American Sniper (2014)
Dir: Clint Eastwood
Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture. Lead Actor. Adapted Screenplay. Editing. Sound Editing. Sound Mixing.
At a certain point in the film I was struck with the thought, ‘I wonder if Eastwood will next direct the same story from another angle, ‘Iraqi Sniper’, as he did with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima?’ Because the other side to this would be equally as interesting and some perspective is needed!
Based on the real account of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) as presented in his autobiography, following him through his enlisting into the armed forces, and his multiple tours, while seeing the effects of his work on his home life with wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and their children.
Many of the scenes, including much of the opening, have moments viewed through his sniper rifle scope, and it opens with this technique while his sights are aimed on a child which is no easy way to start any film. We then flash back to Kyle’s own childhood, growing up with a stern father whose ideology was that some people are ‘sheep dogs, who must protect the sheep’. It’s clearly this sort of thinking that stuck with him through life, and led to him enlisting. Training as a Navy SEAL is shown to be tough, something made abundantly clear from any film featuring SEALs, and Kyle is soon on tour in Iraq, not long after marrying. When we see Kyle again in Iraq and we catch up with the opening scene, it is taken further, now with the viewer presumably ‘on board’ with the story and lead character he ‘popped his cherry’. However, I’m not sure that, despite referring to the enemy fighters as “evil” and “savages”, many viewers will be able to side with the lead when shooting children is part of his job description.
Sniping is obviously featured quite a lot throughout the film. Many bloody shots are shown in quick succession, often through the viewpoint of his scope. Therefore even though it’s at a distance, they are seen quite close up. When questioned on some kills, Kyle defends them all and his reasoning is accepted without examination. When his mission develops into a more specific hunt for a key target, the action diversifies, and leads to interrogations and tense confrontations. Kyle is clearly frustrated when their target keeps eluding capture (or elimination) and seems to takes it very personally. Even when he returns home for a bit with a baby on the way, he’s shown to have high blood pressure, and is constantly thinking about what’s going on in the war while he’s away from it. “God, country, family” are repeated as Kyle’s allegiances, but does he feel a responsibility in that order? Sadly at times his family seem to come low down on the order of priorities, he clearly feels a strong loyalty to his colleagues, who give him the nickname ‘Legend’ by the time he’s confirmed to be the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. His unit also take on the name ‘Punishers’, using the logo of the Marvel comics character known for his brutally violent tactics and willingness to kill.
Starting on a personal note, going through the military focus, the film then proceeds to get more personal as it continues with Kyle’s family at home growing and his mission in Iraq getting increasingly personal too as they close in on the enemy. His dad said he would become a good hunter, he also becomes hunted with a bounty being put on his head. The pressure and losses are taking their toll, but he won’t admit that, though it’s clear from how he stays on high alert at home, seeing threats in similar cars and sounds, which doesn’t go unnoticed by his long-suffering but worried wife. Even when he’s not in the army by the end of the film, the effects of his military service are shown, as Kyle zones out in front of the TV imagining gunfire in his head, later admitting ‘what haunts me is the guys I couldn’t save’.
The film must be commended in its handling of the final turn in the story. Something that other films might have attempted to dramatize on screen, is kept to one simple sentence, and is right now remaining incredibly timely. I’m glad the film didn’t try to show it, there’s a dignity and honesty in just stating the fact, the details of which are being examined in other ways as they need to be.
The setting, substituted by Morocco, allows for some excellent shots of the city under attack with explosions in the distance, though these are few. There’s also one scene that offers an interesting drone view of a battle area. It’s competently directed, the soundmixing and everything like that is very effective as there’s lots in the way of gunfire and other fighting sounds, and features such as this have gained the film some of the Oscar nominations, and by far these are the ones it is most likely to win, if any. Though it’s Bradley Cooper’s third year in a row nominated for best lead actor, I don’t think he’s going to win it this time, the character is too controversial, in real life and even if you were to just consider what’s presented in the film. Also there’s a scene with real amputee veterans where Cooper breaks character a bit and you see the actor coming through, so any change the scene is meant to signify for Chris Kyle is undercut by the lapse in consistency of the portrayal there. However, none of this matters to the producers as this is currently the best-grossing of this year’s ‘Best Picture’ nominees apparently, it’s surprising and a bit of a shame when you consider the other, arguably better, films.
There’s been a lot of controversy over Chris Kyle and his autobiography, and some of this has followed over to the film which has also attracted its own issues. It’s very disheartening when you see that twitter a few weeks ago was flooded by people saying that watching this made them want to go out and kill Iraqi / Muslim people, and it’s shocking that a mainstream, multiple Oscar nominated film can incite such reactions. You’re forced to wonder if either a) that’s the point, b) they missed the point or c) the point wasn’t made well enough. Sadly I think it’s a bit of each. You can’t put ‘American’ in the title of a war film and not be aiming for patriotism, even to the levels of jingoism and beyond. It’s clearly supportive of the american military, and with Kyle’s views coming across so clearly it does seem to be somewhat in support of their involvement in the war, stirring up extreme fervour in some viewers. Plus, the enemy are called ‘evil’ and ‘savages’, so to use such terms and not expect them to be echoed by some viewers is foolish. On the other hand, you see that war isn’t presented as something wonderful, Kyle and his family suffered from the effects of his tours, so maybe viewers missed that. Ultimately though, I think it’s a shame that the film doesn’t really have the perspective to consider things critically enough, being as it is based on Kyle’s autobiography and thus is his viewpoint essentially, and wanting to honour him rather than be a condemnation of him or his actions.
I’ve watched and reviewed three Oscar nominated films about war this week, considering the aftermath and those left behind with ‘Ida’, the conflict and those caught up in it innocently in ‘Tangerines’, and this about being involved directly, one might even say a perpetrator of war. Those films benefit from some distance of time on their side, and ‘Tangerines’ very much presents more than one argument. For this subject, another film from other angles would be fascinating to see, possibly one that shows the war from the Iraqi sniper’s point of view or at least something that has the ability to show some of the ancillary issues. The film does show that Kyle was affected by his work, and that his family suffered, but it doesn’t really criticize him, just showing he was maybe doggedly patriotic and forgiving him of that quite freely. Given the source material and sensitivities of the subject and his family, maybe this is the film it wanted to be, but I don’t think it’s quite the film it could or maybe even should be.