Film Review | American Sniper

Clint Eastwood's Iraq War drama, a prime contender for this year's Oscars, is the cinematic equivalent of an overcooked chicken breast at a hotel buffet. 

Sharp-shooter in repose: Bradley Cooper is once again in the Oscar cross-hairs thanks to Clint Eastwood’s politically divisive Iraq War thriller
Sharp-shooter in repose: Bradley Cooper is once again in the Oscar cross-hairs thanks to Clint Eastwood’s politically divisive Iraq War thriller

A lot of ink has been spilled about Clint Eastwood Iraq War Oscar contender American Sniper already, from both sides of the political spectrum. From Seth Rogen to Kid Rock and Noam Chomsky offering up either praise or unmitigated indictment of the based-on-a-memoir box office hit, it’s no exaggeration to say that the film has struck a chord far and wide.

Is the film an honest portrayal of the troops on the ground during the Iraq War, or is it a politically blinkered apologia for a conflict routinely referred to as an “invasion”? Whatever the case, Eastwood’s crack at the controversial post-9/11 conflict and its after-effects needs to be evaluated for its chops as a narrative films first and foremost. And in a post-Hurt Locker world, this turns out to be an interesting challenge.

U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is sent to Iraq with a singular purpose: to protect his fellow soldiers. 

Thanks to his razor-sharp gunmanship – which saves friendly lives on the battlefield – he earns the nickname ‘Legend’, as stories of his courage travel far and wide. But this battle-worn recognition comes at a price: as his body-count continues to stack up, the enemy begins to pay attention, making him a prized target among the Iraqi resistance.

 

Despite the risks involved, Kyle ends up serving a total of four tours of duty in Iraq – heedless of the psychological toll this takes on his loved ones back home, chief of which is his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller). Drilled with the credo to “leave no man behind”, Kyle finds it difficult to shake off the battlefield once he’s back on home turf.

The main problem with American Sniper is that Eastwood and his screenwriter Jason Hall give Kyle the full benefit of the doubt from start to finish – even though the factual validity of Kyle’s memoir-of-the-same-name has since been contested. This means that acts of machismo and bravado are presented as uncontexualised, unreconstructed fact, which renders a project striving for realism a bit lame.

A particular incident in which Kyle descends from his sniper post to help out a group of Marines as they go door-to-door on the Iraqi streets – and who then proceed to fawn over the ‘Legend’ as he condescendingly offers them tips – sticks out like a sore thumb. Such a move would have been fine in the unpretentious and popcorn-friendly actioners starring the likes of Jason Statham and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, but Eastwood strives for a particular brand of dull realism that needs more than clichés to work. If the Statham and co. actioners are the McDonald’s of cinema, this is an overcooked chicken breast at a two-star hotel lunch buffet.

And in fact, style is Eastwood’s other major problem. Try as he might to forget it, the cinematic killing fields of the Iraq War belong to Katheryn Bigelow, whose Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) staked a claim on that territory in ways that weren’t without problems, but that also packed an intensely stylish wallop. But Eastwood treads onto the same sandy terrain with nothing to show for it but a default directorial style that brings nothing new to the table.

Perhaps the veteran filmmaker now feels like he’s earned the right not to make much of an effort to impress audiences (and the film’s generous box office intake and healthy clutch of Oscar nominations puts paid to this).

But if there’s something he could have imported from his back catalogue, it would have been his masterful subversion of the ‘hero avenger’ trope in Unforgiven (1992), in which he deconstructed the very archetype he helped to create in earlier Westerns – the ‘Man With No Name’ and with, apparently, no real moral compass, who nonetheless ends up rescuing entire communities from its oppressors.

Instead, Unforgiven showed that combating violence with more violence is not the best way to go. More than its questionable political reading of the Iraq War – or rather, a non-reading which assumes that every single Iraqi is either a bloodthirsty insurgent or a bloodless and cowardly supporter of the same – it is this wasted potential that lingers most of all as the (appropriately jingoistic) credits roll over Eastwood’s latest film.

I want to believe that the seasoned chronicler of American myths can salvage his reputation. But I also fear that it may be too late.

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