Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial offering, American Sniper, has certainly been the surprise hit of the season both in terms of box office success and awards recognition. Smashing opening weekend records left right and centre and picking up six Academy Award nominations in several major categories, the film that tells the story of the life and military career of sniper Chris Kyle appears to have exceeded all expectations that were set for it upon initial release. Having seen Lone Survivor not too long ago, I thought I had had my fix of US based military hero narratives, but the irrepressible buzz surrounding American Sniper made it pretty much unavoidable to experience for any self respecting film lover.
The film gives the audience a more or less linear look at the life and career of Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), a real life Texas rodeo rider who joins the U.S. Navy, and through a natural gift for shooting rises through the ranks to becomes the military’s most prolific and respected sniper, being accredited with at least 160 confirmed kills over his four tours to the Middle East. We see Kyle’s relatively simple and care free life become increasingly complicated and difficult with the effects of each period of combat, and as his family grows back home with a wife (Sienna Miller) and two children, his war family and band of brothers begins to dwindle as their battle with terror rages on. Something that I think American Sniper does effectively is portray the completely different landscape and tone of this new brand of war films that are being released to reflect contemporary combat. No more are the days of bayoneted soldiers fighting in vast fields a la Saving Private Ryan or Band Of Brothers. American Sniper very hauntingly, at times, shows us that this new form of enemy can manifest not only in strong male fighters but in extremist women and children also, and this leads to a number of shocking and unsettling set pieces that put an entirely different perspective on what the world has come to expect from the war genre. The actions of Chris Kyle are no doubt heroic and the circumstances of his later life no doubt tragic (and certainly cinematic), but there is something about American Sniper on the whole that does not sit completely right with me. I am not, and never will be, a fan of propaganda cinema, and though the narrative of this film extends to more than a simple “America! Fuck yeah!” attitude, there is a definite degree of jingoistic patriotism within the picture that I cannot seem to get past. Yes, I know, the film is called American Sniper and therefore an American perspective will be centre stage, but it must be said that a number of key enemy characters are reduced to almost James Bond, video game levels of villainy, and there is really only so many times I can hear lines of dialogue that reciprocate the cliched “America is the greatest country in the world” sentiment without starting to tune out.
Though I find American Sniper to be a problematic film is many aspects, one thing that is without question is the excellent and commanding lead performance by Bradley Cooper. Cooper brings a great deal of humility and vulnerability to a character who is in essence a super hero, and this helps the audience to create an attachment to Chris Kyle the man as well as Chris Kyle the outstanding Navy SEAL. Society has seen many portrayals of returned soldiers and their failure to reconnect with normal life, and Cooper adds a high quality representation to the list and expands upon the norm by giving us a character who, rather than striving to be home, feels his natural and most comfortable place is in the midst of the chaos in the Middle East. Giving a surprisingly impressive performance as Kyle’s wife Taya is Sienna Miller, who in her recent work including this and Foxcatcher is becoming something of an accomplished character actress, a path of which I must admit I did not think she was capable. Supporting soldier roles are played by names including Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Sam Jaeger and Cory Hardrict, all of whom give solid performances but embody characters who we all seen before in many a war film, little brothers, mentors, best friends etc, some in this case based on real life persons but providing well worn genre fodder nonetheless.
Overall, American Sniper is a film that I feel will be hailed most avidly in the home country of its characters, the USA. Depending on how you feel about the cause, the life and work of Chris Kyle can be uncomfortable viewing but it is undeniably remarkable whichever way you look at it. Though the picture is not one I will be revisiting and, in my opinion, does not compare with the majority of nominated films I have seen this awards season, it does find merit in a strong leading performance by Bradley Cooper and characteristically enjoyable direction from Clint Eastwood.