It took all of about 24 hours for Clint Eastwood’s affecting new war drama American Sniper to be shrugged off as a failure by the film world cognoscenti. So it goes in the age of Twitter and 24-7 Oscar blogger analysis, where if its Best Picture bonafides aren’t instantly and clearly established, a movie is tossed aside in anticipation of fresh meat.
The film—based on Odessa-born Christopher Kyle’s best-selling 2012 memoir, about his experiences as a Navy SEAL sniper through four tours of duty in the Iraq War—premiered in early November at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles, where the assembled critics and bloggers pounced upon it as “uncomplicated” and “deeply unsatisfying”; “solidly-staged but unexceptional”; and—perhaps most damagingly—too similar to another recent Oscar player, The Hurt Locker. A few critics have since tried to establish a counter-narrative—the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis and The New Yorker’s David Denby have both named American Sniper to the best-of-the-year list—but the damage appears done. The film failed to earn any Golden Globes or Screen Actors Guild nominations, prompting The Huffington Post to declare that American Sniper is “probably dead.”
Except if ever a movie demanded more than 140 characters of analysis, it’s this one: American Sniper—which will open in limited release on Christmas Day, followed by a nationwide berth on January 16—is both much better and, in some respects, far more disappointing than the blogosphere would lead you to believe. Working from one of the most commercially successful books about military life of this generation, Eastwood has managed to create a half-masterpiece, a definitive cinematic statement on the Iraq War that nonetheless fails to say some very necessary things.
Born in 1974, and trained to hunt as a boy, Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper in the film) entered SEALs training school in 1999, after a rudderless adolescence and young adulthood. In episodic fashion and meat-and-potatoes prose, his book chronicles how he emerged as the American military’s deadliest sniper, credited with 160 confirmed kills. (He was likely responsible for nearly 100 more.) To their considerable credit, Eastwood and his screenwriter Jason Hall (of the Ashton Kutcher gigilo drama Spread) have tamped down the memoir’s dewy paeans to American valor, and they’ve steered clear entirely of Kyle’s Clancy-esque obsession with weaponry and guns. They’ve instead produced a familiar war-movie narrative, cutting between Kyle’s harrowing experiences in Iraq and his struggles back in Texas to re-assimiliate into civilian society. One of the film’s actions sequences, an all-hell-breaking-loose firefight in Sadr City, represents arguably the most visually arresting and technically accomplished filmmaking of Eastwood’s legendary career.
Eastwood’s true stroke of genius, though, was the casting of Cooper, who—impressively beefed out and adopting a convincing Texas drawl—fills in the psychological blanks of Kyle’s just-the-facts-ma’am memoir. In The Silver Linings Playbook, the actor was all nervous energy and rat-a-tat dialogue; he deftly showed us a man whose mind is at war with itself. In American Sniper, he goes in the other direction, tensing up his thick shoulders and swallowing some of his words so that they come out as a tortured mumble. His Kyle is a man who can’t make sense of the moral vacuum surrounding him (twice in the film he faces the excruciating dilemma to shoot a child who might be a suicide bomber). So he keeps bottling up his incomprehension, distancing himself from his wife (Sienna Miller) and children. By the final stretch of the film, this rakishly handsome, easy-to-smile performer looks so physically and emotionally weighted down you fear he might collapse through the floor and go sinking into oblivion.
So why does American Sniper ultimately feel like a bungled opportunity? I suspect it’s because the filmmakers are ultimately too afraid to unsettle the memoir’s core audience of patriotic true believers. Although the story unfolds over the course of more than a decade, Hall’s script offers no time markers, or any larger sense of the progression of the Iraq War. Cooper’s performance notwithstanding, American Sniper doggedly refuses to consider Kyle’s story in symbolic terms—or, for that matter, to consider the impact of Kyle’s hundreds of kills on the Iraqi people. (If the supporting cast of American SEALs is a blur, the Iraqis are portrayed as plainly interchangeable.) That’s an aesthetic choice, and a legitimate one. Eastwood is adapting one man’s memoir, not a definitive history of the war. But it ultimately means American Sniper is much smaller than it might have been; and that, as the Oscar bloggers correctly noted, it trods territory much more inventively explored in The Hurt Locker. (Another sign of the movie’s timidity: Eastwood avoids altogether the lingering questions over Kyle’s tales of post-war heroism, including the much-publicized self-confirmed story of shooting two would-be carjackers at a gas station in 2009.)
Then there’s the movie’s coda, which chronicles the run-up to Kyle’s murder at a shooting range in Erath County by a traumatized former Marine whom Kyle had been trying to counsel. The killing happened one years after the publication of Kyle’s memoir, and just prior to the publication of his second book, American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms, and it cast a dark, hard-to-reconcile pall over the man’s story: Was Kyle’s gun lust – and the American book-buying’s public willingness to consecrate that gun lust into best-sellerdom – ultimately partly responsible for his death? Should the righteousness of Kyle’s wartime sniper kills been more vigorously challenged by both readers and the American media?
If ever there were a director capable of tackling these questions, it’s Eastwood, whose greatest works, Pale Rider, Unforgiven, and Million Dollar Baby, are all about the cruelties and ironies of violence. (And who – despite his avowed Republican politics – has long expressed ambivalence about guns in his films.) American Sniper, though, shows us the final days of Chris Kyle’s with a kind of “Oh, yeah, this happened, too” detachment; Kyle’s killer, Eddie Ray Routh (who also killed Kyle’s neighbor, Chad Littlefield), is portrayed only briefly, as a goggle-eyed loony in a pickup truck. The movie concludes on a note of easy sentimentality and lump-in-your-throat patriotism – and indeed you get the sense that an old-fashioned traditionalist like Kyle would have liked all of this very much.
You can’t shake the feeling, either, that he deserved much better.