I wouldn’t call American Sniper an incompetently made film -director Clint Eastwood does, after all, have a certain control of his craft- but it is a different type of bad. It is morally bad. The way Eastwood has decided to tell the story of Chris Kyle, known as the “deadliest sniper in American history”, puts the very existence of the movie into question. Why would someone want to take this man’s story and turn it into this piece of army propaganda? Is there anything to be gained from watching American Sniper? This is a movie that actually made me angry, and judging from the sad music and real-life footage that plays over the end credits, that wasn’t Eastwood’s intension.
There are only two possible interpretations of American Sniper. The oppositional read is to see it as a risky film in which the rah-rah U-S-A-chanting story of killing machine Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is only the façade that is later removed to reveal this man as a deeply disturbed and psychotic individual. A movie that looks at some of the most deeply rooted American ideals of masculinity and subverts them by pointing out how structural violence and arrogant politics could turn a man into a monster. But that would make American Sniper a good movie, which it certainly is not.
There is one scene in American Sniper that suggests such a read. It comes when Kyle comes after his second tour in Iraq and sees his newborn daughter through the hospital window. His daughter is crying, but is not receiving attention from the nurses, who are tending to some of the other newborns in the room. Growing impatient and anxious, Kyle starts tapping the window trying to get the nurse’s attention, yelling and banging on the window so his daughter stops crying.
That scene features the only original thought in the entire movie, which is otherwise content to be made up of all the things you’ve seen in every other war movie ever made. This is when the second possible reading of American Sniper comes in, and undoubtedly the one that the filmmakers intended: it is simply a movie about how awesome Chris Kyle is. Sure, there are scenes in which he struggles to adjust to life back home after four tours in the Middle East, but Kyle cures his PTSD almost immediately, and by the sheer power of his strong will.
The trailer for this movie promised a morally ambiguous portrayal of combat. A debate on the benefits and costs of warfare. Instead, Eastwood has decided to settle on turning the movie into a cult of personality where Kyle is the ultimate American, the super-soldier that all men should aspire to be. He is physically and mentally strong, which doesn’t mean he is particularly intelligent, but that he is resilient. Now, I prefer my heroes to be a little more complex, but I also recognize that an old-fashioned role-model isn’t always the worst thing… except when you consider what the real life man this movie is turning into a hero was really like.
Now, I didn’t know Chris Kyle personally, and I haven’t read his book, but just doing some shallow research on the internet was enough to find a lot of dubious accounts of his personality. Take, for instance, what film critic Amy Nicholson wrote in her review of the movie for the L.A. Weekly:
“The real Chris Kyle complicated things further. Kyle claimed that he killed two men who attempted to carjack him in Texas and got only a pat on the head from police impressed with his service record. (Country sheriffs deny the shooting ever happened.) He claimed that he had been hired by Blackwater to snipe armed looters at the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina (a fellow SEAL said that “defies the imagination”). And he even claimed that he had gotten into a bar fight with Jesse Ventura, who won a $1.8 million defamation lawsuit against Kyle’s estate.”
So, as a portrayal of a complex human being, American Sniper is very lacking to say the least. And as a movie about the experience of war and its toll on a person, it is almost laughably shallow. Kyle is such a perfect human being -a man who is too manly for civilian life and a little too sensitive to abandon his wife and just live in the battlefield- that war barely has an effect on him. His adventures are as fabricated as the claims Nicholson wrote about in her review. What is the point of making this movie? Since it is saying absolutely nothing new about violence, and given the recent tragic events like the attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, I’m afraid the movie’s most likely effect will be to reinsert and spread fear and hatred of muslims in the American public.
Grade: 3 out of 10