by Avi Davis
Director: Clint Eastwood
Featuring : Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
One of the most harrowing scenes in Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper should be instantly familiar to anybody who watches the news today. U.S. soldiers in Fallujah enter a home and discover a side room occupied by a bloodied corpse hanging in chains from the rafters. But as the eyes of the soldiers drift from this gruesome scene they are startled by evidence of the full extent of the executioners’ handiwork : decapitated heads, severed limbs, sliced off fingers and other dismembered human attachments line the shelves of the room. The room is a veritable chamber of horrors – and it would make any Hollywood horror movie set (even though this is a movie set itself) look tame by comparison.
It is this searing image, of which there are more than a few in American Sniper, that leaves its audience gasping and punches home one of the main reason claimed for the American presence in Iraq: there is evil in the world that threatens America n interests and which needs to be expunged. Many critics looking back on the two Gulf Wars in the 1990s and 2000s tend to forget the enemy we confronted at that time: first in the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein- a brutally sadistic regime that subjected the Iraqi people to more than 25 years of unremitting torture; and then the al Qaeda insurgency which terrorized and victimized the urban Iraqi centers. American Sniper makes it clear that the enemy was real, armed, dangerous and a threat.
Exactly to whom though, other than the U.S. soldiers in combat, is one of the perplexing questions the film fails to answer.
This is the story of Navy Seal Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the most lethal sniper in American military history, who undertakes four tours of duty in Iraq which amounts to a total of nearly 1,000 days of his boots on the ground. The movie, based on Kyle’s best selling autobiography, shows how the future marksman, filled with indignation after seeing news reports of the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 1998 and then the devastating attacks on New York City of September 11, 2001, decides to abandon his career as a rising star on the Texas rodeo circuit to sign up for training as a Navy Seal. His rigorous ordeal in boot camp is portrayed with all the grunting, heaving chests and waterfalls of perspiration that has become familiar to us in such boot camp ilms as An Officer and a Gentleman. It is however his meeting in a bar with his future wife ( Sienna Miller) which might have set this film apart from other war films, as the romance begins to occupy the mind of the protagonist who must decide whether to leave her and their soon to be born child or take off to a theater of war from which he might never return.
He chooses duty of course and within months of his deployment to Iraq he has already been acclaimed by his platoon as a marksman of such prodigious accuracy that the protective shield he offers inspires his fellow Seals to increasing feats of valor.
Kyle’s contribution however was not what one would call prosaic. Each day, it seems, he was required to make a life or death decision, whether to bring down an individual man, women or child who could or actually does threaten his fellow servicemen with Molotov cocktails, grenades and hand launched missiles. The decision to kill a child who has been goaded by his mother to attack an oncoming U.S. patrol provides the actual opening scene of the film and foreshadows the regularly problematic decisions Kyle has to make throughout his tours of duty in the dusty streets of Iraq.
The film traces Kyle’s and his Navy Seal compatriots’ steadily growing unease with the daily grind of patrols and the necessity of taking rough measures against the local population – to either extract information or else intimidate them into cooperation. Kyle for the most part remains stoic while in the field as several of his fellow Seals either perish or else begin to question the purpose of their mission and the utility of their deployment. It is only when Kyle is home on leave that the full impact of what he has been required to do to protect his men rises to haunt him.
Eastwood capably portrays the fatigue that preys on men who have returned from intense periods of military service and the difficulty they have in adjusting to their normal suburban environments and to family life.
But Eastwood also offers very few surprises in his retelling of Kyle’s account of his experiences in Iraq. It is a rather wooden and workman like rendering of a sharpshooter’s career in the army and there is little context given for the war and why the American government sent the men there in the first place. And, of course, no clarity as to whether the war was actually won – which would have justified the platoon’s sacrifice. In addition, there is no portrayal of the intense political battles which raged about the war in general and the surge in particular during George W. Bush’s second term of office; The disconnection of the physical war from the political war robs the film of some of its true drama, since that latter struggle took, at times, as much of a toll on the soldiers as did the physical confrontations they endured.
These missing elements tend to strip the film of its location in America’s recent memory for in truth the film could have just as easily been about Vietnam, Korea or World War II and made more or less the same points that many films from Platoon to Full Metal Jacket to The Hurt Locker have already made. It is of course nothing new to see soldiers being required to make invidious choices on the battlefield which can possibly scar their targets or themselves for life. We could have hoped that Clint Eastwood would lend that story more nuance and perhaps a different perspective given its close proximity in time to our own day.
A consistent theme of the movie is the focus on fatherhood. In an early scene at a family dinner Kyle’s father admonishes the young Chris and his brother to protect the weak: there are sheep, the father relates, who are weak and do not know themselves; there are wolves who prey on the sheep; and then there are sheep-dogs who protect the sheep. He commands his sons to be sheep-dogs; they must protect defenseless flocks against the ravages of wolves. Near the end of the film Kyle is seen taking his own seven-year-old son out on a hunt and teaching him for the first time to shoot a rifle – just as his father, in a scene portraying exactly the same event years earlier, had done for him. The message is that the sheep dogs should also be hunters and that fathers are responsible to society to impart to their sons the skills necessary to kill, when needed to either protect or feed others.
It is curious to note that the film was originally set to be directed by Stephen Spielberg and many Spielbergian moments seem to have remained embedded in the script: the presence of several fellow soldiers who question the righteousness of their mission (a la Munich); the soldiers who fight divorced of any real conviction or understanding of why they are fighting ( Saving Private Ryan) and the requisite moral relativism of the discussions among the soldiers as they prepare for battle.
But since this is a film directed by Eastwood it necessarily draws heavily from Western themes. There are echoes of Unforgiven, Shane, High Noon and Pale Rider in American Sniper in that a rugged individualist, arriving to save a community from bandits and thieves accomplishes his task, retreats from the scene, resists the social acceptance that his victory confers upon him and then melts away, never to return. The Western motif is particularly apposite when we remember that Kyle was originally a cowboy, working as a range-hand while attempting to make it as a professional rodeo star.
However, American Sniper disappoints because the hero, unlike the lead characters in these other Western themed movies, is a man whose mission is never clearly defined – which is because the American mission in Iraq itself is never clearly defined. Kyle and his men are shown to be in continuous combat – but for what purpose and to what ultimate end? Those of us who lived through that time are still asking these questions, particularly in light of the U.S’ recent retreat from Middle East and its apparent abandonment by our current president to chaos. The movie does not help us solve our own consternation that the sacrifices of the men killed and maimed in the cities of Iraq may have been in vain.
American Sniper is a well made film, with gripping action scenes and terrific performances by the lead characters in Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller. But it is hard to rank it among the great war films. As a recounting of the story of the sniper Chris Kyle, who in the end died an ironic death from the bullet of a fellow marine – not on the battlefield but on U.S. soil, it is a touching memorial. But this could have been just as easily accomplished with a documentary. We expect our most talented film makers, particularly ones of Eastwood’s accomplishments, to provide more subtlety to life stories such as these and burnish them with deeper perspectives, transmuting fairly ordinary tales into chronicles with a universal message to which all viewers can relate.
That American Sniper fails in this may not necessarily be the fault of the film maker as much as it is of the historical period in which the film is set -a period about which Americans of all stripes are still trying to obtain some form of understanding and a sense of closure.