Clint Eastwood’s best movies have examined the intricacies of violence and machismo, from the thin line between gunfighter and lawman in the old west in Unforgiven, to the sport of boxing in Million Dollar Baby, to the moral complexities of war in what I consider his greatest film, Letters from Iwo Jima. In his most recent effort, American Sniper, finally in wide release this weekend, Eastwood attempts (ultimately unsuccessfully) to focus on those same kinds of issues in retelling the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the “most lethal sniper in U.S. military history” as he subtitled his best-selling 2012 autobiography. Kyle is known to have killed some 160 targets in four tours of duty in the most recent Iraq war, though there may be up to a hundred more unconfirmed killings that could be added to that total. Kyle’s book was the main source for Jason Hall’s screenplay, though Hall also consulted with Kyle’s wife, Taya, in composing the script.
Bradley Cooper has earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Kyle. In a nuanced and understated performance, Cooper depicts a Texas ranch hand and rodeo competitor who finds meaning in service to his country through the notoriously rigorous SEALS program, but whose psyche, battered by watching his fellow soldiers die, but more deeply disturbed by acting as executioner of so many human lives, including women and children, becomes unraveled and engages in a dangerous inner battle with post-traumatic stress. It is Cooper’s special gift to be able to depict this kind of inner turmoil while maintaining a stoic exterior and a staunch refusal to admit that anything could possibly be wrong.
It may be that Cooper’s performance is so subtle that he succeeds in convincing a good portion of the audience that he is just fine as well. I say this because, since the film was out for a number of weeks before its wide release, there are already a large number of reviews available, and in reading some of these reviews, I scratch my head and wonder whether some of these reviewers were watching the same movie I saw—or indeed, whether they were watching the same film as the other critics. One reviewer says that the film “offers a saintly portrait of Chris Kyle.” Really? In one scene Kyle nearly kills his family’s pet dog because the dog is roughhousing with a child. Not exactly Francis of Assisi. Another reviewer asserts that the film “bleeds red, white and blue in the worst ways.” There is no doubt that Cooper’s character does this. But with his seething emotions surging tumultuously beneath his placid exterior, Cooper’s Kyle is a radically unreliable source. The patriotism is a major element in the chewing gum and rubber bands he is using to hold his crumbling psyche together through most of the movie. Part of the confusion in the critical response is probably due to Eastwood’s lack of overt moralizing in the film. He simply presents the events and Kyle’s actions, and allows them to speak for themselves.
It is Kyle’s psychological deterioration that holds the story together. The film’s plot suffers from a kind of formlessness typical of a biopic, since people’s real lives tend not to fit into a neat story arc, but there is a clear progression toward a promised climax in Kyle’s mental state. The movie opens with Kyle perched on a rooftop, his rifle aimed at a woman handing a young boy a grenade that he can hurl at a convoy of American soldiers approaching through the streets of Fallujah in Iraq. Through a series of flashbacks we are shown how Kyle arrived at this place. We get a scene where the child Chris is lectured by a stern and humorless father about how there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep (the innocent, unsuspecting and essentially clueless masses), wolves (predators who take advantage of the sheep) and sheepdogs (whose duty it is to protect the sheep). The upshot of it is that Chris had better be a sheepdog if he knows what’s good for him.
We also see how Kyle, as a relatively aimless grown man who has just discovered his girlfriend sleeping with someone else, in the midst of an alcoholic binge with his brother Jeff (Keir O’Donnell), sees a televised report of the 1998 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Africa, and decides to enlist, to defend the honor of his homeland. We see him go through the SEALS training, and meet his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) sitting in a bar. It is the only scene where we see his easy charm and essential kindness coming out in his relationship with Taya. We can understand in this scene why she marries him, and it also gives us a starting point for the state of Kyle’s soul before he is deployed.
Kyle does kill both the woman and the child from that rooftop when we return to his sniper’s position after all the film’s exposition scenes. As the scene makes clear, the grenade would have taken out a good number of American soldiers, and so the kills were necessary given the parameters of Kyle’s assignment. Still, they trouble him, and as an audience we cannot help but feel with him, just as we do later in the film when, having shot an enemy combatant holding a grenade launcher, another very young boy picks up the weapon and tries to aim it at American troops. Kyle begs the child under his breath not to pick up the grenade launcher so he does not have to kill him, and with Kyle we breathe a sigh of relief when the boy drops the weapon and runs off.
From that first kill through the end of his fourth tour, the plot of the film is essentially one episode after another of Kyle’s marksmanship and increasing stoicism in the wake of kill after kill. A number of episodes revolve around a brutal Al-Qaeda operative nicknamed the “butcher,” who tortures prisoners with a drill and whom Kyle witnesses killing a sheik who has helped the Americans, along with the sheik’s young son. The butcher is assisted by his own sniper, an Olympic shooting medalist named Mustafa who hunts for Kyle just as Kyle hunts for him. Scenes in Iraq alternate with scenes at home, where Taya bears two children and keeps waiting for Chris to return, always disappointed when he does come home since he spends all of his time thinking about being back in Iraq, wracked by the fact that his comrades are still dying over there. His excuse is that he needs to be there to do his part, while Taya insists that he has done that and that he has a duty to his family as well.
One question after another is raised as the film progresses. Is Kyle always the sheepdog, or are there times when he becomes the wolf? In his hunt for Mustafa, there is definitely something wolf-like, and this is one difficulty of the elder Kyle’s analogy: in his protection of his sheep, can the dog forget his training and feel the feral call of the wolf’s bloodlust? Or alternatively, does the sniper, dealing out death from a thousand yards away, develop the ability to disengage completely from the act, as if playing a video game, as some of Kyle’s kills seem to suggest in the movie? Are Kyle’s family not really the sheep in his father’s equation, and don’t they need him at least as much as his fellows in Iraq? Where does his ultimate duty reside?
There is some evidence that the real-life Chris Kyle was not particularly disturbed by these questions. In his book, he says of the Iraqi enemy that he “hated the damn savages.” As portrayed in the film, Cooper’s Kyle, asked by a VA psychologist whether he felt any of his 160 reported kills might have been questionable, responds “I’m willing to meet my creator and answer for every shot that I took.” Some viewers of the film take this answer at face value, as if it is Eastwood’s, or as if it is unambiguously the character’s true feelings. But whether reading between the lines of Kyle’s book, or through interviews with Taya, or perhaps through simple human empathy, either Eastwood or Hall or Cooper himself has created a more complex Kyle. Anyone who sees Eastwood’s film as simple flag-waving is ignoring many of the film’s most disturbing elements: scenes where Taya, trying to maintain a connection with Kyle by phone, is interrupted by the sounds of battle and never knows whether Kyle is alive or dead on the other end of the connection; the scene where Chris meets his brother Jeff, shipping home after a stint in the war with the marines, and finds his brother resentful, bitter, and eager to leave his own sordid experience of the war in the dust; and most of all the scenes of the PTSD Kyle at home, an automaton whose feelings have all been buried somewhere deep within or, perhaps most disturbing, the scene in which Kyle pulls a gun on his wife, ordering her to “drop her drawers” in what to some extent is a “playful” romp through which Kyle may finally be able to let off some steam, but which for the audience is incredibly uncomfortable, especially since they have seen the Kyle who seems ready to blow at any moment. There is definitely a subtext in this scene that tells us to remember the fate of the family dog.
And this is where the wheels fall off the bus. Having set up a situation where the returning soldier must face his inner demons and deal with the moral ambiguity of his acts, Eastwood has prepared us for a significant exploration of the struggles of returning veterans, doing for the Iraq war what The Best Years of Our Lives did for the Second World War, or Coming Home for Vietnam, perhaps under the direct influence of the more recent and more complete story of The Hurt Locker. Instead, we are shown five minutes of Kyle working with patients at a VA hospital, and essentially told “And so he turned out fine.” It is far more than a simple wasted opportunity. It is essentially a betrayal of Eastwood’s own vision for the film. What on earth made him abandon his film’s focus to end with some actual flag waving and no real resolution to the problems the film had been raising all along is impossible to say. Perhaps it was a fear that the mass audience the film was aiming for just didn’t want to see the touchy feely kind of therapy that might be necessary in the end. Perhaps there was a decision by producers of the film to dial back anything that could be perceived as questioning America’s ill-advised adventure in Iraq, though Kyle’s PTSD could have happened after any conflict in the past hundred years. For whatever reason, the film proves in the end to be a dud, despite its promising development up to the very last scenes. For those reasons, I don’t think Eastwood’s film has any business being a “best picture” nominee. I will give it three Tennysons, but only on the basis of Cooper’s brilliant performance.