Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper has become a sensation after having the best wide-distribution opening weekend for a drama ever. Warner Brothers had rushed the film into limited release in December, to qualify for the upcoming Oscars, and then put it in regular release in January, instead of waiting for its originally scheduled release in December 2015. The studio had done this once before with an Eastwood Film; Million Dollar Baby was release earlier than planned and won the Best Picture Oscar in 2005. Now to go along with 6 Academy Award nominations, American Sniper has made more than $200 million in less than two weeks, giving Eastwood his greatest financial hit ever. It’s also become his most controversial.
Part of the controversy lies in the subject of the film. Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq who was credited with 160 plus kills, the highest official count in the history of the US military. Some have questioned the whole idea of snipers, in spite of their being a component of war from the time firearms became accurate. As long as there’s been a US Army, there have been snipers. (The British forces during the Revolutionary War were angry at the colonials for shooting at them from concealment rather than marching out on the field so the British could shoot back.) In the past, films often portrayed snipers as cowardly, if they were the enemy’s sharpshooters – see the end of Sands of Iwo Jima when John Wayne is killed by one – while pretty much ignoring US snipers. Recently that changed. The best depiction of a sniper as part of a fighting unit is Private Jackson (Barry Pepper) in Saving Private Ryan. Another movie that focused on sharpshooters was Enemy at the Gates, which told a fictionalized version of the story of Vasily Zaytsev (played by Jude Law), a sniper who was instrumental in helping the Russians win the Battle of Stalingrad in WWII. If you’re going to have a war, there will be snipers, on both sides.
Kyle did four tours in Iraq, and no one can dispute his courage in service. After he returned, though, he collaborated to write the autobiography on which the movie is based. Several of his claims in the book are problematic and doubtful, and led to Jesse Ventura winning a seven-digit judgment against Kyle for defamation of character. The movie ignores those aspects of his post-Iraq life.
Instead the film focuses narrowly on Kyle himself. It begins with Kyle (Bradley Cooper) watching over troops moving through a city in Iraq. Most of the first trailer for the movie (see above) is composed simply of lifting that sequence from the film. From there it jumps back to Kyle’s early life, beginning with his first kill while hunting with his father. His father instills in Kyle a simple religious faith that is rooted in the Old Testament. As an adult, Kyle competes on the rodeo circuit until he’s motivated to join the Navy SEALs following the Al Qaeda attacks on American embassies in Africa.
The scenes of him going through SEAL training are one of the weakest parts of the film. It plays out like a short, light version of An Officer and a Gentleman, though with less conflict. (Kyle’s instructor for sniper training has also taken issue with them.) The intensity of the training was better depicted in the opening of Act of Valor. With his marksmanship experience, Kyle is chosen as a sniper. It’s during training that Kyle first meets Taya (Sienna Miller) who later becomes his wife. They are together when the 9/11 attacks take place.
Bradley Cooper’s performance as Kyle is rightly being touted as his best ever, mostly because he’s able to convey depths and subtleties while the character himself is unaware of them. The lack of self-awareness has Kyle ignore the effects of combat on himself and his family. In a scene after his first deployment, Kyle accompanies a pregnant Taya to a doctor’s appointment. After hearing Taya describe how Kyle’s heart is racing, the doctor checks his blood pressure and finds it’s dangerously elevated. But rather than being concerned about dying of a heart attack, Kyle’s more upset at what he sees as being ambushed by the doctor. Sienna Miller gives an exceptional performance as Taya, showing both her deep love for her husband and her exasperation at his behavior. Late in the film, Taya tells Kyle, “If you think the war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong. You can only circle the flames so long.” Taya was a source for the production, and most of the scenes of her and Kyle together are told from her viewpoint.
It’s been said that movies are a mirror that allow us to see our lives and the lives of others from a different perspective, but in the case of the war scenes for American Sniper Director Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall do not expand understanding of what happened during the war. Instead they present a mirror clouded by Kyle’s us/them mentality. The movie doesn’t even mention Sunni, Shiite, or Kurd, and instead treats the Iraqis as a monolithic nation of savages. It does allow the filmmakers to expand the character of Mustafa, a Syrian sniper who fought against the US forces. While he’s only mentioned once in Kyle’s book, in the movie he becomes Kyle’s nemesis, which sets up a climatic confrontation between the two. In reality, no one could float between the different fighting factions, who hated each other as much as they hated the Americans.
In some respects, American Sniper has echoes of Eastwood’s classic meditation on the corrosive effect of violence, Unforgiven. The difference is that William Muny was aware of the price he’d paid spiritually, but in American Sniper Kyle is unable to see what has happened to him. He doesn’t have the capacity for reflection that Muny displays. Eastwood underline the tragedy of Kyle’s death without showing the actual event. The archival footage at the end of Chris Kyle’s funeral show how the story is already passing into the realm of legend, which was Kyle’s nickname. Eastwood has followed the advice of the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”