American Sniper Dir. Clint Eastwood

[Warner Bros. Pictures; 2014]

Styles: war
Others: Act of Valor, Trouble with the Curve, Tears of the Sun

Anyone who was paying attention to the mini-phenomenon of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s book American Sniper, and the road to the release of this big Hollywood film based on it, could have predicted that the latter was always going to be a deeply conservative work. Kyle was a sniper in Iraq who claims (it’s unclear where exactly official statistics might be) to have killed more people than any other sharpshooter in U.S. military history, which is not something your average liberal tends to boast about. Then, when star Bradley Cooper acquired the rights to the book and started looking for directors, he eventually landed Clint Eastwood, a man famous for trying to shame President Obama by yelling at an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention, as well as for making some movies. For a while it looked like the job would go to Steven Spielberg, not exactly an arch-liberal but certainly nowhere near the grumpy old hawk that Eastwood has become. When Spielberg passed, the movie likely lost its last chance to become fair and morally probing. Eastwood and Cooper’s film is one of the most simplistic and shoddily-made Iraq War movies in that genre’s steadily enlarging canon.

Here’s the movie’s basic idea: a shitkicker Texas guy named Chris Kyle (Cooper) becomes enraged at Muslim extremists for the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Kenya and joins the Navy SEALs. Then 9/11 happens and he gets really mad and goes to the Middle East to aid in the fight. Over the course of four tours in Iraq, he kills between 150 and 250 Iraqis, all of whom were in the process of trying to kill Americans. He also personally leads a squad of special operators who hunt down an evil man known as The Butcher (Mido Hamada), who is said to be the top lieutenant of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the man who in real life is credited with creating al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later became ISIS). The Butcher frequently does things like haul small children into town squares to drill through their skulls with power tools. He has a guardian angel named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), a Syrian sniper who is said to have won a gold medal for his country in the Olympics. Mustafa becomes Kyle’s arch-nemesis and the two use various Iraqi cities as arenas in which to square off against one another in a deadly sniper contest. Kyle eventually wins and goes home for the last time, where he has to face the family he’s been neglecting for years while off serving the war effort. It’s tough, but after an extended montage, Kyle overcomes his stresses and settles down with his wife and kids, only to be (in a bizarre event that occurred after Kyle’s book was published) gunned down by a fellow veteran at a Texas gun range.

You can fault the story this movie decided to tell for many things. For turning the life of an actual person into a series of plot contrivances. For giving war-related post-traumatic stress all the gravity of a caffeine addiction. For the worst lighting this side of a Criminal Minds episode. For lying, and doing it poorly (there was never a Syrian gold medalist sniper — much less one who hunted Navy SEALs in Iraq — but even if there had been, treating him like the black knight to the SEALs’ white ones would still have been execrable). But its biggest crime is using the foundations of a true story to dumb down a conflict whose defining characteristic has always been its complexity. The myriad militant sects — al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban, the Mahdi army, innumerable warring clans — and their ever-shifting alliances were nearly indistinguishable to U.S. troops not trained to identify them. American Sniper boils it all down to a matching of skill between two men who not only continually cross one another’s path over a series of years within multiple cities with populations of millions, but can easily identify one another during fire fights. The ramifications for other characters — military and civilian — who lose their lives within this movie’s neat little war zones are pretty dire.

There are no reports that Cooper, who got the project greenlit after his company bought the script, ever tried to get Kathryn Bigelow to film American Sniper. If it ever emerges that he did, we’ll have proof that Cooper, at least at the outset, had some understanding of the potential for Kyle’s story to be more than the jingoistic exercise in traditional filmmaking that it became. Bigelow is the only director so far to take the Navy SEAL action movie craze and subvert it. Her Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for bin Laden, ended with an extended sequence portraying SEALs as calm, professional commandos meticulously carrying out the messy assassination of the terrorist. She made the work of commandos, which we see so frequently in movies today, look like actual work, full of unforeseeable obstacles, like rooms full of innocent children, that require thought and eat up time. She then lingered on the bloody aftermath, the non-combatants who became collateral damage in the hit, to devastating effect. You can see were Bigelow might not have wanted to return to similar territory by making Sniper, but with the specter of Steven Spielberg’s loss hanging over this movie, it seems fair to imagine what directors with more depth than Eastwood might have made this story into.

What Eastwood trades in for the moral quagmire and tough questions one can imagine Bigelow or Spielberg having raised is a familiar and bellicose tone of shaming. The exhausting argument that raising concerns about the Iraq War is tantamount to pissing on soldiers’ graves is front and center here. Eastwood never allows that Kyle may have been conflicted about the American mission: early on he’s shown feeling bad after shooting a small boy who was trying to blow up a U.S. convoy, but he later tells a psychologist that the only thing eating him about the war is not having protected more Americans. The real Kyle may have been blustery about his supposed exploits in Iraq, but to suggest that any man could pull the trigger on hundreds of people and walk away feeling proud of it is deeply suspect. To Eastwood, American Sniper is the story of a hero who did his job, encountered battle fatigue, then overcame it. Whenever he includes a scene wherein Kyle’s wife or his fellow soldiers question America’s motives for going into Iraq, Kyle is allowed to assert his role as protector. Invariably, the scene and the moral inquiry it suggested ends there.

The movie’s single strong point is Sienna Miller, as Kyle’s wife, Taya. Eastwood allows her to show the pain of someone whose spouse is not only constantly away, but in real danger of dying, and when she’s given lines like “I hate the (SEAL) Teams for keeping you away from me,” the movie offers a fleeting glimpse of the more complex story that could have been told about Chris Kyle. But Taya’s feelings are never the point of even the scenes in which she’s allowed to voice them. She’s consistently used as a foil off of which the film’s ideas of heroism and self-sacrifice can bounce. When her husband finally returns for good, she dutifully waits for him to overcome his PTSD, and once he does, everything returns to normal. The random act of violence that finally killed Kyle is barely a blip at the end of the movie, and comes off as more glossing over of his wife’s struggles.

A courageous movie could have been made about the psychological impacts of Kyle’s actions and the way they reflect on a complicated war, and that movie could still very easily have been conservative, even pro-war, and thus satisfied Clint Eastwood’s need to justify America’s fight against evil-doers and their ilk. In other words, even an impenetrable right-winger like Eastwood has the ability to make a movie both conservative and morally dense (Unforgiven, Mystic River). What he’s done here is simply make a dumb one.

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