Having seen this film long after it was released and long after the media attention has passed, it is difficult to watch it without some of the critical commentary staying in mind. Most reviews – apart from the mainstream ones, for which the quality of a film is how exciting it is as a thriller or how moving a drama – dealt with the politics of the film, and seemed fairly split down the middle about where the film stood on its subject, Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper with 160 confirmed kills, and the Iraq war.
The reviews on this blog have of late verged into political commentary – particularly where war films set in Afghanistan or Iraq are concerned – and so American Sniper would seem to be the perfect film to indulge in further political ‘whingeing.’ Though, with this film, there is a stumbling block. Clint Eastwood has kept things fairly reserved in this film, the commentary or critique is essentially in the eye of the viewer and whether one finds American Sniper a glorifying or tragic and accusing spectacle is down to one’s own prejudice. As mine falls towards a distaste for this war, I will empathise the critique supposedly at the heart of the film.
Clint Eastwood is not a great filmmaker, though he is a very good one. His aesthetic (I imagine he would grunt derisively at the word, just as John Ford would have) is easy and unrushed, giving his films, particularly the later ones, a feeling of cool confidence. Where a film like Mystic River didn’t really work, its subject matter too traumatic for such level-headed treatment (this issue was somehow resolved by the time we get to Changeling), something as daft as Hereafter can be elevated by a convincing sadness and a judicious and effective use of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2. His best film as director is, of course, Unforgiven, but Eastwood has always had a fondness for debunking myths and questioning how they come about and impact on reality from the time of his apprenticeship with Leone and Siegel (to whom Unforgiven is dedicated). This is present in Flags of Our Fathers, J.Edgar, Jersey Boys and now American Sniper (though a lot less visible in Invictus). Chris Kyle was even named ‘the Legend’ by his army buddies.
American Sniper, then, may take a less patriotic and optimistic look at Kyle and the Iraq war and America’s fascination with violence. Remember again that Eastwood has lately avoided any idea of redemptive violence – the final shoot-out of Unforgiven is a psychopathic bloodbath, the hanging at the end of Changeling is ugly no matter what the characters onscreen think, the promised shoot-out in Gran Torino is slyly taken away from the audience. The opening scene, in which Kyle’s sights are trained on a young boy running towards US soldiers with a grenade, is suddenly replaced by a sequence in which Kyle’s on edge father teaches him to hunt, drawing a parallel (and here I am reading the film as I want to) between America’s warmongering abroad and their glorification of guns and strength at home. We see Kyle’s pre-army days – all machismo and guns and faux-cowboy silliness – as being essentially leading to his signing up for the army – the direct causal link is, awkwardly, the advent of 9/11 but the seeds had been sown earlier. The film does not condemn Kyle for what he does, but more subtly criticizes a culture that too readily puts men in war without the support they need to survive it.
The depiction of the war is rightly ugly and violent and largely without context. Kyle’s different tours are numbered 1 to 4, but we are not given an insight into specific dates or events, making the war appear confused and seemingly endless. Eastwood never allows his audience to enjoy the action, instead making war hellish. Scenes of Kyle’s life on tour and back home on leave are intercut, creating a jarring shift in registers. Kyle’s confusion is heightened in a great sequence when, on leave, he suspects a jeep with closing in on him and his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) – a sequence shot and cut as if we really are back in Iraq. Eastwood does not hold back on the gruesomeness of the war, but he also never makes it heroic or positive. We are always aware that it is having a negative effect on Kyle.
The film complicates the audience’s enjoyment further by having Kyle’s first killing be a child. Further talk of Kyle having ‘popped his cherry’ in the next scene only feels thoroughly crass and further emphasises the issue of a culture that can normalise the murder of a child (later, an injured veteran will hit a target on a firing range and say, in triumph, “Damn, if that doesn’t feel like I got my balls back”, drawing another parallel between guns and sex). Another great sequence acts as a further counterpoint – a child approaches a murdered man’s rocket launcher and picks it up, Kyle, the child in his sights, begging him to drop it – a horrifying moment, brilliantly made. Where the previous scene had ended negatively, this scene ends positively, only further emphasising the horror and the loss that could have been. However, these critiques are not limited to the culture around Kyle. The final scene in the film – incongruously given a date - has Kyle approaching his wife with a gun. We are clearly set up to think that there is about to be some kind of horrible accident. It is a frightening scene and again emphasises the dangers of being so comfortable around a gun.
The film ends with this scene, making the tactful decision to not depict Kyle’s recent death, and actual footage of his funeral and a procession of American flags hung from overpasses, revealing that the film is primarily a tragedy of a man trapped by a gun-loving culture and its result, an endless war. American Sniper, then, is an anti-war film, in that war is only depicted as damaging. It suggests that the war is as much to do with the American gung-ho character by showing how perverse this character is. Too often misunderstood as a celebration of slaughter, it is more a grim attempt to show that America’s problem abroad have roots at home. That said, American Sniper continues the long tradition to American war films of showing the damage wrought on the American side and no other. For all its critiques, American Sniper remains a film that ignores the horrors of war for non-Americans – an ethno-centric view that is arguably just as damaging as an outright bloodthirsty celebration.