Americans with nationalist tendencies: look away now. Clint Eastwood’s latest
film, based on the autobiography of Chis Kyle, tells the eulogistic story of a young everyman soldier who, while looking to find himself by shooting the USA’s enemies, grows into the deadliest sniper of the Iraq War.
American Sniper begins with Kyle’s early life, in which he kills animals, beats up bullies (literally liquidising another child’s nose aged about ten) and is taught mantras by his father like, “Never leave your rifle in the dirt.” Church, rodeos and violence shape him as he grows up. When Kyle sees footage of the 1998 Dar-Es-Salaam bombings, he is shocked. His response? To enlist and go kill people; a subtle, tried-and-tested way to deal with terrorism. The rest of the film sees him unfailingly bedecked in wraparound sunglasses, shooting Iraqis. There’s the typical witty banter during the basic training and battle sequences that we’ve come to expect from the modern war film – if this appeals to you, then you should watch Jarhead or Full Metal Jacket instead.
It’s awkward, but one almost knows what to expect from this movie before it begins. The film opens with the Islamic call to prayer and something that sounds like a pulsing heartbeat; immediately something is ominous, but why should it be? Evil Muslims? Surely not! Right on cue, a woman in a hijab turns up and gives a child a bomb. As well as simplistic racial stereotypes and mild Islamophobia, there’s a lot of violence against children in this film; whenever Eastwood wants to make a point, he introduces a young boy who usually gets
smashed up or killed. The exploitation leaves a bitter aftertaste. Ironically, the Arab characters are so panto-evil (drilling children in the kneecaps) that you don’t believe in them, whereas Kyle himself has such an understated stupidity that you really don’t like him.
Early in the film, he asks “Why would you say I’m self-centred? I’d lay down my life for my country. It’s the greatest country on earth.” Thus he inadvertently answers his own question. Sure, we’re meant to feel for the man. He has a girlfriend – later a wife – for whom he wins teddies at fairground shooting games, and children whom we see grow up between his tours of duty. The problem is, he’s so arrogant it’s impossible to want to have anything to do with him other than a quick sit down to explain the failures of Western foreign policy since 2001, and why he represents them inherently. Kyle wears a military medal over his heart on his wedding day. He carries a Bible with him when he enters the field. If his personal relationships are meant
to be emphasised, they are lost beneath a tide of jingoism. He feels vaguely bad when he shoots a child, but he gets over it and is ready to kill another later. Bradley Cooper is usually a decent actor but even he can’t humanise the man who in real life wrote how fun it was to kill “savages” and how he “couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis”. Are we meant to hate him or not?
It’s not all bad. A duel with an enemy sniper develops over the course of the film that is reminiscent of the best points of Enemy at the Gates, with some great, tense results. The action sequences in general are well-executed. American Sniper is not a badly-made film, it’s just one with a ridiculously simple and frankly incorrect message.
Ultimately, it’s for people like Eastwood, who don’t really see war itself as evil but rather a conflict between good guys and bad guys. This is a Republican’s Hurt Locker. In a good war film you want to see the ills of conflict and the shades of grey but American Sniper has about as much subtlety as Call of Duty. Last week, Michael Moore tweeted “Snipers aren’t heroes. And invaders [are] worse”. Naturally, he’s being slated by every rightwinger from Fox News to Sarah Palin to Kid Rock, but I’m inclined to agree.