The Film: American Sniper
What`s It About? Already skilled with a rifle before he joins the Navy SEALS and departs for Iraq, Chris Kyle becomes one of the most skilled snipers in U.S. military history. As he rotates through four tours of duty, however, Kyle must deal with the high levels of stress and the toll on his personal life that are an unavoidable part of his harrowing work.
Number of Oscar Nominations: 6
Will It Win? In a year filled with a mixture of sure bets, surprise nominations, and egregious omissions, American Sniper is the most unpredictable film heading into the Oscars, for reasons that have nothing to do with cinema and everything to do an ongoing culture war. Like last year’s film totem 12 Years a Slave – and to a lesser extent Wolf of Wall Street – it’s almost impossible for anyone to express their feelings about the film without being dragged into an argument as to what it might signify.
To treat it simply as a film, to look at it purely in terms of its storytelling and cinematic accomplishments and flaws, seems not just out-of-step with where the culture is right now; to some it’s ignoring the film’s real meaning(s). If you haven’t seen it, prepare yourself for an awful lot of conversations that contain the phrase “No, you just don’t get it.”
All of which is fine and dandy for your dinner party and watercooler talk, but what does it mean for the Oscars. Does Clint Eastwood have a chance at another Oscar?
American Sniper is well-acted, adequately-made, and possibly well-intentioned, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a great film.
It won’t – and shouldn’t – win Best Picture. Neither will Bradley Cooper take home a statue. And if it wins Best Screenplay, this correspondent – who is massively in favour of the strictest gun control – will go out and learn marksmanship, obtain a gun license, and purchase a large calibre weapon, all so he can return home and shoot the TV. If anything, the film might do well in the technical departments: any energy it has is due to the editing.
Gifted with excellent marksmanship, a God-fearing country boy joins up and heads “over there” as a sniper, and soon becomes a legend among both friend and foe, a genuine American hero who single-handedly saves dozens, possibly hundreds of of American soldiers lives. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the plot of Sergeant York. And although both Sergeant York and American Sniper star an actor whose last name is Cooper, that’s where the similarity ends.
At least Sergeant York had a crisis of faith before he joined the Army, pausing to consider that the Bible says killing is wrong, and unsure what to do. Chris Kyle apparently has no such qualms. He declares that America is the greatest country in the world and it’s up to people like him to defend it. His worldview seems to have been formed at an early age by his father, who declared that there are three kind of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs – Kyle desperately wants to be a sheepdog. After the 1998 bombing of the United States embassies in Africa, he joins the Navy SEALs, meets a nice girl called Taya (Sienna Miller), gets married, then – clutching his Bible – he deploys to Iraq after 9/11.
9/11 is the shadow that hangs over much of the film, mostly problematically. At no point does Kyle or anyone else in the film question why they are in Iraq, and neither does the screenplay, and an audience ignorant of recent history might conclude that there was a connection between September 11th and Saddam Hussein – just to be clear, there wasn’t. If the movie can’t even be bothered to make clear that historical point, just how good a war film is it?
Kyle serves four tours of duty, becoming the deadliest U.S. sniper in history, killing men, women and children with robotic efficiency. But all that killing eventually takes its toll. Back in the world he can no longer communicate with his wife; he’s always on the lookout for danger (even at something as innocuous as a backyard barbecue); he’d rather be back in Baghdad. it’s all very The Hurt Locker … only not, you know, any good.
Kyle is most comfortable when he is sprawled on a rooftop looking at armed insurgents in the crosshairs of his rifle. He has an ongoing battle with an enemy sharpshooter, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), and for a moment I thought the film was going to turn into Enemy at the Gates. It doesn’t. Mustafa is a Syrian and one-time Olympic gold medalist. We don’t know anything else about him, other than the fact that he is possessed of the most beautiful eyelashes.
The film is told solely and stubbornly from Kyle’s point of view, with an occasional aside from Taya (mostly crying and worrying). Telling it from Kyle’s perspective is an accidentally brilliant decision on Eastwood’s part, as it allows him to show the effects of PTSD on a man wholly unaware he is turning into a monster.Keeping the story close to Kyle, of course, also means keeping a distance from any complicated or messy politics. Much as Kyle’s targets are tiny figures hundreds of yards away, the film’s Iraqi characters – ‘savages’ according to the soldiers – remain simplistic figures against a bombed-out backdrop. Indistinguishable bearded men run around with AK-47s. A woman in a hijab hands a grenade to her child. A man tortures a small boy with a drill to send a message to the boy’s family. Kyle’s Bible is always with him, but he tells his superior officer that he doesn’t know what a Q’uran looks like (that moment may be the most telling in the film).
SPOILERS from here on:
Only one of the soldiers voices concern about the mission, and after he gets killed, his widow reads a letter he wrote questioning the point of what they are doing. Kyle dismisses it, saying that he lost focus and that is why he got himself killed.
Eventually, Kyle loses it and admits he needs help. Back home, he begins to recover his life, rebuilds his marriage, and finds purpose in helping war-wounded veterans (after a particularly cloying scene with a wounded warrior thanking him for saving his life). Eventually it is another veteran who fatally shoots Kyle.
Eastwood doesn’t show that event; the last we see of Kyle is him getting into his truck with a squirrelly-looking young man, followed by a shot of Taya looking as concerned as a character on a soap-opera who has just witnessed some heavy foreshadowing of plot. The film’s closing credits are over shots of Kyle’s funeral, the flag-waving nature of which seems to make a mockery of any anti-war message the film purports to have.
Verdict: Two Headshots out of Five