DIR: Clint Eastwood • WRI: Jason Hall • PRO: Bradley Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Andrew Lazar, Robert Lorenz, Peter Morgan • DOP: Tom Stern • ED: Joel Cox, Gary Roach • DES: Charisse Cardenas, James J. Murakami • CAST: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Brian Hallisay, Luke Grimes
In reviewing Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper – the latest in an almost obnoxiously prolific directorial career – much has been made of the film’s position on the war in Iraq, whether as a chest-beating tribute to the troops or a morally-distilled and utterly misleading account of a man whose trade could be called murder but for the stars-and-stripes pinned to his chest.
True enough, Sniper has plenty of time to deliver on both fronts; over a run-time in excess of two hours, there is sufficient flag-waving and male bonding to satisfy even the deepest of patriotic fervours. Likely more palatable to those dismissing the story as reductive are the slight dips into fancy in an otherwise taut and grounded tale; comrades confide in one another moments before becoming so much cannon fodder, and an obscure enemy sniper (barely mentioned in the source material) turns up as a bandanna-wearing, rooftop-leaping nemesis against whom our hero must test himself – though not before the audience is treated to the obligatory revelation of the “We are not so different, you and I” variety.
Both views, however, overlook the true strength of the piece, clearly outlined in the film’s opening moments. Propped on a rooftop with a young Iraqi boy caught in his sights and a commanding officer bleating in his ear, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) flashes back to the Texas of his youth, his father outlining the moral foundation that will bring him to this point – that the world consists only of wolves, sheep, and those willing to stand between.
It is in the soldier’s struggle to reconcile his clean and unquestioning view of what is right with what he sees through his rifle-scope that American Sniper truly shines. Full credit is due to Cooper here, who sheds the easy charm of earlier roles to deliver perhaps the most understated performance of his career. As four tours of war slowly transform the easy-going and unassuming cowboy into a relentless and near-fanatic killer, it is actually the moments at home that deliver the most, as Kyle goes about the day-to-day tasks of modern suburbia with a barely-restrained violence that’s difficult to watch.
Does American Sniper paint a more sympathetic picture of its hero than even a quick Google search might suggest of its inspiration? Perhaps. Equally the film fails to provide a broader contextual view of the conflict itself, but by the latter stages this very much feels like the point – as the initial battle cries fade and the post-911 fury lapses instead into a grudging war of attrition in which Kyle and his comrades are but further flesh on the scales, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the illusion of fighting for a cause he can believe in.
Far from Eastwood’s best but certainly a return to form, this is a film on a subject so contentious it seems destined to provide ammunition enough for near any perspective – those hoping for a nuanced look at the problematic notion of patriotism might perhaps find a little more.
15A (See IFCO for details)
American Sniper is released 16th January 2015.