AMERICAN SNIPER: REVIEW – Bradley Cooper’s Hangover 4 takes a dour turn as it heads off to war in Iraq.
Clint Eastwood’s Iraq war drama based on the real life story of America’s ‘deadliest sniper’ Chris Kyle and based on his memoir is a confusing and weird film. As an initial character study it resembles last year’s Dallas Buyers Club in taking an unlikely Southern character and turning him into something like a hero. We first see Kyle as a sniper deployed in Iraq. On a roof top covering the advance of a platoon of marines, he is presented with an impossible choice. A woman and her ten year old son approach the platoon with apparent intent. Does Kyle shoot them to protect the platoon, or does he renege on his duty and put the platoon at risk? Flashback to the rest of his life up until this point.
Kyle grows up with a gun in his hand and bottle fed a stern Christian based (almost Manichean) morality. There are wolves, sheep and sheep dogs, his father tells him, with his belt on the table. Kyle is thus pre-molded for when he finds his vocation in the Navy SEALs elite squad. But Cooper’s performance elevates Kyle from some brainwashed grunt. He is a chivalrous old fashioned type who falls completely for Taya (Sienna Miller), a feisty young woman who already feels she’s been around the block once too often. They marry with the second Gulf War imminent and Kyle’s deployment almost certain. And so back to shooting children.
Eastwood has created a weird film. The war scenes are compelling and work as a companion piece to Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. As with Jeremy Renner’s character, Kyle is an expert who genuinely enjoys war as it gives him the opportunity to enact that expertise to its fullest potential. His simplistic us and them view of the world – the Iraqis are ‘savages’ who need to be exterminated – is as narrow as you’d expect from someone who spends his life looking down a telescopic sight. Kyle is the man with the hammer who sees only nails. Whereas a friendship of sorts grew up between an Iraqi boy and the bomb disposal expert in Bigelow’s film, Kyle has little contact with the Iraqi populace short of popping them. One moment of apparent peace and civility – a meal shared in the house of a suspect – is revealed to be a duplicitous trick.
This is not to say that the film wholeheartedly endorses Kyle’s viewpoint. His unwavering commitment to the war increasingly looks more like a symptom of PTSD or simple psychopathy than a political ethos. Or worse still, it is a self-serving justification to allow Kyle to keep killing people. His only moral quandary, his only stated doubt, is that he didn’t kill enough people and thereby save more of his own tribe. His upset at shooting a child he explains to a friend is because it was his first kill, like a man disappointed to have lost his virginity in an ugly drunken tryst.
Kyle’s entire life is defined by guns: from hunting with his dad, to Fallujah and on to hunting with his son. He even wins his wife’s affections by showing off his prowess at a funfair shooting gallery. There’s a weird moment with his wife late on when he points a gun at her and tells her to drop her knickers – as a joke, with their kids in the next room – which might be a litmus test for how you view the protagonist and the whole film. If you see this as the good old boy charm of a happy domestic scene, you’ll read the film as a NRA approved portrait of a patriot who sacrificed his own mental well-being to protect and serve. Otherwise, you might see that the war will never end for this man, no matter where he is. And that the American in the title is a disturbing pairing with echoes of American Psycho, as if that’s what America is now, a country that kills at long range.
A final note on historical accuracy/honesty. American Sniper is open to criticism similar to that leveled at the Dallas Buyers Club. Just as McConaughey’s sexuality was straightened out by the Oscar winning film, so Kyle’s racism and his loud self-promotion is dampened down in Eastwood’s. Cooper’s Kyle is embarrassed by his legend, modest and self-effacing and as such eminently likable. In reality, Kyle wrote the book the film is based on, starred in a reality TV show, claimed to have shot looters post-Katrina and gave interviews to Bill O’Reilly et al claiming to have punched out Jesse Ventura (a case for defamation was found in the plaintive’s favor). Along with these omissions is the invention of an Iraqi sniper as a nemesis and mirror image of Kyle who is basically the Ivan Drago to Cooper’s Rocky IV.
This is a well made and intense war film. But I always felt like I was in the cinema featured in Inglourious Basterds watching the film about the Nazi sniper. Except the Nazi didn’t shoot children.
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