Clint Eastwood’s latest war-hero biopic preaches to us in its opening minutes that there are three different kinds of people in the world; sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. This concept of there being only the weak, the evil and the saviours remains American Sniper‘s biggest restraint for its remaining 130 minutes. Chris Kyle, the real life Navy SEAL was nicknamed the legend during his service in Iraq. American Sniper tells his story; glorifying him as a deadly weapon and an American hero. These two “accolades” are too closely interlinked for my liking – making my experience of American Sniper an uneasy one. Eastwood tells Kyle’s story – giving him the title of ‘The most lethal sniper in U.S History’ in the movie’s tag line. The majority of the film centres on Kyle’s time in Iraq, briefly intercut with his attempts to function when back home in-between tours. We are also rushed through a clumsily condensed summary of his childhood in Texas. During the course of American Sniper we are exposed to countless war movie clichés – from family tension, to dramatic and tactical U.S. defeats and losses. Of course, Kyle loses friends on the battlefield and then struggles to cope within the mundane routine of American family life. We’ve seen all of this before; at least twenty films from the last fifty years have explored these issues more successfully than American Sniper. Although there are signs of Eastwood’s expert direction, American Sniper also suffers from the same lack of subtlety and the weak exposition previously present in the likes of Gran Torino and J. Edgar.
Here, Eastwood is desperate to construct an ethical discussion about how one copes with taking life in war. Sadly, this is all compromised by his refusal to give his protagonist any ethically debatable qualities. Kyle is a faithful husband, a loving father and a respectable citizen in all aspects. He protects his family and he doesn’t smoke. He is favoured by his fellow SEALs and is forever polite and collected. His ethical judgement is barely questioned when he is in the war zone due to Eastwood’s immature and insulting construction of the ‘goodies and badies’. Bradley Cooper’s performance is American Sniper‘s saving grace. He gives an unquestionably sturdy performance as Kyle but is restricted by his character’s lack of complexity. Sienna Miller is also very good as his devoted wife, Taya. Both actors deliver career worthy performances but are trapped in characters that are under-developed, stereotypical and one-dimensional. Taya threatens to leave Chris if he returns to Iraq for a fourth time. She states that, if he was to leave again, she won’t be there when he returns. Eastwood would never let her follow through with such a threat. After all, she’s the all-American, always loyal housewife. We never get any insight into her profession or passions. Eastwood desperately tries to convince us she’s a strong independent woman because he shows her doing shots in a bar when we first meet her. That is literally the extent of the female empowerment Eastwood is willing to show. Plus, moments later, she throws the shots right back up.
My biggest issues with American Sniper lie in its controversially poor racial representations. Eastwood sets up Iraqi characters as villains but doesn’t give them any dialogue – we are expected to assume they are the evil ones. Eastwood gives them enough close-up screen time to ensure we take note of their darker skin but doesn’t respect these characters enough to let them speak. Some may argue that films need ‘goodies and badies’ and many great war movies show us that war itself seems to need that – for the purpose of morale. How are we meant to make movies like this without some form of bias? – some may argue. When you construct politically biased drama for the purpose of cinema you run the risk of carrying dangerous messages like American Sniper. I think this an irresponsible thing to do at this point in Western culture where racial tensions are high and social fears of foreign nations are encouraged by our media. America doesn’t need films like this right now. A piece of patriotic propaganda like this is harmless to your average cinema goer like me but I watched an entire row of white young males remain engrossed in American Sniper from start to finish and revel in its violence upon leaving the auditorium. Right now we don’t need a two hour commercial for warfare. This is not even a message of hope; it’s a lesson in how holding a gun and shooting middle-eastern civilians is honourable and “badass”. It is not okay to show one black soldier and claim that this represents the diversity of America and its armed forces. When we look at the bare bones of things – American Sniper is about a white man leaving his white wife to go and kill Iraqi’s before returning to the safety of his white surrounding; and now repeat. American Sniper is too long, too ignorant and too irresponsible. The fake baby is distracting and so is the movie’s narrow-mindedness. This is the last film the West needs right now. Please go and see Selma instead; it’s not only a more dignified and important movie but just a much better one. This is the first time I’ve seen a Clint Eastwood movie that wasn’t directed by the man responsible for Mystic River but instead the elderly republican who sat in a chair and awkwardly chatted to an invisible Obama.
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