Over the last few weeks, America has tripped over itself to see Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Demolishing January box office records with ease and focusing on a rather controversial person of interest, it isn’t surprising the film has crafted a divisive schism between disparate political pundits. Those who are devoutly patriotic view it as a powerful testament to a man’s selfless dedication to his country. Others question the film’s validity, as its subject has a known history of distorting reality. Debates have even taken place about the film’s stance on war, American soldier’s perception of Iraqi citizens, and the dangers of unchecked jingoism. Honestly, I’m all about a film igniting a national conversation, but it’s strange that a film as neutered, vague, and simple as American Sniper would deliver this big of a spark. For those who circumvented the monologues about American Sniper, it’s based on the deadly experiences Navy Seal Chris Kyle faced during four tours in Iraq.
Credited with 160 confirmed kills, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is defiantly labeled as America’s deadliest marksman. Born from America’s deepest soil, Chris has a penchant for hunting and bull riding. He exudes toughness, but his patriotism is his most defining trait. After seeing the devastation brought on by the 1998 US Embassy bombings, Chris enlists in the Marines. He feels his nation needs its shores protected. While in training, Chris meets Taya Renae (Sienna Miller), a luminous, intelligent woman not easily drawn in by male archetypes. Chris’ charm woos her, and soon they’re married. Unfortunately, Chris sets off to Iraq as a result of 9/11 and the infamous search for weapons of mass destruction. Chris endures four hellacious trips through Iraq, with each one eating away at his psyche. To make matters worse, his commitment to his country isolates him from his family. Domesticity slowly drifts away from Chris, leaving the war zone his only place of solace.
The damage of war is clearly demonstrated throughout the film, especially when Chris and his family end up being collateral damage. Yet, the screenplay and Clint Eastwood’s direction go only skin deep. Perhaps I was expecting more, but the dissection of Chris’ plight is extremely one note; never fully exploring what aspects of war corrupted him. While in Iraq, Chris is a legend and is damn near invincible, but this is offset by moments at home that find Chris struggling to cope in a non-chaotic environment. He’s fragile, timid, and out-of-place. Eastwood doesn’t entirely seek out what’s causing this dissonance. Is Kyle disturbed by his actions while at war, or is he dangerously addicted to its thrills? There are moments of illumination, but they’re extremely dim. There are more damning moments where character exploration can take place, namely a scene involving Chris’ scope directed at a child, but they are dead ends.
Eastwood’s lack of commitment makes American Sniper decidedly bland and disengaging. The screenplay also suffers, offering us nothing but token dramatic beats and pointless, hollow antagonists that are merely targets for Chris’ rifle, and not a reflection of his life in war. An Iraqi sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), a man who takes a lot of American lives, is the definitive example of this problem. He is a character defined through expository dialog, and ends up being only a benchmark for Chris. Much of the film’s emotional weight rests on the capable shoulders of Bradley Cooper. I don’t think it’s the year’s best performance but Cooper is impressive. He’s charismatic, physically imposing, and disheartening. Cooper easily validates why he’s one of the better actors going today. There are moments where Cooper isn’t the only asset, some of the war scenes crackle with a nauseating brutality, but the film is too ambivalent and too simple for its own good. And this is a shame because here is a complicated war, a complicated time, and a complicated protagonist boiled down into a film that is, intentional or not, more of a marketing tool for the armed forces than an everlasting piece of cinema.