Clint Eastwood claims that American Sniper is meant to be apolitical and the “biggest anti-war statement” any film could make. Predictably, it has been compared to Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 film The Hurt Locker, which is set during the Iraq War and centered on a Sergeant who is a maverick when it comes to disarming bombs. However, a lot can be read into the fact that The Hurt Locker earned only $17 million dollars domestically while American Sniper has already become the highest-grossing war film with over $250 million dollars. The former is the sort of thoughtful “art film” that the average person shuns while the latter is essentially a western masked as a mild war film whose jingoism can only be compared to Saving Private Ryan. (On a tangential note, Steven Spielberg was originally set to direct American Sniper.) While I applaud Eastwood for crafting an effective piece of entertainment, I believe the film ultimately fails because it mistakes political neutrality with one-dimensionality. The film’s tunnel vision is more politically slanted than Eastwood intended it to be. For this reason the film has instigated contentious debate.
Despite the film’s overwhelming financial success, American Sniper has become a polarizing national topic where reactions and reviews have been politically infused. Liberals have accused American Sniper of having a conservative leaning while conservatives argue that critics against the film are un-American. This heated debate between liberals versus conservatives, Democrats versus Republicans, and traitors versus jingoists have brought into question America’s notion of heroism, also proving that the nation’s opinion on the war on terror remains divided.
The film’s hero, and therefore America’s hero, is Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), America’s deadliest sniper who registered over 200 kills in Iraq. The film opens with Chris’s father taking his son out to hunt. We recognize that Chris is a natural with a rifle. Later, Chris’s father arms his son with a mentality to go with it as he tells Chris that the world consists of three kinds of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. In order to protect the sheep from the wolves, Chris must become a sheepdog. His father’s teachings becomes so engrained in him that he graduates from protecting his younger brother from bullies to enlisting himself in the Navy to fight Al-Qaeda after the events of September 11. We see Chris go from his grueling training to finally popping his cherry as he guns down a child suicide bomber.
As we witness Chris go through numerous tours, ratcheting up his kill count and forging himself into a legend, we also witness how war is affecting him back home with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller). These are the moments when Eastwood feels the appropriate time to make the grand anti-war gesture. Although I do not disagree with that assessment, I also think there are moments where the film becomes unconsciously approving to our war on terror. Consider the scene where Taya, who is carrying their unborn child, is talking with Chris on the telephone just as his convoy runs into heavy fire. This scene, quite literally, shows how terrorism can hit so close to home as these “savages” threaten to destroy the American family. There is no doubt Eastwood intended it to reveal how war destroys families. Nevertheless, it is difficult to not be skeptical considering America’s justification for war on terror has always been family centric and laden on national security.
However, I think the most pressing issue surrounding the film, and one that has stirred the most debate, is its treatment of Chris Kyle. First, I commend Bradley Cooper for delivering one of the best performances of his career. He delivers a nuanced performance to an otherwise unsubtle character. In his biography, Chris Kyle has been unabashedly forward about his role in the Iraq War. He proudly wears his kill counts like a teenage gamer on Call of Duty. He even has admitted of gunning down looters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He is devoutly patriotic and expresses little remorse for his actions. If anything, Eastwood has done Chris’s legacy a favor by painting him to be a complex soldier in a simplistic world. I believe this is a serious miscalculation on Eastwood’s part because it mythologizes the man. Without question, there is something courageous about the man who risked his life but I also find our need to mythologize a man who is essentially a professional assassin to be disturbing. This is where The Hurt Locker succeeds and American Sniper fails; the former is a more profound film because it pits an otherwise straightforward man in a complicated environment.
Of course, there are moments in American Sniper when we see soldiers become jaded by the war. This includes Chris as he returns home and sees his injured comrades. There is without question a few lingering doubts swirling inside his mind. But in the veins of a western, Eastwood’s Iraq War draws very distinct lines between good and evil. Chris is the good guy who seems to make all the right decisions. On the other side, we see the barbarism of the untrustworthy Iraqis who kill children with power drills and send them on suicide missions. Chris Kyle is the lone cowboy in a world where law and justice is nonexistent. It only exists in the barrel of his gun. Any threat against him is a threat against American ideology. The film could not be more black-and-white. This is rather disappointing considering that Eastwood directed Letters from Iwo Jima, a film that humanizes the Japanese during World War II.
American Sniper has one of the greatest trailers in movie history as it shows Chris Kyle caught in a huge moral conundrum. It was ambiguous and suspenseful. Unfortunately, the film does not live up to those expectations. The film is pretty clear about where it stands.