American Sniper


It’s a little known fact that when I was in my early teens, I wanted to be an army sniper. I read up on it, had an encyclopedic knowledge of military ordnance, and shooting technique. I was good at sneaking around, evading detection (I went to boarding school), and I was a very skilled marksman in the cadet unit. I eventually decided against it because I couldn’t stomach the idea of killing someone (it took me surprisingly long to realise that was their MO). If I needed any more convincing, and I don’t, this film is it.

I must admit that I went into this film expecting a bit of propaganda. It’s well-known the real Chris Kyle (whose book of the same name this film is based upon) lied a lot in his telling of the story, and some of those lies were of such magnitude that he lost court cases trying to defend them. It’s also well-known that some of those lies carried a clear political agenda, and with Clint Eastwood directing, it was anyone’s guess as to how political this could get (Eastwood was a speaker at the Republican national convention).

But I was wrong. There is no obvious political undertone, and apart from a few small niggles, this in no way glorifies war. Of course, people will watch this film who don’t ‘get it’ and cheer at inappropriate times, and at inappropriate things, but I was pleasantly surprised to be confronted with a nuanced and complex character study of a soldier who struggled through some difficult times and had to make some difficult descisions.

My only niggle is that the film (seems to quite delibarately) skirt around the moral ambiguities which pop up in the course of being in a war zone. Moral ambiguities which other recent war movies like The Hurt Locker and Black Hawk Down did touch on, and frequently. Every time an Iraqi is killed, it’s a ‘justified’ kill. There’s never any friendly fire. There are no ‘good’ Iraqis, just ‘savages’. The war itself is never questioned. The black-and-white morality of the film bothered me, and for a film which deals so well with the other aspects of war (such as PTSD) this hole was all the emptier for it, and it severely detracted from an otherwise excellently-written film.

What IS handled well is how Kyle slowly changes. How he transforms, after each kill he is clearly bothered, and after every friend he loses he changes a little. He becomes alienated from his wife, and overreacts when certain triggers are activated, nearly punching out a dog on one occasion. Bradley Cooper has placed himself well for winning best actor, although there is some very stiff competition in this year’s field. What is also handled well is the fact that the Iraqis aren’t useless adversaries, there only for cannon-fodder for american troops. An enemy sniper in particular earns the respect of Kyle as he single-handedly pins down an entire US convoy and prevents Kyle from doing anything about it, and continues to pop up again and again throughout the film as if to remind Kyle’s own unit of how effective a sniper can really be. This leads to an inevitable show-down towards the end of the film, with a predictable enough outcome.

Say what you want about Clint Eastwood but I think it’s a travesty that he wasn’t nominated for best director this time. I’m sure he isn’t too annoyed, since he’s won the best picture-best director double twice in the past. This is a solid piece of storytelling centred around a brilliantly-realised character (and one who seems more complex and sympathetic than the real Chris Kyle, who is also obviously fond of blowing his own horn, while his on-screen counterpart seems embarrassed by the attention). It is unfortunately let down by some very simplistic moralising, and lack of moral ambiguity which every non-American will notice, but maybe only half of the people in America will. The dialogue is also, at times, a little bit too witty. Soldiers can be witty, but most of the time their conversations are either a bit crass, or slightly boring – they’re normal people too – not everyone trades barbs like hollywood screenwriters.

Definitely a film worth seeing, although I doubt it will win best picture. Best actor for Bradley Cooper perhaps. I don’t know enough about the technical awards (sound editing, sound mixing, editing) to know for sure (surely you’ve done a good job with those if people don’t notice?) but the film seems very solid in those respects.

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