Reviewed by Thomas Doherty
Produced by Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, and Peter Morgan; directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Jason Hall, based on American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice; cinematography by Tom Stern; production design by Charisse Cardemas and James J. Murakami; edited by Joel Cox and Gary Roach; starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, and Jack McDorman. Blu-ray + DVD, color, 132 min., released by Warner Home Video.
Clint Eastwood and Chris Kyle, artist and subject, auteur and marksman, and (the inevitable pairing) shooter and shooter, each made their bones as gunslingers, one cinematic, one authentic, pure products of clenched-teeth, true-grit, born-in-the-USA masculinity. That the story of Kyle’s body count—he racked up 160 confirmed kills during four tours of duty in Iraq—would be told by the make-my-day triggerman brandishing a .44 Magnum (“the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off”) seems a match made in Second Amendment heaven. Yet Eastwood is too introspective, too multilayered, and too knowing about the backfire from on-screen violence to print the legend of the man Kyle’s awed comrades called “the Legend.” The Chris Kyle of American Sniper, the memoir, is not the Chris Kyle of American Sniper, the movie, which makes for a more interesting—and ultimately more celebratory—portrait of a man who, by his own account, reveled in his work as a flesh-and-blood Predator drone.
Ever since some early pioneer of cinema—Porter? Griffith? somehow, I think he must have been an American—realized the scopophilic buzz from placing the viewer behind the gun barrel, squinting over the sight or through the crosshairs, the motion-picture spectator and the rifleman have locked eyes and met cute. Like shooter video games, killer’s-eye-view cinema seems to satisfy an elemental urge, tapping into the genetic coding of a hunter species, testing a talent privileged by evolution, weeding out the low scorers and favoring the bloodlines whose aim is true: rock, slingshot, crossbow, flintlock, on down to the .300 WinMag that Chris Kyle shouldered on the rooftops of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Sadr City to become the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. Hitchcock made a fetish out the homicidal voyeurism of peeking through the circular frame, but Hitchcock liked to watch even more than he liked to kill. Here the possessive gaze is not Eros but Thanatos. And—as long as we’re not really looking down the business end of the weapon—we’re happy enough to hold our breath, squeeze gently, and fire away.
Eastwood has played the seductions of gunplay both ways: in the Leone cycle and the Dirty Harry franchise as bloody good fun; in his greatest film, Unforgiven (1992), as a deconstruction of most of what he had built his career on. A spate of respectful criticism—most recently, David Sterritt’s The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America and Sam B. Girgus’s Clint Eastwood’s America—has confirmed his stature as a towering figure in American cinema: only John Ford surpasses him as a mannerist of the American West, but Eastwood was his own John Wayne, a gunslinger/bounty hunter/lawman with a pathological edge that Wayne exposed only in The Searchers (1956). Like Ford, Eastwood is military minded and at ease in uniform, but he is no lifer, ready to salute on cue. His militarism is more in the way of a work ethic than a value system: disciplined professionalism, with no arty flourishes or indulgences, a job of work brought in under budget. In forty-plus years behind the camera, Eastwood has not tallied quite as many hits as Kyle, but his kill ratio has been extraordinary. American Sniper is more startling evidence that Eastwood in autumn—or is it winter?—has not lost his steady hand or his nerve.
Eastwood’s story of Kyle’s war opens cold and with a moral dilemma, not a target of opportunity. Savoring the horizontal space of the ’Scope lens, the camera pans down the barrel of a sniper rifle and follows the eye of the marksman, scanning up, down, across, with binoculars and scope, keeping a crosshaired perspective on the insurgents and innocents in his sights. Viewed through the sniper’s POV, a woman in a burka and her young son approach a Marine convoy. She hands off a grenade to the boy who runs to deliver the package, but before the marksman can squeeze the trigger—or not—we flash back to what in a Marvel Comics universe would be called the origin story.
Namely: a boy and his father hunting deer in the woods, a primal dreamscape out of the Jungian memory of American culture, pace James Fenimore Cooper, pace Michael Cimino, you name it. The patriarch gives the boy stern lessons in arms and the man. Humanity is divided into sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs—the prey, the predators, and the protectors, which is about as complicated as the moral terrain will get.
The adult Chris (Bradley Cooper) indulges in a half-hearted career in bronco busting and rodeo groupies before finding his true calling in the Navy SEALs, where he thrives on the discipline, camaraderie, and brutality. He also cultivates a lethal skill set. “I’m better when it breathes,” he says to his firing range instructor after blasting a rattlesnake out of the desert, a metaphor for his wartime mission. A pretty girl at a bar with a low tolerance for whiskey, future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) falls for his rough-edged cowboy charm and sincerity, but she knows that she is never going to be the real love of his life.
Back to Fallujah. This is where we came in: Kyle, on duty as overwatch scoping out the mother and child, pondering the options. He kills both, his first blood.
It will not be his last. At war, the laidback cowboy proves to be a killing machine. In a film that is part combat film and part biopic, fairly in love with its subject—and anything but an antiwar film—one half expects a numerical tally to appear in the lower-right-hand-corner of the screen ringing like a pinball machine; he shoots, he scores. For a sniper, Kyle is on the move a lot, clocking more time on his feet than his stomach, breaking down doors, charging through streets and alleyways, up and down stairs. Eastwood’s camera follows closely at shoulder level. When all hell breaks loose, the audience is as disorientated as the SEALs and Marines, the quickening pace of the editing keeping rhythm with the ferocity of the attacks, as near as we candy-ass civilians will come to the visceral kick of combat. The sniper’s most important trait—not surefire aim but endless patience—makes for mundane cinema.
Steering scrupulously clear of the why or wherefore of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the film must make the war personal by focusing on two embodiments of terrorist evil: a former Olympic sniper and doppelgänger named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), who picks off Marines with the same dexterity that Chris zaps insurgents, and a sadistic butcher named “the Butcher” (Milo Hamada, exuding heavy intertextual terrorist vibes from 24 and Homeland), who takes electric drills to the hides of Iraqi children. “There’s evil here,” says Kyle. “We’ve seen it.” Indeed, to American eyes, and not just the ones looking through the scope, Iraq is a hellhole: director of photography Tom Stern filters a desaturated, overexposed, and dust-clogged landscape, as alien and otherworldly as the volcanic atolls of the Pacific Theater in World War II combat reports. It is hard to tell the bombed-out ruins from the ordinary detritus of urban wreckage.
But if Iraq is a target-rich environment, Eastwood complicates—“subverts” would be too strong—the sheep–wolves–sheepdog life lesson. After the off-screen Arabic call to prayer over the Warner Bros. shield heralds the sensory dislocation, the first image is of a tank crushing the concrete of the foreign city under its treads, a snapshot of American mechanized aggression. The emblem of SEAL Team 3, emblazoned on the tanks and APCs, is the death’s head skull from The Punisher comic books. When teams of Marines break into civilian homes, the intrusion into the living room space is so brutal and threatening that even right-leaning American audiences are more likely to identify with the victims of the home invasion rather than the invaders tricked out in futuristic military gear.
Any squeamish subtexts are quickly submerged by the anchor of the film, and its heart, Bradley Cooper, master of a North Texas drawl, pumped up, bearded, all duty–honor–country, the incarnation of everything much of America wants in its warriors. (Finally—a stalwart male hero to supplant the two shameful females who, before Chris Kyle, were the best known soldiers to emerge from the war in Iraq: Jessica Lynch, the POW victim, and Lynndie England, the torturer of Abu Ghraib photo infamy.) As so often happens when a star inhabits a combat film, however, Cooper’s charisma works against the group unity of the combat squad, even given that the sniper is more of a lone ranger than the average soldier. His above-the-title status also detracts from the suspense of an imminent battlefield death: if the star dies, it won’t be until the end reel. For all the talk of teamwork, the secondary characters are shadowy figures: Kyle’s buddies—“Biggles” (Jack McDorman) and Marc Lee (Luke Grimes), both destined to be casualties of war—barely register. Any WWII Warner Bros. combat film—with the regulation Irishman, Italian, and Jew issued to each squad—sketched characters with more efficiency and sharper brushstrokes. This band of brothers is around to play backup for the solo player.
Kyle’s home life fares somewhat better. Just as cop movies grind to a halt when the wife begins nagging the hero about being emotionally unavailable while he’s trying to track down a serial killer, combat films stall when the hero leaves the front lines. True to form, Taya wails, “I need you here!” but Chris has other people who need him and other needs. During the intervals between tours, he is never really away from the front. Cooper’s body language and clipped line readings capture the tightly wound discomfort of Chris at home as he endures the accelerating stages of PTSD: at war, he is agile, free, and confident; at home, he is closed up, stiff, and lost. Any of the ambient sights and sounds of civilian life may be the tripwire into a psychotic break. Waiting in an auto repair shop, Chris hears the buzzing whir of a drill and he is back in Iraq chasing the Butcher. Driving down the freeway in San Diego, staying alert for IEDs, he spots a white van in the rear view mirror—an ambush? After his last tour, he is catatonic and immobilized, watching a blank television screen, hearing in his head the sounds of automatic weapons fire and helicopter rotors. The inevitable snap occurs during a backyard BBQ. He finally seeks help at the VA, where an all-too-brief chat with a therapist puts him right again. If he carries a burden of guilt, it is not for the targets he took down (“I am willing to meet my creator and account for every shot I took”), but for not being able to do more to save his own men. The therapist points out that, no less than standing sentinel in a sniper’s nest, he can rescue his shattered comrades by counseling them back to health.
Of course, throughout all of the combat action and home-front melodrama, American Sniper locates us not only in Iraq but also in the deep generic territory of the Hollywood combat film. Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York (1941) is the obvious cinematic ancestor, the biopic of the Great War hero who, like Kyle, excelled at marksmanship and who racked up twenty confirmed kills with less sophisticated weaponry. (As played by Gary Cooper, York compulsively licked his thumb and wet the rifle sight before taking down a turkey, or a bear, a German, a gesture imitated by a generation of BB-gun-toting youngsters). Yet, as a military occupational specialty (MOS), marksmanship is a niche skill set, useful in close-quarter guerrilla wars and urban fighting, not so useful in the age of air power and heavy artillery, which is why most Hollywood combat films focus on the operation of the crew, the platoon, the squad. The difference between the war fought by Sgt. Alvin York, and the war fought by Audie Murphy, the most decorated hero of WWII, is summed up in the title of Murphy’s biography, No Name on the Bullet. One thing about being killed by a sniper: the marksman is aiming at you. It’s personal.
If each American war has its own special ethos, technology, heroes, and enemy, it also has, since the birth of Hollywood, its own special set of generic conventions. Iraq and Afghanistan have bequeathed at least two new tropes, both congenial to the time and space warps of the motion-picture medium.
The first is the tortuous and repetitive nature of the crucible of combat exacted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “For the duration,” the phrase that defined the term of service of GIs during WWII, promised a long spell in purgatory, but also held out the hope of salvation and safety down the line, a victory ceremony in Berlin or Tokyo Bay. The War on Terror is totally open ended and eternal, an everlasting vigil summed up in another title, that of combat correspondent Dexter Filkins’s indelible memoir, The Forever War. The last two acts of the three-act structure of the combat memoir (training, combat, return) are repeated four times in American Sniper, as if war is an endless loop, a Sisyphean struggle that continues until you die or drop out. The scene breaks escalate into successive levels of disbelief: “Tour One,” “Tour Two,” “Tour Three,” “Tour Four.” At some point, ping-ponging back from adrenaline rush to affectless decompression, even a warrior as gung-ho and stoic as Chris Kyle is pushed beyond endurance.
The second innovation that the march of American warfare has contributed to the Hollywood combat film is the head-spinning dislocations wrought by instantaneous digital communication: email, Skype, and satellite phones. A man in the heat of combat can call his wife back on the home front, a jump-cut link between battlefield terror and home-front serenity ready made for cinematic grammar. Waiting for an insurgent to walk in front of his scope, Chris uses his sat phone to call a pregnant Taya, fresh from a visit to her obstetrician. She tearfully crumbles in front of the hospital when a firefight cuts off the conversation. (I believe the first time American cinema exploited this spatial whiplash effect was in David O. Russell’s Three Kings , when Mark Wahlberg frantically dials sat phone after sat phone until he finds a working model. Jump cut to a phone ringing on the wall of a serene American kitchen.)
None of this speaks to the geopolitics or the morality of the war in Iraq, a mission that is no more to be questioned than Belleau Wood, the Battle of the Bulge, Rolling Thunder, or Desert Storm, as American Sniper sees it: if Uncle Sam calls, the war is just. War, in fact, is the baseline reality of life, not just American foreign policy, as per the zoology lesson at the top of the film. Perhaps any grunt’s-eye-view of combat will elide the larger issues—What is the war about? Is it just? Is the solider an active agent of aggression or unwitting cannon fodder?—but the refusal of American Sniper to step off the target range reflects a larger POV: like Kyle, the film is basically okay with any mission that provides an arena for the display of American military prowess.
Even so, the film is more interesting for the psychological dynamics than geopolitical omissions. The source is Kyle’s bestselling memoir, adapted and strategically airbrushed by screenwriter and producer Jason Hall—and, as always with co-authored, as-told-to memoirs, it is difficult to detect the tones of an authentic voice, much less separate the fiction from the facts, the false memories from the willful fabrications. But the Chris Kyle of the book is an unabashed war lover, not the angst-ridden but dutiful warrior of Eastwood’s film. “It was kind of fun,” Kyle writes while picking off a hapless squad of insurgents flailing in a river. “Hell, it was a lot of fun.” Or again, with refreshing candor: “Maybe war isn’t really fun, but I certainly was enjoying it. It suited me.” Eastwood’s Kyle never seems to be enjoying himself in combat: he constantly struggles with moral quandaries and hard choices. When (another) Iraqi boy in his sights picks up an RPG launcher, he dreads the terrible deed he knows he will have to perform, muttering, praying, “Don’t pick it up.” The boy drops the launcher and his would-be killer, nanoseconds away from pulling the trigger, heaves a desperate sigh of relief. Eastwood and Hall make Kyle deeper, more relatable, and more sympathetic.
Obeying generic orders, American Sniper saves the most explosive and elaborately choreographed battle for the last act, a furious floor-to-floor firefight in a blinding sandstorm. As the screenplay would have it, Chris spies his nemesis and—showcasing the only obvious CGI effect in the film—a slo-mo projectile makes a beeline for Mustafa, nailing him at 2100 yards (“an impossible shot”). (In the book, Kyle scores a kill at the impossible 2100 yards, but not of the elusive Mustafa; his targets are nameless and faceless.) Midfight, he calls his wife (“I’m ready to come home,” he sobs) and barely escapes with his life, leaving behind his sniper rifle and Bible in the desert fog of war. Kyle has extricated himself from the treadmill of the forever war.
But not its backfire. The well-known ending to the story is a both a tragic and an ironic coda. Repaired and reintegrated back into family and society, Chris delights in his new duties as a devoted father, a loving husband, and a counselor who works with veterans wounded in body and soul. Eastwood spares us the depiction of the American sniper being killed in another kind of action at a firing range, shot by a deranged veteran he was trying to help. All the director need do is flash the date on screen, February 2, 2013, and show a poignant vignette of the restored father and husband saying goodbye to Taya for the last time.
A stark inscription against a black screen prints the obituary and the end credits unspool real-life video footage of Kyle’s funeral procession from Dallas to San Antonio, a Texas-wide day of tribute, with average folk braving rain to line the highways, waving American flags. The procession dissolves into clips of a public memorial ceremony in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and a close-up of a sea of tridents, the symbol of the Navy SEALs, pinned on Kyle’s coffin. The reverence and solemnity on screen was matched by the reaction of audiences at both the screenings I attended, a month apart, at a mall on the North Shore of Massachusetts. As moviegoers filed out of the theater, not a word was spoken and I am sure I heard sniffling. Like Alvin York and Audie Murphy, Clint Eastwood’s Chris Kyle has become the representative hero of his war, joining a select pantheon of American warriors immortalized by Hollywood.
Thomas Doherty is professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and author, most recently, of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933–1939.
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Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3