Those familiar with the likes of maddening kidnap mystery Changeling and boxing psychodrama Million Dollar Baby, will know that Clint Eastwood is much more than a man with no name and a slanted hat once he settles down into a directors’ chair. His latest feature, controversial war biopic, American Sniper, is arguably a little more Gran Torino than grand Oscars’ favourite. But that’s not to say that the notorious Right-Winger’s film doesn’t have its charms.
American Sniper tells the screen-adapted story of Navy SEAL, Chris Kyle, “The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History” (the genuine subtitle of Jason Hall’s original book). In many ways, it’s a pitifully patriotic celebration of a mass-murderer for the Call of Duty generation. But, in equally as many ways, it’s a chilling portrait of a tormented sniper caught in the scope of both National and family crises.
Kyle is played by a buff, bumbling Bradley Cooper, who somehow managed to snag an Oscar nomination for underplaying one of the most exasperating protagonists to hit cinema screens in years. Initially, Cooper plays Kyle as an unsympathetic, unintelligent and ultimately unlikeable Nationalist, tainted by good ol’ ‘Murican pride. He’s aggressive toward women; he shoots a child without an ounce of remorse, and he spends most of his time on the battlefield gibbering away to his gal on his mobile phone.
For a good part of the film, one would question whether ‘The Legend’ (one of many nicknames given to Kyle on account of his real-life kill streak) and his story are worthy of praise, or even celluloid, at all. But, as the body count rises and the drama escalates, Eastwood’s film gradually shapes into something quite spectacular.
Part of American Sniper’s joy lies in Eastwood’s cutting narrative brevity. There’s maximum character focus and minimum background; the first act moves at bullet pace and good ol’ Clint doesn’t give his story a second more screen time than he ought to. But the biggest treat resides in the film’s storytelling style itself. American Sniper is a film of conflicts and contrasts: It’s as much about the inhumanity of war as it about its proud ‘Legend’ of a war hero.
Through Chris Kyle, Eastwood gives us the personified antithesis to his many musings on the damage caused by war, both literal and collateral. This reaches its peak when Kyle meets his mirror image in an Iraqi sniper, slowly picking off his comrades one by one. Kyle winds up on a tunnel vision mission for revenge, but the audience are always aware that our dark protagonist and his rival are ultimately one and the same, tainted by hate. And his wife and children, presumably alike many soldiers’ families, just want the man they once knew and loved back home. The light comes when ‘The Legend’ finally catches a second child in his scope, breaks down, and decides to call it quits, dedicating the remainder of his life to helping, as opposed to hurting, others.
Externally, American Sniper is an anti-war film. Internally, it’s a conflicting portrait of a closed-off soldier, battling his inner demons in silence amidst a cold, confused world. Ultimately, Chris Kyle is a Hero: for the later work he committed himself too, lending a helping hand to war veterans in many ways more damaged than his own self. And, as a movie, Eastwood’s film is worth watching for its stark, bleak and chilling contrasts alone. In its own way, it’ll leave most viewers speechless.