Movie Review: American Sniper (2015)

American Sniper chronicles four tours in Iraq by real-life Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (1974-2013), interspersed with his difficulties adjusting back to civilian life. The film works best as an uncomplicated war movie, especially given its powerful ending, but it misses the mark (sorry; obligatory) when it comes to exploring the consequences of nationalism/tribalism and the mindset that continues the cycle of violence worldwide.

Since this is a Clint Eastwood film, I shall pay tribute by breaking this down into the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good: Pre-sniper Chris Kyle is a good guy. His dad raised him to be a "sheepdog," someone who protects the "sheep" from the "wolves." As portrayed by Bradley Cooper, Chris is very determined, very brave, and very much a product of the patriarchy: protect the women and children, and keep all the pain and doubts inside. His decision to join the military transforms him--he goes from charming Texas cowboy, to driven sniper, to struggling husband and father, and eventually settles down into a devoted family man who still serves his country by helping wounded veterans.

The cinematography and sound editing are spectacular. The bloody and graphic treatment of soldiers killing insurgents recalls The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, both of which were also rated R for their unflinching depiction of brutalities. The shots showing the devastation of Iraqi cities are compelling, as are the scenes of a sandstorm looming in the periphery while Chris' team carries out a risky operation.

The Bad: The script has amusing banter between characters sprinkled throughout, but it gets lazy when it comes to how Chris earned his "Legend" nickname. While viewers do see sniper action, Chris' reputation in the movie is mostly delivered by other soldiers talking him up. This is a film! Show, don't tell!

There are also a few scenes where the cheese factor is pretty high. I counted three eyerolls accompanied by a yearning for a less sentimental director, like Kathryn Bigelow. I think she would've been like, "Stop being such testicles, which are weak and sensitive! This scene obviously needs more ovaries, which are protected by layers of muscle!"

I didn't sleep last night, can you tell?

The Ugly: The terrible and distracting decision to use fake babies on set. Here is Jezebel's "American Sniper Promotes Unrealistic Beauty Standards for Babies," a hilarious takedown of the terrifying plastic props that Cooper and Sienna Miller acted their hearts out to convince audiences that they were real. AAAHHHHHH

But seriously. The film presents the Iraq war as an unambiguous good versus evil conflict. There are hints of alternate perspectives, such as when Chris' brother voices his unhappiness, and when a fellow SEAL questions Chris' beliefs, but these aren't developed. The main antagonists, a sniper named Mustafa and an enforcer called "The Butcher," are one-dimensional. Chris becomes almost cartoonishly heroic, declaring that he'll "make them pay" for hurting his "brothers"--language that one can easily see extremists also using.

And this is the crux of the problem: American Sniper can be interpreted as a jingoistic vision of the US war on terror, where heroes save lives by killing the enemy, including civilians, who are presented here as dishonest, grasping, or murderous. But the war on terror has been more like the scene in the movie where a sandstorm hits: you hope you hit your target, you hope you don't get left behind, and you hope you come out of the storm with your mind and body whole.

TL; DR: Practically war propaganda, which is both its strength and its weakness.

This post brought to you by the icy winds of winter!