Clint Eastwood’s latest, American Sniper, has been called a “Republican platform movie” a pro-war propaganda piece that sets Navy SEAL sniper Bradley Cooper against what the movie sees as the “savage, despicable” evil to be found in Iraq. And indeed, it’s tough not to see Eastwood’s name on the credits and flash to him at the 2012 Republican National Convention, talking to a chair. He’s morphed into a sort of “craggy old man GET OFF MY LAWN” figure, all RAH RAH AMERICA and WHEN MEN WERE MEN, with a side dose of Charlton Heston-esque FROM MY COLD, DEAD HANDS. So when you see that he’s directing a movie about American soldier Chris Kyle–nicknamed “The Legend” for being the deadliest sniper in American military history–it’s easy to assume you’re not going to see the most sensitive, nuanced portrayal of a complex moral issue like the Iraq War.
But do you? Well, yes and no. I disagree that American Sniper is ultrapropaganda. The way I see it, Eastwood sidesteps a lot of the political aspects of the Iraq War by making a movie about how aggressively awful the war is for the psychology of its soldiers, embodied in Kyle (Bradley Cooper). We’re introduced to Kyle when he’s in the position to make his first kill: An Iraqi child about to throw a grenade at an American convoy. Before he pulls the trigger (or not), we flash back to his childhood, where we see he was raised in deep Texas by a strict father who believes that humans fall into three categories: sheep, wolves, and the rarest, the sheepdog. That’s what Kyle aspires to be: Someone who protects sheep from being preyed on by the villainous wolves. We then jump forward to Kyle’s early adulthood, when he leaves a rodeo career to enlist in the Navy SEALS after 9/11. Shortly before shipping off he marries Taya (Sienna Miller, who has more to do here than in Foxcatcher), with whom he has two children in between his four tours.
That said, refusing to address the question of “Was America right to invade Iraq?” doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t address it obliquely, particularly when most of its characters are American soldiers of the “let’s go kill some Iraqis, yee-haw!” variety. Some of that jingoism is going to bleed through. That said, I feel like Eastwood counterbalanced it in several ways, primarily in the character of Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), Kyle’s Iraqi counterpart. He’s the best sniper they have, and taking him down becomes an obsession for Kyle, something that draws him back to Iraq for tour after tour. Yet Eastwood, who’s never been accused of an excess of sentiment, never tries to make it seem like Musfata’s actions spring from some deep well of evil. He’s just doing his job, same as Kyle is, only they’re on opposite sides.
Further, from the beginning I never really felt like Kyle was a 100% sympathetic character–he’s prone to violence, he’s not portrayed as the brightest bulb in the box, and his obsession with being a “sheepdog” (often using violence, as in an early scene where he beats up his brother’s bullies) seems at times to border on the pathological. He’s a good ol’ boy Texan obsessed with being a cowboy, for Chrissakes. He almost came across, at times, as a commentary on ubermasculine American culture. That said, I am in no way going to assume that was intentional on Eastwood’s part–one, because he’s Eastwood, and two, because this is a biopic based on an autobiography, so a positive slant towards its subject can generally be assumed. I could very well be projecting my yuppie liberal bleeding heart tendencies onto this movie.
The same goes for something that struck me about the US army: They are all, with the exception of maybe four people, white dudes with sandy hair possessed of roughly the same build, to the extent that I had tough time telling them apart. If that was intentional on Eastwood’s part, meant to show us what the American army looked like to the Iraqis–a homogenous invading army with only collective intent, no invidual humanity–then it’s a genius, subtle move. If it’s not intentional… well, I don’t care. It’s still cool. Death of the author.
So for the first two-thirds or so of the movie, Eastwood provides an in-depth, nuanced look at the reality of war (inasmuch as a 30-year old who’s never touched a gun in her life knows what that is) as a horrible, psychologically devastating event. I think I like this movie, its occasional tendency towards predictability aside. Eastwood and Cooper work really well together. I’m feeling what it’s throwing out. And then…
…I’m not going to say the “and then,” because I generally like to write my reviews without spoilers, but I will say that the last third of American Sniper seems like a completely different movie. I felt like I was down the rabbit hole. Eastwood takes all the nuance, all the unflinching, tough appraisal of a complex topic, and throws it out the window in favor of an emotional tone that belongs to a made-for-TV movie. In those last 30 minutes or so, screenwriter Jason Hall handwaves past some of the difficult emotional struggles that were the hallmark of the first two acts with an “and then it all worked out.” It made me question what I thought I’d been watching in the previous hour and a half. Was it a propaganda piece? A movie that looks at America’s failings and just shrugs its shoulders?
I wish there were some sort of projection failure and I hadn’t seen that last half hour. (Then I wouldn’t have been subject to the loud conversation two of my fellow theatergoers had over the credits, either. Yo, step outside.) As it is, I was left with a film that had its vast potential run over with a truck on the home stretch. American Sniper is, at the end, a thoroughly befuddling piece of entertainment, much like Clint Eastwood lecturing to an empty chair.