The sequence which I think can best sum up American Sniper is one in which our lead character is told that the shot he’s about to take is impossible. Naturally, he fires anyway, the camera tracks the bullet into the skull of his enemy. He and his squad are then bombarded with cannon fodder enemies before getting away scot free thanks to the timely intervention of some helicopter gunships. It’s the most videogame-y scene of the year, and its chest-pumping, bombastic, ‘America fuck yeah’ tone feels more at home in the latest Call of Duty game than an Oscar hopeful. Director Clint Eastwood has here brought an audience the equivalent of an American flag, a six-shooter and an apple pie all put together. If you were in any doubt about what the best country in the world is before the film, American Sniper does it’s absolute best to provide you with a definitive answer.
Bradley Cooper (bulked up to the size of a small house) is Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in US military history, with 160 confirmed kills. A cowboy with a gift for shooting, Kyle joins the Navy Seals after witnessing the early Al Qaeda attacks on UN Embassies, swiftly becoming known as ‘Legend’ by his teammates, who are in awe of his killing prowess. It starts strong, with Kyle forced to make a decision of whether or not to kill a mother and her son who are armed with a large explosive. It’s his first kill, and a very morally murky one, but this ethical insecurity is swiftly done away with, with the US troops in Iraq portrayed as the shining examples of humanity’s best, whilst the Iraqi troops are emotionless barbarians. This manifests itself in the way each side dies and kills – every American shot hits either the head or heart, cleanly and instantly dropping their foes, whilst the Taliban shoot off legs, blind the Americans and even go to work with drills. It’s effectively grim stuff, but the simplification of the Iraq War into a good vs evil struggle is uncomfortable, despite being understandable, given that the film is based on Kyle’s autobiography.
Fortunately, the moral qualms are occasionally forgotten in the more intense battle scenes. Clint Eastwood directs the fire-fights with an energy one may not expect from a director of his age and every shot fired has a weight behind, particularly when fired by Kyle. A gun battle in a sandstorm is the film’s visual highlight, brilliantly marshalled by Eastwood and possessing a tension that is apparent in few other sequences. By casting the forces of nature as a third combatant, it eliminates the problem of the film having weak villains – the Iraqis are poorly sketched caricatures and Kyle’s main antagonist Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), a Syrian Olympic gold medal winner, feels shoehorned in. He has no lines, but is the only other sniper in the field to rival the ‘Legend’, thus setting up the ‘boss fight’ that is to be expected in a film as video-game influenced as American Sniper (about 12% of the film is seen through a variety of weapon scopes).
When Kyle gets back in the US (the film takes us through all 4 of his Iraq tours), the script problems become even more evident. As is to be expected, Kyle’s marriage is suffering under the strain, so Sienna Miller is stuck in the generic, thankless role of ‘wife who doesn’t understand the war’, and whilst both she and Bradley Cooper turn in solid performances, there is only so much that can be made out of such material.
I found myself struggling to care about the fate of any of the film’s core characters, with Kyle’s teammates and family members immediately forgettable, and that, combined with the relentless hoorah-ing shooting of evil foreigners, made for a rather toothless war film. A couple of standout sequences aside, American Sniper is a poor man’s Hurt Locker or Generation Kill, lacking the constant thrills of the former and the nuanced exploration of military psychology of the latter. About as patriotic as ‘80s Hulk Hogan and only half as subtle, American Sniper is an enthusiastic tribute to one of the Iraq War’s most talismanic figures, but fails to illuminate anything about the man or the conflict that cannot be seen in braver, better films.