The unprecedented success of this film at the American box office, displays the depth of feeling that the US audience (especially those who vote Republican) have for Clint Eastwood’s biopic of Chris Kyle, proclaimed on the poster as the ‘most lethal sniper in history.’ Interestingly, it’s not something that Kyle himself ever wanted to boast about and as the film makes clear, it’s a legacy that took a terrible toll on the man himself and, indirectly, even led to his own death. There are many liberal-minded people who have been quick off the blocks to denounce this as dumb, Republican rhetoric, a recruitment film for would-be psychopaths, racists and the NRA, but I honestly feel that those who denounce it are failing (perhaps deliberately) to see it for what it is – a grunts-eye view of the war in Iraq from the perspective of somebody who had the unenviable task of actually being there.
The film begins with a young Chris being taken hunting by his daddy and making his first ‘kill,’ a deer. (So far, so redneck.) We then gallop on some years to find an older Chris (a beefed-up Bradley Cooper) witnessing the attack on the World Trade Centre and promptly enlisting in the Navy Seals. The man is a unabashed patriot who doesn’t hesitate to do what he perceives as ‘his duty to his country.’ He undergoes a brutal training regime and his gift for target shooting some comes to the fore. And all to soon, he’s in Iraq, on the first of four punishing tours, working as a sniper, only to discover that his first target is a little boy carrying a lethal weapon…
Now, if there is a criticism to be made of the film, it’s this. We only ever see the ‘enemy’ from the point of view of the American soldiers and, to a man, woman or child, they are all duplicitous, evil villains, every one of them intent of killing the infidels at any cost. Common sense tells us that that simply can’t be the case and it would have been nice here to have witnessed some Iraqi characters portrayed in a more sympathetic way, but that clearly wasn’t Eastwood’s objective here and he ignores it.
But don’t go thinking either that this is a film that glorifies or whitewashes the war in Iraq. It’s a savage, visceral recreation that horrifies as much as it thrills and Eastwood makes it clear how such a career exacts a punishing price on those who live it, something that is clearly demonstrated by Kyle’s fraught relationship with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), whenever he comes home on leave. Cooper plays Kyle as a big, genial giant, a quiet man who constantly hides his inner turmoil from the world and who only eventually finds release by working with veterans who have themselves been damaged by the war. Whatever your political take on this (and there’s no doubt that Eastwood pitches his tent squarely in the Republican camp) the film surely doesn’t deserve the approbation that’s been heaped upon it. It’s well directed, its battle scenes are unflinching in their graphic detail and at no point does anybody stand up and make a speech about how America has done the right thing.
War is always a tragedy and American Sniper never pretends that it’s anything else.