Confession: I’m reviewing American Sniper this week only because every new movie opening last week was getting uniformly abysmal reviews elsewhere. Normally I’m reluctant to let any of my entertainment budget flow into the pockets of filmmakers who, intentionally or not, incite hatred against whichever people their films depict as the Other.
But I rationalized my Politically Incorrect ticket purchase with the thought that, even if he’s not someone with whom I could ever have a civil conversation on the subject of politics if we should ever cross paths somehow, director Clint Eastwood generally makes movies characterized by a high level of cinematic craftsmanship. I figured that I’d be telling readers what most of them would already have figured out by now: that you’ll probably love this movie if your politics skew right and hate it if they skew left.
Well, I was wrong, sort of. The sad and surprising truth about American Sniper is that, politics aside, it just isn’t a very good or effective movie. Though it’s full of wartime action with plenty of lives at stake, it somehow manages to be boring and unengaging. How many times can a filmmaker show soldiers storming cinderblock apartment buildings, kicking in doors, shouting “Clear!” as they come around corners, before the whole process begins to seem more tedious than nervewracking? For this viewer at least, Eastwood had already passed that threshold by the movie’s midpoint.
Had the intent of the film been to illustrate the humdrum nature of most days in a soldier’s existence, that repetitiveness would have served the purpose. But this is clearly a vehicle meant to dramatize the daily peril of American armed forces on the front lines in Iraq and the toll that it took on their physical and mental health. The problem, as my 19-year-old male moviegoing companion put it, is that “The scenes that were supposed to be tense didn’t feel tense, because I didn’t care that much about the characters.”
Ah, there’s the rub: American Sniper’s characterizations are so embarrassingly simplistic that the players seem as alike, expendable and replaceable as characters in a “shooter” videogame. Most egregious is the way that the Iraqi people are depicted as uniformly threatening and depersonalized, skulking about, their faces often hooded. Though the script stops short of having the Americans call them “towelheads,” in Navy Seal champion sniper Chris Kyle’s world, there simply are no Iraqis who aren’t “savages.” Even the one sheikh (Navid Negahban) who collaborates with American forces seeking to track down a sadistic (and fictional) “enforcer” known as the Butcher (Mido Hamada) does so only because he is compelled to – and gets killed for his trouble, after watching his son tortured by the Butcher with an electric drill.
The most arguably “interesting” character on the Iraqi side – a semi-fictional former Olympian sharpshooter from Syria who becomes Kyle’s nemesis – is deliberately kept shrouded in mystery; we have no clue whether he’s just a mercenary, has a religious or political agenda or what. He’s just the movie’s bogeyman, and his big standoff with its protagonist didn’t even happen in real life.
The Americans, for their part, are all one-dimensional good guys, joshing amicably whenever they aren’t doing house searches; I had trouble keeping track of which one was which, especially when one died.
Even when a soldier expresses some ambivalence about why they’re there or reluctance to sign up for another tour of duty, he encounters only sympathetic responses from Kyle or other frontline buddies. And we know enough now from the testimonies of veterans who put off seeking treatment for PTSD that there was in fact a powerful culture of denial and disapproval among the troops in Iraq of any such questioning – that it was seen as weakness. To gloss this over seems a disservice to those vets who still have to fight on the homefront for adequate mental health care.
The only reasonable way that I can see American Sniper framed as a film with some sort of antiwar message, as some critics have done, is to devote much more emphasis to the scenes between Kyle and his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), and those dealing with his own PTSD and his postwar work with wounded vets, than the director gives them screentime. Only in these sequences does the script rise to any attempt at subtlety; and the effort falls short, because only Americans are seen as victims of the war – not the people on whose soil it was fought.
Bradley Cooper is a skilled actor and does deserve kudos for his game efforts to round out a character who, even in this bowdlerized, lionizing version of his life, seems as seamlessly, impenetrably dense as Rosendale cement. He tries very hard to endow Kyle with some nuance, and succeeds in conveying a touch of Texan charm in the scenes where he’s wooing his wife. But portraying character growth is something of a losing battle when the fodder that the screenplay offers the actor is only a longer moment of hesitation before pulling the trigger on a young boy holding a weapon at the end of Kyle’s last tour of duty than at the beginning of his first tour.
Cooper’s most powerful moments are the scenes when he’s back home, pacing, prowling or staring into space, overreacting to stimuli like screeching brakes or whining power tools that are blissfully ignored by people who haven’t been “in country.” These at least do a little justice to the realities of PTSD. But this film also portrays Chris Kyle as a man who suffered from hypervigilance even before he entered the military: a trait that psychologists tell us usually derives from early childhood trauma. We don’t get to see any of that. The only explanatory flashbacks are of Kyle’s father telling him and his brother that there are only three kinds of people: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs.
Thus is the film’s reductionist tone set early on. Like many of America’s “wounded warriors,” the character of this man lionized for his stellar marksmanship would have benefited from a little less hagiography – and a little more psychoanalysis – and so would the audience.