This isn’t meant to be a formal review of American Sniper. There are plenty of those around. Having seen the movie a week ago, however, and after making a few comments about it on Facebook, I did want to clarify a few things around where I stand on the picture (which has weirdly – but not surprisingly – become a major cultural lightning rod and a box office juggernaught) with the goal of hopefully adding a couple of things to the discussion.
Frankly, I think the debate around Clint Eastwood’s film has been significantly more interesting than the movie itself. My initial reaction, which I posted on Facebook, was that “it’s… a movie.” What I mean is that the film feels like a fantasy, a fabrication, something clearly calculated and drained of any semblance of realism in its portrayal of the real-life American sniper Chris Kyle. It also feels curiously lacking in anything remotely approaching verisimilitude in its portrayal of combat in the Iraq War. It’s “Call of Duty: The Movie,” a more or less straightforward action romp disguised as a serious exploration of the toll of war on the man who fights it, but without any real interest in actually exploring these issues.
A couple of weeks ago, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi (who was himself embedded with combat troops in Iraq and witnessed the conflict firsthand), wrote a review calling the movie “too dumb to criticize,” a viewpoint that was immediately jumped on and lambasted by right-wing news outlets. The thing is, Taibbi’s view isn’t wrong. It’s a little harsh and not the language I’d use, but what Taibbi is basically saying is that this is not a film of ideas, which is not at all inaccurate. Eastwood – who, let’s remember, signed on to direct Sniper only after Steven Spielberg dropped out – has never been an idea-driven filmmaker. He’s a no-nonsense storyteller first and foremost, and it’s clear that Sniper is in no way concerned with the reasoning behind why Kyle and his fellow soldiers are in Iraq. That many of its critics see this as one of its major faults is understandable, but as someone who believes the Iraq War has been an enormous waste of lives and money (and, really, what reasonably informed person can argue otherwise at this point?), I can’t say this lack of context bothered or offended me. The film’s black-and-white view of the conflict is clearly meant to mirror the black-and-white views of some (but not all) of the soldiers who fight it, and Eastwood doesn’t care if you agree with those views or not.
One example that’s been called out specifically is the film’s supposed link between the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings and the World Trade Center bombing on 9/11 and the conflict in Iraq, a link critics believe Eastwood uses to push the belief that the conflict is a just one and therefore that we shouldn’t question it. Eastwood makes no such link and pushes no such belief. As shown in the film, these events are clearly intended only to illustrate Kyle’s personal reasons for wanting to go to war. And while one can argue with that reasoning, it’s simply a means to an end as far as the film is concerned.
What is American Sniper concerned with, then? I’m afraid that’s the more difficult question, but another recently written Rolling Stone article, an interview with the film’s writer, Jason Hall, helped shed some light on this for me – or, at least, I think it did. In it, Hall discusses the process he used to research the film, including numerous visits to Kyle’s home and discussions with his friends and family, all before Kyle’s untimely death in 2013, an event which changed the shape of the screenplay tremendously. Hall attended Kyle’s funeral, and was told by one of his friends that “If you fuck this up, I’ll kill you,” a threat he took seriously. Hall also had numerous discussions with Kyle’s wife Taya, including one after his death, at which point Taya told him “if you’re still going to do this, you need to do it right because this is going to play a part in how my kids remember their father.”
This, I think, is the key to the American Sniper that ended up on the screen. Hall says the film changed “a lot” after Kyle’s death, and while there’s no way to know for sure what the movie he originally wanted to make looked like, the final product feels like something made with a clear intent not to offend its subject or those who knew him. And, as a rule, it’s almost impossible to make a great movie when your primary goal is not to offend. This is where American Sniper falls flat. It’s dripping with nobility, but it’s also lacking any real human drama of interest. Because of Hall’s fear of offending Kyle’s wife and friends, we end up with is a film about a guy who loved his family and killed a lot of people (or maybe it’s the other way around?) and not much more. It’s not the stuff of which great drama is made.
In the end, I don’t hate American Sniper. It’s a B-, maybe a B if I’m being generous. It works well enough on a visceral level, with strong (if a little too video-game-like) combat scenes and a very good performance from Bradley Cooper as Kyle. But biopics are so much more interesting when they can reveal their subject “warts and all,” and when you take away the warts there’s not a lot left. I think there’s a much more interesting movie to be made about the real Chris Kyle, by all accounts a more complex (and flawed) person than he’s portrayed as here. And there’s almost certainly an interesting movie to be made about the folly of the Iraq war, and the lies that sold us into bringing us there without any clear plan for success. That Eastwood and Hall didn’t make either of those movies isn’t the worst offense they could have committed, but it’s a shame that the movie they did make didn’t amount to more.