American Sniper is a smart piece of American propaganda that uses the microcosm of Chris Kyle’s rise to legend status as a basis to build a compelling cinematic experience detailing the intimacies of an American hero on a larger platform of American neglect.
Clint Eastwood’s latest in a successful line of hard-hitting war dramas following Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima falls victim to the plague of inaccuracies that sent critics mad and military personnel to internet forums. Like The Hurt Locker before it American Sniper received a mixed bag of reviews some completely siding with the ambition and execution, others slating it for its dramatised inaccuracies. But it is becoming more and more clear that such controversies come with the turf. People will always find an issue with the depiction of war because it isn’t a nice thing to look at. No matter how romanticised or ludicrous a tale there will always be death and there will always be the establishment of binary opposition that determine good and evil. That’s the way cinema works.
American Sniper is no different but Eastwood does attempt to alternate the focus between Chris Kyle’s numerous tours of Iraq, his permanent ideology, and the effect it has on his personal life stateside.
Michael Moore released a hard-hitting documentary, titled Fahrenheit 9/11, in July 2004 to an American audience, and more broadly a Western democratic audience, who were still grieving following the fallout of the tragic terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001. It isn’t an easy topic to write about or make a film about so Moore decided to focus his attention on the American response in terms of political agenda and social reaction. In what makes for fascinating viewing Moore raises some controversial issues and bandies some alarming accusations. But what is most interesting is Moore’s argument that Bush effectively roused the American public into a frenzy of misguided bigotry in order to wage unjust wars in Afghanistan and Iraq under the guise of his self-proclaimed ‘War on Terror’.
The context is well known but Eastwood opts to make a direct reference to it just so we’re clear. Taya, played by the magnificent Sienna Miller, calls Chris into the living room as she gasps in front of the tele as the events of 9/11 unfold on the news. Cutting to Bradley Cooper’s reaction shot we witness the direct impact the images are having on his burning American patriotism to protect his family and die for his country’s freedom. Cooper verbally supports this muted facial contortion later stating in discussion with a Marine on the evil in the world, “You want to invite them to come fight in San Diego? Or Seattle? We’re protecting more than just this dirt.”
To palm this one off as glorified pro-war propaganda would be shameful. Eastwood’s direction is nuanced to deliver a vehemently stirring antiwar message utilising a Western recognition of propaganda tropes to carry his message. Behind each dusty scene depicting the horrors of war, the brutality of evil doers and the growth of a legend lies a deeper message tackling issues of loneliness, feelings of inadequacy and traumatising grief. There are well documented historical inaccuracies that have been used unfairly to chastise Eastwood’s depiction of Chris Kyle’s story, the creation of an opposite equal in terms of marksmanship being one. But Kyle is merely a microcosm in Eastwood’s grander more sincere approach that unfortunately demands these blockbuster scenes to engage the modern audience.
The legacy of the War in Iraq left a damaged wake of returning veterans suffering from various psychological disorders as a result of their time on the battlefield. To spurn the argument that American Sniper promotes a continuation of misguided bigotry would be foolish, liekwise it would be foolish to argue that that’s all American Sniper promotes. If the viewer fails to pick up on the real issues Eastwood raises then all we’re left with is a ‘true’ American patriot with a black and white sense of morailty dividing the world into good and evil. It’s a harrowing thought to consider that some people might actually take this interpretation away with them when the silent end credits roll in lament.
I’m not a military man, a war veteran, or American citizen for that matter but what I do know from highly removed personal experiences is that there are often two sides to every story. Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Chris Kyle’s intimate experience of the War in Iraq is not the story of the War in Iraq. In the same vein not all Iraqi citizens are brutal “savages”, evildoers and threats to international freedom. But American Sniper offers a limited scope through which we build an image, a generalised and false image, of the War in Iraq that smartly draws the viewer into an emotional response when the rifle hits the dirt.
Clint Eastwood has done a sterling job at sewing together bits and pieces from Chris Kyle’s biography and Bradley Cooper puts in an excellent turn to bring these moments to life. Sienna Miller is stunning and plays a pivotal role in determining the gradual character shift in Cooper’s Kyle between each tour. Not much can be said for the supporting cast as they are largely forgettable which only serves to strengthen Eastwood’s driving ambition, to present a firm antiwar message that takes place at home following the repercussions of continued exposure to the horrors of war and the resulting mental strain.
American Sniper was Worth my Time for the powerful and nuanced antiwar message it delivers to a present day audience living in a renewed state of rising tensions in the middle-east.
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