So much has been written about American Sniper over the past few months, about its unkempt, pro-war patriotism and its torn apart anti-war expose of human trauma, that it is somewhat shocking how little has been said about the one thing that really reveals its essence: Clint Eastwood. Whichever stance Sniper takes, it is unquestionably the work of its director, the old individualist who loves to raise the American male up on a pedestal of his own making and tear him down again, and the only filmmaker working today who understands the old-school spirit of mid-century genre pics by the likes of Sam Fuller, Sam Peckinpah, and John Sturges. American Sniper is at its best, and its worst, when it is most similar to its subject Chris Kyle, knowing his clean, blunt efficiency to a fault, and sharing not a little of his single-minded apprehension for anything out of its sights.
Make note: this innately makes it a more contorted, confused beast than a conventional biopic, and in some ways a more worthwhile one. Sniper, a rather boots-on-the-ground exploration of the proclaimed “Deadliest Sniper in US History” Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), is a classic Eastwood story in that it opts not to sit atop its subject, exploring it, teaching it, wanting from it. Rather, it lowers itself to the ground, not trying to ensure it learns something about its subject but rather that it becomes its subject, knowing its anxieties all too well.. And in the case of Chris Kyle, this means hiding its anxieties, never really giving in and breaking up but always retaining composure, focusing on procedure, and establishing a certain focused economy of cinematic language to hide its true seams. From the beginning, Kyle is a man of few words, and man who hides his own truth from us, and from himself.
Take the way the film casually runs through Kyle’s pre-war life, not so much exploring how it builds him up to be the man he becomes but showcasing how little he cares about life outside of the war. This is the Eastwood spirit of bare-essentials, stripped-down, near-mechanized filmmaking, finding focus and meaning not in what is put in the film, but in what is left out. Kyle, as depicted by Sniper, frankly isn’t much of a man in civilian life; the film, like him, seems disinterested and a touch flat-footed in these segments, especially come time for the inevitable conclusion. In military life, however, Kyle thrives, quickly moving from off-handed, almost false concern over his kills to quick, lean brutality. American Sniper is the story of him moving from man to automaton, and the film, cold and purely functional, is the kind of story he might make if found behind-the-camera. For this reason, by the end, its little more than an action movie; Kyle seems to want it that way, cutting out the drama and leaving only the facts. Everything we might expect from a biopic, the sense of why and how, is left on the cutting room floor for the harder question of who; so many films look to teach us something about their subject that they forget to capture the experience of that subject. American Sniper, in its day-to-day, somewhat aloof presentation of life in the military, is a story that doesn’t so much explain its subject as become him.
Ultimately, Kyle is a type, a figure part and parcel with the American cinematic legend and a deconstruction of that legend. As the movie moves along, what once approached the audience as passionate, dumb-founded words of a misguided freedom fighter soon become hopeless lies of personal satisfaction a fighter speaks to hide his own actions from himself. He isn’t a fully featured, three-dimensional individual because he doesn’t want to be. He wants to be a killer. It’s the only thing he knows, and it’s the only thing he’s good at. If the film doesn’t feel as personal or insightful as it probably should, this somewhat surface-level straightforwardness is itself a gesture toward Kyle’s own lifestyle, and his own inability to grapple with life outside of predetermined path. We don’t get a “critique of Chris Kyle” because Chris Kyle, in his dogged determination, never stops to critique himself. Which in itself is a critique, come to think of it, but that’s not how we frame film discussion these days.
These genre-pic bonafides do some of the legwork for explaining just what American Sniper wants to say about violence in the Middle East. Namely, that it has consequences, and that we hide those consequences from ourselves to get through another day whether or not our actions are worthwhile. It is simplicity itself, but that is the Eastwood aesthetic, tackling a theme with plain-spoken efficiency rather than reaching to its grander complications. Sniper is a genre pic, entirely in unison with the Eastwood aesthetic that has tackled the Wild West, Mid-Twentieth Century Africa, the warzone of modern-day Boston, and the Last Moral War. It is a well-made genre pic, the kind of ruthless, terse film Chris Kyle might like to see, but there is little room for ostentatious ruminating or even moral complication. Eastwood’s film is not formally pro or anti war; it simply doesn’t care, itself a dangerous statement that can’t but produce conflicted readings. Like all of his films, it is interested in the individual to a fault. About that individual, we know he is now part of the American “legend” lexicon. And we know that the better a legend, and the better a killer Chris Kyle becomes, the worse a man he is. Eastwood doesn’t blame Kyle for this, nor does he empathize with him. He sits by, watching his break down and even hiding it from him as Kyle hides it from himself.
I do wish, at some level, that the film that has inspired so much bluster and bile could hurt and challenge a touch more, that it could be something greater or worse and more noteworthy than “a wounded character study hiding deep within a solidly-mounted action film”. Yet Sniper is a simple fable, and an amoral one, very much plaintive and quiet in the spirit of Eastwood’s earlier films that attain a low-key confidence and straight-laced courage in themselves, sometimes to the detriment of their more combative, haunted qualities. It exists, like so many of Eastwood’s films, in a liminal space halfway between falling back on Kyle as a simple fable hero doing his best to rid the world of evil and a more thoughtful and subversive challenge to this fable that presents Kyle’s view of the conflict as nothing more than a lie. It doesn’t wish to see Kyle’s actions as good or bad; it sees them as actions which exist, and which hurt.
The trouble is that this middle-ground is only sometimes the product of a introspective exploration of Kyle’s straight-forward mind; other times, it seems like Eastwood is simply settling for something more superficial and slight than he ought to, not so much becoming Kyle as avoiding him. The true tension in the film is how it sidesteps the realities of the Middle East, not adopting a perspective on the worth of Kyle’s actions or the character of the people within the Middle East. It is an apolitical film, or a film that thinks it is apolitical, and its biggest problems are how it can sometimes forget that “apolitical” has severe, political, worldly connotations, and dangerous ones at that. It critiques the American male, but it treats the people of the Middle East, along with anything lying outside of its small, single object of interrogation, with pragmatic detachment.
Just as Kyle sees them, in other words. To him, everything, from the people of the Middle East to the home life he struggles to wake up to everyday, is a distraction, an object of no moral concern. The film doesn’t try to suppose whether or not Kyle’s actions are necessary – and trying to figure out what it does think opens a bucket of contradictions in the film a mile wide – because Kyle doesn’t much reflect on the necessity of his actions. If the film’s heart breaks, it can only be for Kyle, rather than for his dozens of victims, because it takes a single-minded approach to Kyle’s life. Sniper avoids the problem because its subject avoids the problem, and if this allows it a certain straight-shot to its very real strengths as a work of direction and, especially, sound design, it doesn’t go down any easier for it.