War is hell.
“You ever think about when there’s a real person at the end of that gun?”
“I dunno. I just hope that I can do my job when that day comes.”
Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is the self-proclaimed most lethal sniper in the history of the United States military, with 160 confirmed kills out of a suspected 255. Is it healthy to idolise a man like Kyle, whose skills pertain to mankind’s most awful innovation? War cinema invariably invites the dilemma of reality, often encouraged by incautious patriotism. Kyle is no doubt a brave man with some extraordinary ability but Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper makes a point of celebrating his lethality rather than his valour. Military is an unfortunate necessary but that doesn’t make it any more appealing.
There’s something inherently perverse about entertaining war cinema considering the distressing nature of bloodshed. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and more recently Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor suffered from a curious focus on camaraderie amidst action scenes designed meticulously to incite thrill. These form of thoughtless war films denigrate the incredible companionship that soldiers must experience as well as diminish the fortitude that they demonstrate on the battlefield. These are films that make us revel in the simplicity of situations that just aren’t simple. How can we be manipulated so that we’re glad when a man is shot? American Sniper is an entertaining action film, but it shouldn’t have been.
There’s a startling directness in which the Iraqi troops are alienated in Eastwood’s film. They’re clearly delineated as the enemy with little thought as to the realities of a wartime adversary. This might be the natural and understandable conception of a soldier in the United States military amidst the turmoil of conflict but it surely couldn’t represent fact and it certainly doesn’t represent humanity appropriately. Consider Kyle’s chief rival, an elusive and deadly Syrian sniper, whose presence is heralded by ominous music. It’s the portrayal of an enemy, not a man. Biased war films are inherently difficult because they force us to support the characters that we’re privy to – in this case the American soldiers. We want them to survive. We want them to kill their enemies.
Far more considered is Eastwood’s approach to the concept of murder as employment. American Sniper presents information and leaves judgement to the viewer. How does one detach themselves from their deeds in war? Crucially apposing Kyle’s tours of duty is his family life back home in Texas and his commitment to wife Taya (Sienna Miller). There’s a sense that Kyle is hurting his family life more by dismissing the adverse effects that his job might be having on him.
Bradley Cooper as Kyle offers a complexity that belies the rest of the film. Kyle joined the military at the relatively late age of thirty but demonstrated promise quickly, eventually joining SEAL Team 3 in combat during the Second Gulf War. There’s a turbulence to Cooper’s performance, pushing Kyle beyond caricature into something startlingly real. His confidences wanes between false and genuine, as does his modesty. We’re never sure how Kyle feels about the lives he’s taken because the man probably doesn’t know himself. Cooper is perfectly understated and considering the actor’s renown its impressive how easy it is to forget the element of performance.
American Sniper is not so much a war film as it is a modern Spaghetti Western, with a gun-toting Kyle facing down his enemies in a broken down, lawless environment. As an action film Eastwood’s film is successful, thanks in no small part to a magnetic central performance from Cooper. Eastwood has a natural instinct for cinema, despite a reluctance to push himself creatively. But does the Gulf War deserve more consideration? Is it irresponsible filmmaking to present such a complicated scenario without reflection. As an experience of sensation American Sniper is gripping, but intellectually it’s jarring.