Review: American Sniper (Eastwood, 2014)

Still from the movie American Sniper

For weeks I have been on an American Sniper media blackout so as not to hear anything to influence my opinion of the film (I had only obliquely become aware that the biopic had stirred up political controversy). Then, right after I finished the movie, I went hunting down news and was influenced anyway. Go figure. To write this review, I will try to get back to my pre-news mindset, to the extent that that’s possible.

Hollywood darling (or crazy man, depending on where you may lie on the political spectrum) Clint Eastwood‘s modern war film is based on the true story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). An Oscar nominee for Best Picture (as well as Best Actor and Best Director), American Sniper is a fairly traditional biopic (gawd, another one?), which, obviously, focuses on Kyle’s experiences in  the military, as well as their impact on his psychology, his wife (Sienna Miller) and children, and his identity. Kyle endured four tours of duty in Iraq as a sniper, that most glamorous of all military positions (remember Enemy at the Gates?). The glorification of the sniper is all about the glorification of an individual’s exceptional skill, and there is nothing more alluring to our American psyches than an ordinary person with extraordinary abilities. If I had thought that Eastwood wouldn’t be so simplistic as to capitalize on that yearning, I was wrong.

From the film’s outset, Eastwood lays the groundwork for the depiction of Kyle as a good ol’ motherhood-and-apple-pie type of hero. In flashbacks of Kyle’s childhood, we see him defending his younger brother against bullies, reverently attending church, and soaking in his father’s fiercely delivered message that there are three types of people in the world: wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. You might guess which one he expected his sons to be. As an adult, Kyle was first a boozing, womanizing ranch hand and sometimes rodeo star who became activated to his patriotic duty in 1998 upon watching news coverage of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Late to military life, Eastwood’s mature hero is a bit too good to be true: chivalrous to women, protective of children, the deadliest sniper in American history, not necessarily immune to PTSD but somehow above it. Even when his actions seem unnecessarily (and cavalierly) risky, the film glosses over their import, leaving no time to dwell on the sometimes dark consequences of his so-called heroism.

Still, I was more moved than I expected to be.

Which is the problem. While it is not up to me to judge whether the real Chris Kyle is a military hero, I am here to judge the film. Critics of American Sniper have charged that Eastwood’s elimination of certain damning details about Kyle amounts to a gross negligence of truth. This charge leads me to a broader questioning of the value of films that reenact real life. I have no problem with “inspired by”; my quibble is with “based on.” In making this film, was Eastwood’s purpose simply to celebrate an American hero? I say, create a statue then (which apparently has been done)–don’t make a movie about it that denies the beautiful complexity of humans and that makes what is morally murky seem clear. The beauty of “based on” should be adherence to the truth. In meddling with truth, filmmakers corrupt it and corrupt their films. I understand some artistic license is necessary in order to realistically compress events into a manageable length or to highlight some particular symbolism,  irony, etc., but to re-digest facts and skew reality? The only responses I can summon to films like that (and to this film in particular) are foremost a feeling of betrayal, followed by irritation at the time I wasted. So much for this “best picture.”

(And what of Bradley Cooper’s performance? A resounding “meh.” He does an adequate job, but the job itself doesn’t seem that challenging. And, it could just be me, but whatever role I watch Cooper in, I can’t erase the slightly crazed deuchebag he plays in Wedding Crashers. There just always seems to be a whiff of asshole in his performances.)