Known for opening discussion on masculinity from his Westerns to war films, Clint Eastwood continues this discussion in his recent film “American Sniper,” a biopic focused on Chris Kyle or “the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history” — as both Kyle’s autobiography and the Pentagon claim. Played by Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper” follows Kyle’s military career, from his stint in boot camp, training as a Navy SEAL and his four tours in Iraq to how these events affect his home life, especially with his wife, Taya. Stating, “It shows the toll the war takes on you right up to the very end,” Eastwood intended his recent film to discuss the personal conflicts faced by military personnel on the front through depictions of Kyle’s post-traumatic stress disorder and the constant decisions he must make as a sniper, one of the most intimate forms of warfare. Despite his explicit intent, “American Sniper” seems to falter in accomplishing it.
Explicitly establishing that Kyle desired to join the U.S. military to protect his country, this necessary background provides a dynamic contrast to when Kyle is forced to make decisions that affect lives. Kyle’s intent to protect and his conscience often come into conflict when he has to decide to take the life of Iraqi citizens, such as that of the little boy who is going to set off a live grenade on a group of U.S. marines.
However, the internal conflict the viewer may expect from Kyle problematically occurs in the following scene as he catalogs his first kill. When asked why he was sad, Kyle responds: “I just didn’t imagine my first to be like that.” The tone and stoicism that Cooper utilizes to portray Kyle is problematic, because it’s open to interpretation. While one viewer could interpret Kyle as a man keeping it together in a war zone by not overtly showing his internal conflict, others may interpret Kyle calling the boy his “first,” instead of blatantly stating he murdered a young boy, demonstrates the character’s bias for the American military.
The scene is one of the many ambiguous depictions of how military combat affects personnel and these scenes distracted me from recognizing Eastwood’s stronger directorial traits, such as not politicizing his film’s material or intimate camera shots that mirror the personal moments experienced by Kyle. When Taya delivers the cliche line, “Even when you’re here, you’re not here,” I cannot help but feel the film is not able to build up to the line, with Kyle’s struggles seemingly able to solve themselves in the comfort of others; for example, the scenes of him at a counseling program. I understand the movie is meant to deal with the internal struggles and not overt struggles, like the politics of killing, but I was often left questioning the scenes of internal struggle, especially when there were more scenes of Kyle shooting than contemplating.
As a daughter of a marine who served a number of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I am not quite sure how to take this film. If anything, I feel this film needs to be watched two times before a clear opinion can be constructed. While the endeavors of “American Sniper” to depict the internal struggles of a military family are adequate, it does demonstrate the odd dynamic military personnel may have over duty to one’s nation and duty to one’s conscience. If anything, “American Sniper” is not a straightforward film that applauds the U.S. military with shouts of “semper fi,” nor is it an attack on the institution’s motives like James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Rather, “American Sniper” nods in its direction and continues on walking.
Rating: 2.5 stars