience that could lead one to understand the reality of being in a fire fight in a dense urban area – in other words, what the fighters on both sides endured day after day for years.
One many occasions in the film one finds oneself gripping the arms of the cinema chair and wondering how any halfway sane person could ever return home and be able to pick up everyday life with any degree of equanimity. In that sense, Kyle’s own story is also an appeal for the United States to improve its treatment of its own vets – a disgraceful number of whom linger with untreated mental illness or languish in jails around the country.
Much has been made of the fact that it is somehow wrong to create a movie celebrating the life of a man who took 160 lives (at least 160 – that’s his “confirmed” total) in his role as a sniper. And to be sure, the publicity surrounding the movie trumpeting his role as the most lethal sniper in American history doesn’t sit at all easily with those who regret the loss of human life in conflicts.
But then again, what do people expect soldiers to do?
Apart from the very obvious fact that Kyle saved many more of his fellow soldier’s lives than he took – a point demonstrated clearly in the film – soldiers are employed to kill the enemy in combat. The operator of a drone or fighter-bomber will frequently “take out” many more people than Kyle did in four tours of duty.
If we don’t want to deal squarely with what we ask men like Kyle to do, then we need to campaign against war, not individuals. Kyle is exemplified as a decent man who did what he felt his duty demanded of him, at great personal risk and cost to his family. He is shown warts and all – a tad simplistic, as capable of reducing the war to a slogan as anyone, an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances – which is a treatment that will be appreciated by all those who have served in a hot war zone. But throughout, his essential decency shines though, which is remarkable given that he is killing people for most of the film. His deep affection for his family is especially moving, and let it be said that Sienna Miller is excellent as his long-suffering and loyal wife.
American Sniper is anything but a recruitment video for the American armed forces, although sadly some will seek to ride its coat-tails and present it as such. In one particularly telling moment, while Stateside, Kyle is called a hero by a younger man. “That’s not a title anyone would want” he mutters in embarrassment, almost inaudibly.
And that, surely, is the real point of this remarkable film.
Other critical reaction
Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter wrote: “A taut, vivid and sad account of the brief life of the most accomplished marksman in American military annals, American Sniper feels very much like a companion piece — in subject, theme and quality — to The Hurt Locker.” Justin Chang of Variety gave the film a positive review, saying “Hard-wiring the viewer into Kyle’s battle-scarred psyche thanks to an excellent performance from a bulked-up Bradley Cooper, this harrowing and intimate character study offers fairly blunt insights into the physical and psychological toll exacted on the front lines, yet strikes even its familiar notes with a sobering clarity that finds the 84-year-old filmmaker in very fine form.” David Denby of The New Yorker gave the film a positive review, saying “Both a devastating war movie and a devastating antiwar movie, a subdued celebration of a warrior’s skill and a sorrowful lament over his alienation and misery.” Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a C+, saying “The film’s just a repetition of context-free combat missions and one-dimensional targets.” Elizabeth Weitzman of New York Daily News gave the film four out of five stars, saying “The best movies are ever-shifting, intelligent and open-hearted enough to expand alongside an audience. American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s harrowing meditation on war, is built on this foundation of uncommon compassion.” Amy Nicholson of LA Weekly gave the film a C-, saying “Cautiously, Eastwood has chosen to omit Kyle’s self-mythologizing altogether, which is itself a distortion of his character. We’re not watching a biopic.” Kyle Smith of the New York Post gave the film four out of five stars, saying “After 40 years of Hollywood counter-propaganda telling us war is necessarily corrupting and malign, its ablest practitioners thugs, loons or victims,American Sniper nobly presents the case for the other side.”
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film three and a half stars out of four, saying “Bradley Cooper, as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, and director Eastwood salute Kyle’s patriotism best by not denying its toll. Their targets are clearly in sight, and their aim is true.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of The A.V. Club gave the film a B, saying “American Sniper is imperfect and at times a little corny, but also ambivalent and complicated in ways that are uniquely Eastwoodian.” James Berardinelli of ReelViews gave the film three and a half stars out of four, saying “American Sniper lifts director Clint Eastwood out of the doldrums that have plagued his last few films.” Rafer Guzman of Newsday gave the film three out of four stars, saying “Cooper nails the role of an American killing machine in Clint Eastwood’s clear-eyed look at the Iraq War.” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times gave the film a positive review, saying “Eastwood’s impeccably crafted action sequences so catch us up in the chaos of combat we are almost not aware that we’re watching a film at all.” Claudia Puig of USA Today gave the film three out of four stars, saying “It’s clearly Cooper’s show. Substantially bulked up and affecting a believable Texas drawl, Cooper embodies Kyle’s confidence, intensity and vulnerability.” Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out New York gave the film four out of five stars, saying “Just as only Nixon could go to China, only Clint Eastwood could make a movie about an Iraq War veteran and infuse it with doubts, mission anxiety and ruination.” Inkoo Kang of The Wrap gave the film a negative review, saying “Director Clint Eastwood‘s focus on Kyle is so tight that no other character, including wife Taya (Sienna Miller), comes through as a person, and the scope so narrow that the film engages only superficially with the many moral issues surrounding the Iraq War.”
Eastwood himself has commented that the movie is intended to be anti-war.
Responding to critics that considered the film as excessively violent, as celebrating war, killing, and as jingoistic, Eastwood said that it is a stupid analysis and that the film has nothing to do with political parties. He stated: “I was a child growing up during World War II. That was supposed to be the one to end all wars. And four years later, I was standing at the draft board being drafted during the Korean conflict, and then after that there was Vietnam, and it goes on and on forever … I just wonder … does this ever stop? And no, it doesn’t. So each time we get in these conflicts, it deserves a lot of thought before we go wading in or wading out. Going in or coming out. It needs a better thought process, I think.” Eastwood called American Sniper “the biggest anti-war statement any film can make,” and said that “the fact of what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did” and “what it (war) does to the people left behind.”