A Texan bull rider, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), sits at home with his brother Jeff (Kier O’Donnell), sipping a beer after an event, watching the news as terror attacks are being reported. Kyle is inspired to serve, signs up to become a Navy SEAL, and survives the rigorous training. Kyle is deployed to Iraq and when he hits the ground a fellow soldier tells him “the new Wild West is in the old Middle East”. From the outset of American Sniper it seems filmmaker Clint Eastwood may have something to say about the new type of American cowboy. It’s an intriguing prospect from one of the godfathers of the western, in front of and behind the camera, who once revived the slumbering genre with Unforgiven. Sadly, Eastwood’s portrait of Kyle’s wartime experiences (adapted by screenwriter Jason Hall from the memoir written by the real Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen and James DeFelice) bleeds red, white and blue in the worst ways.
American Sniper follows Kyle through four tours of duty where he earned the nickname ‘The Legend’ for becoming the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history. Over the course of Kyle’s service he also becomes a husband (Sienna Miller plays the clichéd long suffering wife), a father (look out for the robot babies), and develops post-traumatic stress disorder.
American war films have moved past the jingoism of American Sniper and Eastwood’s film is a fossil. Three Kings, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and Lone Survivor all pushed the boundaries in their scrutiny of modern warfare. Eastwood is no slouch when it comes to the topic of war, and has shown he can attempt something different with the differing WWII perspectives of Flag of Our Fathers and Letter from Iwo Jima. There is no cross examination of patriotism, sacrifice or the addiction of combat in American Sniper, it shoots first and then shoots again later. Even Eastwood’s cowboy comparison disappears in a hail of gunfire early in the film. As Kyle snipes men, women and children on the streets of Iraq, there is a sense of the horrors of war but Eastwood is too quick to celebrate the bloodshed with soldiers’ high-fiving each as they crave the next kill. There is nobility in serving your country, without a doubt, but it’s nowhere to be found in American Sniper. There’s even a complete disconnect with the carnage on show as Eastwood uses digital blood and bullet holes to create an uncanny valley of violence, completely at odds with the hardboiled staging of the battle sequences.
Cooper excels at sticking out his jaw and projecting like there’s a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth in his portrayal on Kyle. Cooper’s post-war Kyle is one of the most intriguing elements of the performance but it’s swamped in an overbearing pathos. What becomes clear halfway through American Sniper is the ancillary characters who could have acted as a more appropriate vessel to tell the story. Kyle’s wife stays connected to her husband via the phone, sometimes during skirmishes, and it’s a perspective begging to be explored. Kyle’s brother enlists in the marines to try and outgrow the shadow of his sibling, ‘The Legend’, and there is a scene where Jeff appears shaken by what he has seen in battle; show us that film. There’s even a rivalry between Kyle and an enemy Syrian sniper and former Olympic marksman named ‘Mustafa’; one ticket to the opposing side of the story please.
How did we get to a point where the prospect of a new Clint Eastwood film is met with groans? American Sniper is the answer.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW