Movie Review: American Sniper (2014)
Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” doesn’t believe in gray areas. It’s about God, country and family. It’s about protecting your own, and the greatest country on earth, and taking down the bad guys. Maybe even a record number of them.
At one point, on the second tour of Iraq for Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, Kyle greets his younger brother, Jeff (Kier O’Donnell), a skinny dude who is about to be shipped back home. But something’s off. Jeff has a thousand-yard stare, and eventually he tells his bigger, beefier brother, “Fuck this place.” Soon after, Chris is talking to another soldier, who tells him, “I just don’t believe in what we’re doing here.” Chris is stunned. “You want these fuckers to come to San Diego or New York?” he asks. “We’re more than just protecting dirt.” So off they go. To kill more savages.
Now, you could bring up the fact that these fuckers in Iraq weren’t going anywhere until we arrived and toppled Saddam, and allowed anarchy to break loose, and al Qaeda to move in, and ... Sorry. Gray area. The movie isn’t any more complicated than that.
For whom was the war more complicated? Pat Tillman, for one. An NFL football player with a lantern jaw, he joined the U.S. Army after the attacks of 9/11 with the hope of fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Instead, he wound up fighting an insurgency we created in Iraq—a war which Tillman regarded as illegal. That’s not a thought that enters the mind of Chris Kyle, not to mention Eastwood. In “American Sniper” we have to be in Iraq because that’s where evil men—“savages” in the language of the SEALs—do evil deeds. That’s why we’re going door-to-door in bombed-out cities. And that’s why Chris is on a rooftop with gun trained: to protect his fellow soldiers. He has milliseconds to decide whether or not to kill not only bad men but women and children.
Psst: He’s never wrong.
It’s a helluva thing killing a man
What an interesting career Clint Eastwood has had. Forty years ago, he was a darling of conservatives everywhere, and a fascist in the eyes of movie critics like Pauline Kael, for his portrayal of trigger-happy and Miranda-rights-dismissing lawman Dirty Harry Callahan. Twenty years ago, he became a celebrated Oscar-winning director for his somber, violence-begets-violence western “Unforgiven.” Ten years ago, he actually became an enemy to the pro-life right for the sad, euthanasia-ish ending of “Million Dollar Baby.” More recently, he starred in and narrated a Chrysler commercial trumpeting the return of Detroit, orchestrated by Pres. Obama, then showed up at the 2012 Republican convention to dismiss Obama as an empty chair.
Now he’s a hero of the right again. He’s recreated the Iraq War in the Hollywood mould, which is, one imagines, how Pres. Bush, and many pro-war conservatives, imagined it in the first place. Eastwood even manages to put a positive spin on the phrase “Mission accomplished.” No small feat.
The great lesson for Chris begins early, when his father, Wayne (Ben Reed), takes him hunting. His father is stern (never leave your gun in the ground), but complimentary (you’ll make a good hunter some day), and then at the dinner table, when younger brother Jeff shows up with a black eye, he lays it all out for the boys.
There are three types of people in the world, he says, and lists them:
- Sheep (victims, essentially)
- Wolves (bullies, essentially)
- Sheep dogs (those who protect the victims from the bullies)
I don’t raise sheep, he says.
You begin to raise a finger, a counterpoint, that none of us are any one thing, and that sheep dogs, for example, have a troubling tendency to spill over into wolves territory. But then you realize: Eastwood. “Don’t Mess with Texas.” Screw your gray area, Brainiac.
In 1998, after the al-Qaeda-orchestrated U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, Kyle joins the SEALS, and we get some brutal training footage, as well as a not-bad meeting and romance with his eventual wife, Taya (Sienna Miller, going brunette). Then 9/11. As the SEALs say, “It’s ON!”
Kyle quickly gets a rep as a sharp-shooter. Eventually he’s known simply as “The Legend.” He kills a young boy, about to throw a rocket-propelled grenade at Kyle’s fellow soldiers, then takes down the woman (the boy’s mother?), who was definitely trying to blow up the men. He keeps killing bad men with big guns, then grows weary of rooftop patrol and goes door-to-door with other SEALs and Marines.
When he gets home, he can’t adjust. It’s like the supermarket scene in “The Hurt Locker” but more protracted, and with more complaints from the Mrs. Then he returns to Iraq. Did he re-up? Was it stop-loss? Who knows? There’s an expert sniper on the Iraq side, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), who pins down Kyle, kills this and that guy, and becomes the bête noir: Kill this guy, it’s implied, and the war will go right.
At home after the third tour, Taya tells him, “I need you to be human again.” (But we don’t, since the inhuman hero is an action-movie staple.) She tells him, “I need you to be here.” (But we want him to be there, since that’s where the story is.)
It’s on his fourth and final tour that Kyle kills Mustafa—with an impossible, slow-mo shot from a mile away. “Mission accomplished,” a fellow soldier says with a grin and no trace of irony. Then Kyle returns home, has trouble, adjusts, becomes a good husband and father again, and ... tragedy off-screen.
We all got it coming, kid
Apparently the real Chris Kyle wasn’t as conflicted as Bradley Cooper’s cinematic version. He might not have been as humble, either. In the movie he’s the perfect man for imperfect times: tough but polite, witty with women, gentle but firm with kids, conflicted about killing, but in the end mostly interested in protecting the greatest country on earth. He carries the Bible and believes in God and Jesus Christ.
The script by Jason Hall (“Spread,” “Paranoia”), and based upon Chris Kyle’s book of the same name, is often witty. Early, Jeff and Chris witness Chris’ girl cheating on him, and after Chris beats up the dude, and quietly but firmly kicks out the histrionic girl, Jeff asks, “So when’s the wedding?” During SEALs training, the men are lambasted as “Cheetos-eating and Dr. Pepper-drinking motherfuckers,” which drew an appreciative laugh from the popcorn-munching and Coke-drinking folks at Pacific Place. After one tour, Kyle comes home and wonders where the war is. “It’s not even on the news,” he says. After another, he stares into the blank TV set while the noises of the war resound in his head.
“American Sniper” is an unapologetic portrait of an unapologetic man, and in that regard it’s kind of fascinating. Even so, I was often bored. Nothing is questioned (most particularly: why Iraq?) because answers are assumed (sheep/wolves/sheepdog). The world is actually more complicated than that, and to assume otherwise can be dangerous. Pres. Bush didn’t believe in gray areas, either.