What is it about war movies that has kept them in dirty fashion all these years? What draws audiences to them time and time again? Is it the bloodshed? The inhuman brutality and violence? The cool gadgets and weapons? I believe it’s the fun they unconsciously project. Seldom do war movies encourage the kids who see them to put down their little Nerf guns and pick up “Sense And Sensibility”. If anything, they encourage kids to shoot “Sense And Sensibility” with their Nerf guns and then go back to more war movies.
But war, as we know, is not fun, in any way. It is a field where good people die. It is a prison that ensnares fathers and sons and brothers and husbands (and now wives, sisters, daughters, mothers) and treats parole as a game of Russian Roulette. It has become a tricky thing for films about war to present its evil and total chaos without making it look like a video game.
American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, treads that line very carefully, and by doing so succeeds at both. On the one hand, it paints the picture of an American hero with heartbreaking truth as he degenerates from charming cowboy to RoboCop. On the other, it makes me want to pick up a rifle and enlist in sniper academy (or at least to play a video game about snipers).
Many of Eastwood’s movies have been about tragic, broken heroes, living on the fringe of society, bravely standing between the embrace of their traditions and the onslaught of change. In his Unforgiven (1992), William Munny was a retired gunslinger confined to the chores of hog farming and inactivity. The movie presented a chance for him to recapture his glory days. Hilary Swank sought to change her life in Million Dollar Baby (2004), a movie in which she sprang from slumming to become a reputable boxer. In Gran Torino (2008), his Walt Kowalski lived inside himself, on the fringe, rejecting social interaction. In all three films his characters saw the light at the end of the tunnel and became for brief moments people of tremendous worth. In American Sniper, his hero moves into the fringe of society, embraces change, and finds that death is the only thing waiting for him at the end of the tunnel.
Chris Kyle was an expert marksman. Raised as a Christian in a deep Texan hunting family, he grew up believing cowboys indulged the rodeo, and eventually fell into the sold idea that America was an isolated paradise and all who lived beyond her shores were crazy, radical terrorists. He decided to enlist in the Navy SEALS as a sniper and soon found himself married and shipped off to Iraq to shoot people who couldn’t see him.
American Sniper opens on the battlefield of Iraq. Chris (Bradley Cooper) is perched on the roof of a building, his rifle snug into his shoulder. A young boy and his sister are about to run head-first into an American convoy, not to find safety, but to detonate a warhead they conceal under their robes. This, I think, is a situation no sniper would ever want to find himself in, but Chris, before his first tour is up, will learn that war is not about killing terrorists, it’s about killing the person who’s about to kill your friend. More often than not the big picture is never revealed to footmen; their task is to proceed, mission by mission, until their objective is accomplished. Shooting a young boy in the chest comes with the territory.
What Chris doesn’t learn is that his newfound knowledge of warfare will damage his personal life to such a degree as to ruin his marriage and the happiness of his wife and kids. This is where American Sniper earns its medals, in its harrowing depiction of a man taking his work home with him and not realising it.
Bradley Cooper has evolved into a kind of master in this area. He can so convincingly clean any trace of emotion from his face, creating a blank slate, and still have you believing he’s not yet a robot. He comes close in this movie though. There is a scene, after his third or fourth tour, where his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) tries the pillow talk. It must be said it takes her longer than expected to see that her husband, whose unblinking gaze doesn’t leave the little crack on the ceiling, is not paying attention and is probably not even in the same room.
Chris hears the shredding of helicopter blades and the cries of children as he stares at a blank TV screen. He jumps at the sound of drills and lawn mowers. He loses, in essence, all signs of human emotion. But not in Iraq. In Iraq he seems like his old self, jolly, boisterous, funny. This is war’s great betrayal. It consumes the life force of its victims and returns them to their families as empty shells, filled only with memories of violence. This is what American Sniper so deftly illustrates.
It’s not a great war movie, but it understands its hero and his situation with a keen eye. It observes his turmoil and provides no escape. Oh yes, the war scenes in Iraq are exquisitely filmed and mixed together, and contain the kind of elevated energy I last experienced in Lone Survivor (2014), but the sad truth remains: War is hell. You can try to sit back and not get involved, but if you gotta go, you gotta go, and it will take you, one way or another.
Best Moment | The second time Chris has to choose between taking a young life and sparing it. Cooper really pumps it in this one.
Worst Moment | Chris’ slow-mo, dramatic execution of another sniper. It did not have to be filmed that way.