On seeing this film, it seems quite appropriate that it was Clint Eastwood who took up the reigns after Steven Spielberg for this gripping retelling of the true story of Chris Kyle, the United States’ deadliest sniper; making it his best since Invictus and making up for last year’s forgettable Jersey Boys. Not the ordinary sermon on war, American Sniper takes Bradley Cooper in the very opposite direction of his career so far, and places him smack down in the middle of a hazy, washed-out battlefield which he adapts to in perfect harmony. Eastwood clearly hasn’t let escape his unique knack for visualizing patriotic war-epics – which might not be the most accurate of descriptions – making it deserving of its many nominations. Not lingering too long on second faces, it is ultimately the mental descent of a patriotic man celebrated as legend.
With one of the most brutal openings this year, American Sniper starts as we observe a meditative Chris Kyle waiting with baited breath in sniping stance, to make the decision on taking out a little boy and his mother. Stringing along the tightened air that never relents, the story skips back to his childhood and one very impactful lesson that his father gave him and his brother: they are not sheep, not wolves, but sheepdogs: always ready to protect the pack by putting their own lives on the line. This is the resonant theme throughout Kyle’s story behind enemy lines, unlike the horror of murder and anti-war propaganda as it would seem to be at first glance. For many reasons, I was reminded of a short story I was taught in school – “The Sniper” by Liam O’Flaherty – that had its unnamed sniper perched on a rooftop caught in constant battle with his counterpart. While not as romantic in execution as the story, Eastwood’s piece deals out effective justice to the relationship between the snipers both of whom at the top of their game and worthy rivals, will find their purpose exhausted post the death of either.
But American Sniper is not about the ties that link soldiers on either front; rather it is the in-depth exploration into the psyche of one man through whose aiming lens we witness the graphic and harsh images of war, but with the overarching fervour of nationalism. What Kyle’s story has to tell us is not the heroic tale of a soldier who returns to his family with medals, but that of a man who is driven by the very spirit of war and defending his fellow men. As surprising as it may seem, the sniper is not one in whose mouth lingers the bitter taste of blood but one who ravishes the thought of patriotic defence, who has taken on as his calling to protect the lives of innocent people. This contrasting attitude is what sets Kyle apart from the rest of his troupe and almost all others for that matter. This is exactly why the opening shots of the film are important enough for the rest to be viewed in light of those decisive moments. He is of calculated and measured character, not losing his cool in the most intense of situations, ready to take out the necessary target for his homeland. After all, being adapted from the biography penned by Kyle himself is sure to bring a non-Hollywood realism to the affair. It is in such a manner that the film comes to close; with an uneventful death off-screen. This realism was effectuated in precision by Eastwood, who paints this blunt picture in a mesh of washed-out gray and overarching green hue: quite representative of the soldier’s uniform.
The tone that holds place in the viewer’s mind for the most is that of something tightly strung and ready to explode on the slightest provocation. This rather pressure-heightening atmosphere owes itself partly to the non-glossy and bare method of direction, and partly to the character donned impeccably by Bradley Cooper. Bulked up and stone-faced for the role, the character of Chris Kyle is a dominating presence, very much likened to a loaded rifle that we gradually learn to be more and more frightened about as we witness the extreme acts that he is able to commit with poker-face. This strong and dangerous image – sharing a strange semblance to a bear – is softened by the corrosion that is inflicted to his heart with every bullet he fires. In fact, this very emotion is brought to surface during the funeral of his colleague, where as the volley shots are fired in succession toward his honour, each shot seems to shake up the families and relatives present; as they are reminded of the cruelties of war. Though at points like these the film seems to preach anti-war ideology, the focus has to be shifted back to the protagonist to reveal its true message. As Kyle himself eloquently puts it, what killed his friend was not the bullet, but the letter his relatives read for him, resounding as it did with the emotion against war and mutual disappointment. To him, those who read war as thus are missing the entire point, more so when it comes to the relatives of soldiers who are at work through day and night, holding back the forces that are sure to savage their lands. War is an essential facet of patriotism; for if not to fight to death for the protection of your people, the meaning of patriotism is drawn to a blank.
There are many criticisms against the execution of Bradley Cooper in this film, stripping him of his winning smile and positive swagger, but it seems to be that there is no way else to portray this man torn between love for his country and that for his family. His superlative exterior and physique while tracing his transformation under Navy SEALS training, also tends to hold him in stark contrast to civilians when home, to further drive home the point that where he belongs is on the battlefield. Dealing with family issues and raising kids, he is very much out of place and at odds with his celebrity status as “the legend”. From the Texas cowboy to the powerful soldier, Kyle maintains his essence of steadfast loyalty and commitment to whatever it is he sets out to do, from his wife to the protection of his nation. But the seemingly tough sketch of Kyle is in reality, crumbling from within, hiding a man who flinches at the deaths of his comrades and at the inevitable possibility of death. It is this inevitability of an end that strikes him hard when he finally takes down the ace sniper of the Al-Qaeda; as he stares down the barrel of his own rifle at the testament to the vulnerability of his position. This last target that he takes out also shakes him into his senses of his responsibility, one which exists both toward the nation as well as his family, the latter which he had been ignoring for years. American Sniper can thus be read into as a story of decisive moments, grinding the importance of each kill and event in the larger scope of Kyle’s mental state.
As the film makes more intricate of an already layered written work, the message it whispers to us holds the lives saved above the lives taken, just as Kyle himself has etched in his memory the lives he could not save while the confirmed count of 160 kills that he has to his name means less to him. Indeed, when looked at this way, the propaganda of the film is not against war, but promoting war on terrorism. This is furthered by the elaborately commemorated and atrocious acts of the terrorists being held up to the light, showing the viewer exactly what Kyle saw, the unending desire to wipe the earth clean of that which threatens his home. This guardian spirit does not take leave of him after his bout with the war, as like some twisted form of shellshock; he seems drawn toward battle and militant methods of dealing with adversities. This looming sensation of a breakdown reaches a point at which, biting your already well-eaten nails, you wait in scared anticipation of the inevitable explosion. But like the soldier he always is at heart, Kyle is in control at least with those close to him, lending his stress out to the veteran’s home where he meets his end.
Clint Eastwood’s latest restores faith in his direction while also establishing for itself a separate identity as one of the unique and more important war-films to grace the theatres. The identifiable directorial style bleaches the concept of war of all its glories and sorrows, to recite the more human ballad of a psyche going haywire while the spirit of patriotism rages on. It is especially interesting to note the emphasis afforded to scenes of gunfire, which is sort of Eastwood’s forte carrying on from his time with westerns. There is an unrelenting note of harsh realism to the over-romanticized concept of war. I haven’t read the book, but it does seem there were certain aspects of his life left out in this adaptation in terms of his post-war trauma and his family. I understand the controversy surrounding this film that it alters history by telling Kyle’s story in wrong light, but my knowledge to that ends there and my evaluation is solely based on its effectiveness as a movie. That said, it is riveting in what it does. There are definitely problems with the lengthy story, but I find it hard to decide whether to hold it against the movie, having been adapted from an existing biography of a man-machine who sacrificed his soul for his nation and people, but in a less than Hollywood style.