By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
Clint Eastwood has never been for messing around. His 34th film as director opens looking up the barrel at a bulky Bradley Cooper, and down the scope at a mother and child Cooper’s Chris Kyle is going to have to kill. American Sniper seems an unashamedly patriotic film, sometimes painfully so, but it’s also much subtler than that. Kyle is a patriotic warrior driven beyond sensible limits to serve his country, and it nearly destroys him in the process.
Don’t take this as a critique on patriotism, at least not directly. Kyle and his American comrades are the unambiguous heroes fighting people they themselves refer to as savages. Eastwood, working from Jason Hall’s screenplay, follows Kyle through his decision to sign up as a Navy SEAL leading to four tours served in Iraq and his eventual and tragic retirement. The majority of time is spent out on duty as Kyle, quickly earning himself the sobriquet The Legend, becomes the deadliest sniper in US military history.
It’s in a dusty, grimy environment we often find Kyle, usually camped out looking through his scope at the uneven angles of war torn Iraq. He’s not unmoved by the things he has to do, he’s simply driven by a stronger belief that it’s all for the right cause. This is a binary world in which the people crossing his sights all pose a threat to a way of life that deserves to be protected. Fighting on the side of right, those standing by him are to be aided at almost any cost, including his own safety if need be.
American Sniper doesn’t question the cause, or the deeper ethical consequences of conflict. On the surface, the unswerving gung-ho American sentiment threatens to overwhelm. But Eastwood has an entirely different target in his own sights. What this film does do, quite brilliantly at times, is show the impact such clear headed, passionate patriotism has on a person.
In Cooper, Eastwood also finds an actor capable of wearing the struggle. Kyle is one of the few who doesn’t succumb to doubts. Comrades, forced to endure stifling heat, constant danger and the sight of young children spread across deserted streets, question the point of it all. His own brother who joined up to follow in his footsteps can’t stand it. At home, his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller) is baffled by the drive that sends him back out away from his family.
Even if he doesn’t doubt the cause, it’s simply too much for one man to manage. The mental exertion and the punishing physical environment wear Kyle down. Cooper plays it stoically, letting his descent creep in gradually in the pauses between replies, in the increasingly dogged commitment to avenge fallen friends, and especially in his stilted attempts to avoid questioning from Taya. This is not a man who wants to be a hero. He ducks away from the nickname they give him, and almost freezes with embarrassment when an injured veteran sings his praises back in the US.
This mounting toll plays out against a gripping backdrop. American Sniper stands up extremely well as an action movie in its own right, Eastwood capturing the jagged fear of urban warfare. Initially, Kyle shoots from a distance, picking out enemies as his side moves forward. Later, he joins the ground forces, leading a squadron to hunt down a deadly opposition sniper. After several uncomfortably close brushes, his military career concludes with a large scale gun battle pitching besieged Americans against a flood of enemy combatants.
Sometimes it gets a little too binary. The rival sniper moves the plot forward but ends up a distraction, locking Kyle into an unnecessary showdown that draws attention from the bigger picture. As is so often the way with war films, the home front also proves a disappointment. Miller battles bravely but she’s given little to work with. Taya is a foil for Kyle, not a person in her own right. She provides him with a distant dream and a counterpoint to the chaos going on all around, but she can’t breathe on her own.
The unremitting focus on Kyle is both the film’s biggest strength and occasionally its downfall when it offers no space for anyone else. In the end though, American Sniper is a thoughtful and affecting take on the personal price of patriotism. Regardless of the case for war, conflicts are partly won on the back of those offering unstinting support. Right or wrong, this is what it does to them.
American Sniper is on general release from Friday 16th January