I suspect a lot of people appreciated American Sniper for the wrong reasons.
I say this because director Clint Eastwood has a long history of using violence to attack violence. It’s been a long time since Dirty Harry glorified vigilante justice to cheering audiences; as a director, Eastwood has chosen material dealing with the consequences of violence, and it’s never, ever sugar-coated. He forces us to think about the consequences of violence, and in this American Sniper is no different.
Thanks to a well-publicized trial, most of us know Kyle’s life story; he grew up in redneck Texas, and after the September 11 terror attacks decided to join the Navy Seals. He racked up more dead enemy combatants than any other soldier in history, only to be murdered by one of his fellow veterans in 2013.
I’m sure there were many in the audience who cheered every shot which felled an enemy combatant, but not Kyle, as portrayed by Bradley Cooper. Two of Kyle’s early victims were a mother and a small child, and it’s only with the greatest reluctance that he pulls the trigger. It’s easy to see why Cooper was nominated for an Oscar; it has to be hard for someone in Kyle’s position to keep a grasp on his humanity, and you can see the struggle reflected in Cooper’s eyes in every frame. To Cooper’s great credit, Kyle takes no pleasure in the chore he does so well.
Even in those scenes where Kyle is home, it’s clear the war has not changed him for the better. When Kyle goes to get his car repaired, for example, someone using an automatic drill spooks Kyle into thinking there’s an enemy attack for a moment. Those moments are marvelous and subtle, perfect examples of the actor’s art.
Kudos as well to Sienna Miller, who plays Kyle’s wife, Taya. In one of the most harrowing scenes I’ve seen in recent years, Taya and Chris are talking on their cell phones when, suddenly, violence erupts. All Taya can hear are explosions, gunfire, and yelling. Miller’s face runs any number of dark emotions: fear, loss, sudden abandonment. Her terror is real. (There’s also an all too brief scene with Miller in lingerie; how the hell could Jude Law cheat on that?)
Eastwood pulls no punches in the war segments, and nothing is glorified. Eastwood’s Iraq is at the gates of hell. The soldiers can’t trust anything, and they never know when something’s going to blow up, or when bullets will start to fly. They don’t know if they’re being lured into a trap when invited to dinner at a local’s home. Sometimes sophisticated technology fails. I don’t know about anyone else, but I felt as scared and uncertain as the soldiers on the screen. I shudder to think what real war is like.
People will see many messages in American Sniper, and I saw a very clear one: Chris Kyle is yet another victim of America’s gun culture. Played by Ben Reed, Kyle’s father raises his kids to shoot and his dark and ignorant view of humanity should frighten everyone; it’s no surprise Kyle became such a proficient killer with an upbringing like that.
Eastwood does not show Kyle’s murder, but most of us know what happened: Kyle spent plenty of time with his fellow veterans to give them the help he so often needed himself. Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield took Eddie Ray Routh, someone they suspected was mentally unstable, to a shooting range. In retrospect, it was a very stupid thing to do. Had they gone to a bar, or a basketball game, it is likely they would have survived. You don’t give guns to crazy people.
This is Eastwood’s most profound film on the consequences of violence since Unforgiven. I can’t imagine anyone leaving the theater waving a flag and cheering after seeing this film; just a deep sense of sadness and loss.
9 out of 10 stars