American Sniper

January 24, 2015
Bradley Cooper in 'American Sniper' (2014)
Bradley Cooper in 'American Sniper' (2014)

Clint Eastwood’s gung-ho endorsement of Mitt Romney in the last Presidential election campaign left no-one in any doubt about his politics. Eastwood, now in his 84th year, is a believer in old-fashioned American values. He also seems to believe that Americans should be prepared to fight to death to preserve their basic liberties, whether it be the right to live in a world without fear, or the right to live in a country without a universal health care system.

Eastwood is a patriot – on the right of a Hollywood subculture that is overwhelmingly liberal and Democrat. He has no difficulty with the idea that the United States should be the policeman of the world, with the need to combat evil outweighing any legalistic considerations about national sovereignty.

These black-and-white views rest oddly with Eastwood’s brilliance as a filmmaker. When he sits in the director’s chair all the nuances missing from his speech to the Republican National Convention come flooding back. He is a true artist; or as cinema buffs might say, an auteur. His prolific output ensures there will be hits and misses, but there is something good in most of his movies and more than a few in which he hits the heights.

American Sniper must rank as one of Eastwood’s greatest, partly because of the way he has been able to remain true to his patriotic instincts while painting a vivid picture of the brutality of war and the agonies it inflicts on servicemen and their families. It is a vision of heat, dust, squalor, and lurking death.

The film is based on a memoir by Navy SEAL, Chris Kyle, the most renowned sniper in US military history, who made four tours of duty to Iraq for 160 confirmed kills. It takes a special kind of personality to kill so many people and not go crazy. This film presents Kyle as a hero, but also leaves many question marks over his mental make-up. For Kyle, the political issues never enter his thoughts, it is simply a matter of doing what he has to do.

The movie is a personal triumph for Bradley Cooper in the lead role, who has also stumped up his own money as producer. To play the physically imposing Kyle, Cooper reputedly added 18 kilos of muscle, and acquired a convincing Texas accent.

With American Hustle (2013) and now this film, Cooper has revealed depths of talent that were never previously apparent. His normally loquacious persona is submerged in the portrayal of a taciturn, brooding warrior who sees life, like Tony Abbott, in terms of good guys and bad guys. Cooper’s version of Kyle is as menacing as a ticking bomb, latent psychosis lurking in his blue eyes even when he is at home with his family between tours.

American Sniper begins with a dramatic tour-de-force, as Kyle’s first mission forces him to focus his sights on a woman and a small boy who appear to be concealing a grenade. It’s white-knuckle stuff as Kyle does his duty, although not without a struggle. This first kill sets him on course: his mission is to protect his brothers in arms, with no qualms of conscience.

In the most economical of flashbacks Eastwood shows how Kyle’s father, a Texas preacher with a love of hunting, told his sons there are only three types in this world: the sheep, the wolves, and the sheep dogs. When Kyle watches the bombings of US embassies on TV his sheep dog nature kicks in and he enlists, giving a new direction to an aimless life. In a brief interlude we catch a glimpse of SEALS basic training, from which only 10 percent of candidates graduate. It’s here that the toughening-up – or the dehumanisation – of a soldier begins.

From one tour to the next, the violence escalates. Kyle becomes famous, acquiring a nickname, “the Legend”, although his enemies have dubbed him “the Devil of Ramadi” and put a bounty on his head. As we have seen in the past Eastwood is a master of battle scenes, and the confrontations as troops go about the deadly business of hunting insurgents door to door, or get caught in a blazing gun fight in a sand storm, are incredibly tense and powerful.

Just as good are those scenes in which we see Kyle trying to cope with his off-duty moments at home. Sienna Miller is impressive in the role of Kyle’s wife, Taya. She is not merely long-suffering, as the cliché has it, but genuinely conflicted in her love for her husband, filled with anxiety and anger about his glazed-eye response to civilian life. “Even when you’re here you’re not here!” she complains.

Eastwood and scriptwriter, Jason Hall, have added a few ‘wild west’ touches to Kyle’s story, such as his pursuit of an arch-villain called The Butcher, who uses an electric drill to torture and kill his victims; and a long, episodic kill-or-be-killed duel with an enemy sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik). These additions are pure Hollywood, but highly effective.

Although Kyle is portrayed as a damaged man it may be that Eastwood and Cooper have romanticised him. The real Kyle reputedly said it was “fun” to kill people, and expressed his loathing of the Iraqis. When Cooper calls the enemy “savages”, he is referring to characters like The Butcher, but the real Kyle may have used the term more broadly.

The ending is anti-climactic but leaves one feeling a little stunned. It introduces an ironic note that infiltrates the big, ceremonial send-off a nation bestows on an American hero. On reflection it begins to feel exactly right, as we see how human lives are swallowed up by an allegiance to vast, abstract concepts. Although Eastwood may believe organised violence is a necessity, he also recognises that in war, heroism is a reflex but memory a wound that never heals.

American Sniper
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Jason Hall, from a book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen & Jim DeFelice
Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Jake McDorman, Ben Reed, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner
USA, rated MA15+, 132 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 24th January, 2015.