“Why would you say I’m self-centered? I’d lay down my life for my country.”
That’s what Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) says to his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in the early parts of American Sniper, following their meet-cute and her dissertation on the less savory character traits of your average Navy SEAL. As a moral argument, it’s insidious balderdash: one of the most dangerous aspects of human nature is our ability to selflessly give ourselves over to causes that are profoundly destructive and selfish at the group level. On the other hand, as Kyle, Cooper delivers the line with such a heartfelt Texas twang that you can see why Taya would be won over by his earnestness.
Similarly, director Clint Eastwood — along with screenwriter Jason Hall, editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach, and cinematographer Tom Stern — deliver this combat action-drama with aplomb. It’s too long and ultimately not terribly deep on its own storytelling terms, but the visuals are crisp and immediate. Individual sequences are well-executed, and the two lead performances are strong. It’s just the whole movie feels like moral doublespeak.
When we first meet Kyle, he’s already a trained sniper, holed up on a bombed-out roof in Iraq, while U.S. troops patrol the urban wasteland below. Then a young Iraqi boy emerges with his mother, she hands him a grenade, and Kyle has to decide whether to take the shot. That sets off a cascade of flashbacks that make up the early part of the film. We see Kyle in his early days as a rodeo cowboy, his decision to sign up as a SEAL after American embassies are bombed abroad, his training, and his courtship of and marriage to Taya.
We also get American Sniper’s moral thesis from Kyle’s father (Ben Reed). There are three kinds of people in this world: the sheep who prefer to believe evil doesn’t exist, the wolves who are the evil, and sheepdogs. “We’re not raising any sheep in this family,” he declares, “and I’ll whup your ass if you ever become a wolf.” Options, for Kyle, were apparently limited.
The rest of the film follows Kyle through four tours in Iraq, as the war begins to claim his psyche and threatens to undo his marriage and family.
Hall, the screenwriter, apparently conceived of the film as a western, with Kyle going from “being a hero to being filled with vengeance and slipping over the dark side.” In retrospect I can see what he’s getting at, but it doesn’t come across terribly strong in the film. Primarily, American Sniper feels like a war drama that’s been infected by action-movie tropes — Kyle gets into an ongoing, long-distance duel of sorts with a Syrian sniper (Sammy Sheik) who’s a former Olympian rifleman, and an Al Qaeda enforcer named The Butcher (Mido Hamada), who likes to make creative use of power drills. Nor is there much of a dark side. It’s tragic that Kyle’s dedication to the cause comes into tension with his marriage, but you never get the sense that the film actually thinks that dedication is putting Kyle’s soul at hazard. He spends the entire movie thoroughly convinced his enemies are evil and that the his war is necessary. He declares that the only thing that haunts him are the lives of the soldiers he couldn’t save, and Eastwood desperately wants to take him at his word.
I say desperately, because Eastwood is simultaneously too good an artist to fall for that claim, and too committed a panderer to challenge it. There are a few strange notes in the film, like a scene where we see the psychological toll the war has taken on Kyle’s little brother (Keir O’Donnell), also a soldier, or a scene where Kyle insists US troops are different from the “savages” they’re fighting and another soldier snorts at his “hypocrisy.” Mainly, though, there’s Marc (Luke Grimes), another SEAL who, in a moment of exhaustion, responds to Kyle’s assertion that “there’s evil here” by observing “there’s evil everywhere.” It’s a pointed and obviously true statement, and it cuts right through the cheap moralism of the sheepdog analogy. Later, Marc is killed in action, and his mother reads a disillusioned and despairing letter her son wrote concerning the war only weeks before. And then Kyle tells Tanya the letter is what killed his friend. These moments from American Sniper’s protagonist do not come off as moments of firm moral clarity. They come off as insanity.
Which is to say, there’s a natural tension in the film that lends itself to a natural resolution: Kyle’s Manichean worldview collapses and he realizes he has misjudged the war, and this is what allows him to return to his family. For a whole host of social and political reasons beyond the limitations of his source material, this is a path Eastwood dare not follow. The war is never reckoned with. It just ends, in a series of closing scenes that are too convenient by half.
Critics have accused the film of hiding the real-life Kyle’s less admirable character traits: he called killing “fun,” declared “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis,” claimed Blackwater hired him to shoot armed looters during Katrina, and even said he killed two guys who tried to carjack him. Including a few of those incidents certainly would’ve made Kyle’s amorality plain as day. At the same time, we get an impervious Kyle near the end of the film saying, “I’m willing to meet my creator and answer for every shot that I took,” which is a pretty horrifying sentiment in and of itself.
I can understand why Eastwood and Hall don’t want to go criticize Kyle too harshly. The latter apparently became friends with Kyle during the making of the script. So what are they going to do? Make a movie that tells Taya Kyle and her children that their husband/father was a morally lost man who fought in a shameful war that should never have happened? Are they going to tell the loved ones of thousands of other US soldiers the same? Better to just print the legend, in their minds, anyway.
Yet there are costs. When Kyle angrily observes that the war is effectively invisible on the home front, silenced by consumerism and everyday trivialities, he’s certainly not wrong. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are three of the four longest wars in U.S. history, and all three were fought within the last four or five decades. Never before have we placed such an enormous and interminable physical and psychological burden on our troops, and now we’re making a habit of it.
So we American civilians thump our chests and declare the sheepdogs heroes, and we line the streets at their funerals and wave our flags. Yet in our day-to-day affairs we largely leave soldiers to fend for themselves, all the while agreeing with them that they are better than the rest of us. And thus we salve our consciences for when we hurl more of our soldier saints into the meat grinder.
Eastwood clings to this dynamic as well. He allows the narrative to buy fully into Kyle’s own “if only I could’ve saved more soldiers” psychological logic, carrying it through the film’s climax and denouement to present a nice, neat little character arc and resolution. Kyle’s need to keep saving soldiers’ lives is simply sublimated in a new direction. The result is a film that’s excellent on the level of craftsmanship, but is built on a foundation of falsities from beginning to end.
American Sniper is lying to us, and the filmmakers know it’s lying to us. It practically broadcasts in neon lights that it’s lying to us, and yet it cannot stop. Like Chris Kyle, Eastwood cannot let go of his illusions. And neither can America, it would seem.