American Sniper is a spellbinding war film. Clint Eastwood conveys the simplicity of patriotism, the horror of war and its psychological toll when it is concluded, and the ambiguity of heroism, all encapsulated in a riveting re-creation of combat during the second Iraq War. Bradley Cooper is the perfect vessel for Eastwood’s tale. As sniper Chris Kyle, Cooper projects a forthright assuredness that, as he is tested, wears down, not in the expected emotional breakdown or the hackneyed apologia and rejection of values, but physically, in the narrowing of his eyes, the long stare, the suspicion with which he greets even the most unthreatening of domestic events. It’s a haunting, restrained performance, completely at odds with Cooper’s manic turns in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, and beautifully in tune with Eastwood’s anti-war, yet very much a war movie (the combat sequences are expert; in particular, a closing battle that Eastwood makes cogent and gripping even though the combatants are enveloped in a sand storm).
The picture is one of the most successful of the year, predictably eliciting a tired cultural debate as to its politics and its accuracy. The film’s political offense can be found in its marrow. There is no defense of the Iraq War. There is no suggestion that the endeavor was worthy or advisable and the events depicted suggest otherwise. Kyle’s own brother, while shipping out, looks hollow, telling Kyle “fuck this place” and Kyle’s first kills are regrettably a child and his mother. Ty Burr’s conclusion that it is a “tragedy in which American certainty comes to grief against the rocks of the real world, and it views its central figure as a decent man doing indecent things for what he keeps telling himself is a greater good” is perfectly defensible.
But Kyle is a Texan from a churchgoing family. His father teaches him to hunt and to be violent in defense of those who are weaker. Kyle is called to duty by the terrorism of the 90s and beyond, and he builds the rapport of the soldier with his fellow Seals, with all the machismo, camaraderie and xenophobia that entails. He is a patriot, unyielding in his views toward his country and his fellow soldiers. And that is one noxious stew for certain quarters. Hence the sniggering of Seth Rogen, Michael Moore, and Bill Maher, comfortable in their condescension and elevated station. When Howard Dean (who did his Vietnam tour in the snows of Killington) attributed the film’s success to anger and the Tea Party, he conveyed two certainties: he had not seen the film but he had read and heard a lot about it from like minded folk. When dolts aren’t taking potshots at the culture Eastwood presents, others decry its lack of context, nothing more than the idiocy directed at Zero Dark Thirty, which ostensibly failed because it omitted the Surgeon General’s warning, “Torture is bad and no valuable intel ever came from it.”
The other controversy has centered on the picture’s accuracy. In a year when Selma took flak for creation of an LBJ-Hoover conspiracy to get Martin Luther King, it’s fair to expose American Sniper to some rigor. But as Slate‘s Courtney Duckworth points out, while Kyle may have been a fabulist in other areas of his life (Kyle, who embraced celebrity, said he killed two carjackers in Texas, sniped looters during Hurricane Katrina, and punched Jesse Ventura in the face), “more than any other strategy, omission keeps the film true to life.” Generally, what Eastwood filmed was true to Kyle’s memoir, though that truth was often subject to standard massaging and embellishment (a cell phone call to his wife mid combat, creation of one bad guy and expanded dramatization of another). The truth is incredible enough: over 250 kills, and survival of four tours, three gunshot wounds, two helicopter crashes, six IED attacks and numerous surgeries.
Instead of training in on the accuracy of what Eastwood depicts, there seems to be an expectation that Kyle as blowhard should have been plumbed. I’m not sure how that would have worked thematically, and it could really only be justified as a caution about the wartime events he wrote about. I have not read anything that suggests Kyle’s telling of that part of his life is assailable, so it would be like injecting JFK’s serial adultery into a Cuban Missile Crisis flick – enjoyable for those prone to dislike Kennedy but otherwise awkward and misplaced.