A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014)

I think American Sniper is not going to come into focus for us until 20 or 30 years have passed, and we have fully assessed the damage done by the American invasion of Iraq -- if, in fact, we ever do. Now, the only thing everyone seems to be able to agree on is that Bradley Cooper's powerful performance holds the film together. Otherwise, opinions about the movie range from those who see it as a reprehensible portrait of American arrogance to those who see it as a laudable portrait of American heroism. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, trying to decide whether it presents Chris Kyle as a victim of the Iraq incursion, as a misguided embodiment of false and outdated values, or as an archetype of the dutiful American military man. What it really seems to me is a muddle of all of these things, undone by a screenwriter (Jason Hall) and a director who can't bring the movie together into a satisfactory whole. It's wrong to review a movie that wasn't made, but I think American Sniper would have made a more coherent film if Chris Kyle's murder hadn't been relegated to a caption and shots of his funeral at the film's end. If the convergence of murderer and victim had been dealt with from the beginning, we might have had a more cohesive narrative about the effects of war on both those who can "handle it" and those who can't. As it is, we have only glances at large issues like simplistic world-view (Kyle's father's division of humankind into sheep, wolves, and shepherds), the American gun culture, the testosterone poisoning of machismo, the stereotyping of the enemy as "savages," and the inability of the United States to come to terms with the hidden problems of returning veterans. What we have instead are often exciting combat scenes mixed with rather clichéd domestic interludes. Sienna Miller does what she can with the underwritten and over-familiar role of the wife back home, but the script doesn't give her enough to work with. I admire Eastwood's restraint as a filmmaker, but I think it does him a disservice here. We are too close to the events of the first decade of the 21st century to have anything but our individual emotional reactions to them, and American Sniper is bound to ring false in some way to each of us. I kept thinking of Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941) as I watched American Sniper. Made on the cusp of World War II, that unabashedly flag-waving movie about another American hero sharpshooter seems naive by contrast, even though the World War I in which Alvin York fought was at least as colossal an international fuck-up as the Iraq invasion, but it's also a better film. Maybe American Sniper will seem like a better film 74 years from now, but somehow I doubt it.