After Jersey Boys, in which he channelled the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll in the manner of an elderly uncle dancing to Pitbull at a wedding reception, Clint Eastwood has returned to a subject he knows a thing or two about: violence. This season’s biopics have dissected numerous troubled hearts and minds, but American Sniper targets perhaps the most troubled, and adopts an unexpectedly ambiguous line of inquiry: its interest – its fascination – lies in how a man gets to the point of pulling the trigger, and what happens once the shots ring out.
As depicted here, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) enjoyed a very Texan upbringing: hunting, praying, rodeo-riding. After witnessing the mid-90s terrorist attacks on US embassies on TV, however, he reacted in much the same way he did to the sight of his younger brother being attacked by the school bully – by barrelling into the fight. Entering the Navy SEALS, he soon became the most decorated sniper in recent military history. A magnet briefly glimpsed on the Kyle fridge puts it best: “Don’t mess with Texas”.
Kyle’s memoir became a bestseller at certain supermarket checkouts, yet either screenwriter Jason Hall or (more likely) his director has appropriated this story as an opportunity to interrogate an idea of masculinity. After Whiplash, American Sniper is the second film this week to position humiliation – in its many and varied forms – as a formative part of the American experience.
Kyle’s swaggering cowboy façade first slips upon catching his girlfriend cheating on him; he only regains his sniper’s eye upon sleeping with wife-to-be Taya (Sienna Miller) for the first time. Shortly thereafter, the humbling phallic knockdown of 9/11 hands him a ticket to Iraq, and a mandate to shoot women, children and anybody else who might pose a threat to the American way of life.
This big lug will doubtless be claimed as a hero by many. Cooper’s Kyle is sincere in his passions, his patriotism, his belief he’s been put on this earth to wipe out evil: “Your heart is beating out of your chest,” notes Taya on the couple’s wedding day. Eastwood gives him the uniform and kill ratio to back up his conviction and life choices: he’s so good at his job his brothers-in-arms swiftly confer the nickname “Legend” upon him.
Yet, as with Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Eastwood’s concern resides in how such legends come about, and his conclusions are unmistakably bleak. No simple booyah, American Sniper intuits that a life spent lying in darkened isolation, growing increasingly suspicious of anyone who passes into one’s eyeline, might not be the healthiest; and that it might not be fair to engage in a firefight with one hand while keeping your pregnant sweetheart hanging on the phone the other’s holding.
Though Miller dishes out some rather one-note home comforts with intelligence, these homefront scenes offer little Kathryn Bigelow hadn’t already achieved, with greater visual acuity, in The Hurt Locker. Eastwood is visibly more engaged by the bruising combat sequences, and the details he hones in on are exactly those of a former cowboy who’s seen too much bloodshed in his lifetime, and who knows what being on either end of a gun can do to a man.
The editorial line is most strikingly evident in Cooper’s agonised weariness upon realising he’ll have to shoot yet another Iraqi child if he picks up the rocket launcher one just-neutralised adult target has dropped; in a supposedly triumphant takeout – a “fuck yeah” moment anywhere else – which registers here as a numb shrug, and begets only more trouble; and in a final act in which the cycle of violence Chris Kyle found himself in is both concluded, and renewed.
In American Sniper, we’re reacquainted with the same critically minded Clint who alighted upon Unforgiven, Gran Torino and J. Edgar, scripts that finally gave this tersest of elder statesmen something to say: it’s another of those projects in which Eastwood turns that piercing gaze on aspects of the American mindset, and wonders whether the worst of these is actually worth fighting for. Not insignificantly, it may also form the most persuasive argument any Republican-affiliated filmmaker has ever made in favour of stricter gun control.
(MovieMail, January 2015)
American Sniper screens on ITV tonight at 9.55pm.