American Sniper (Review)

Directed by Clint Eastwood, US, 2014

“T.E. Lawrence: I pray I may never see the desert again.  Hear me, God.

Auda Abu Tayi: Well, you will come.  There is only the desert for you.”

Lawrence of Arabia, Directed by David Lean, US/UK 1962

Like all great American war movies, American Sniper presents questions with no easy answers.  What drives a man to volunteer for war?  How does he respond to those experiences?  How do those decisions affect his colleagues and loved ones? Where does the myth of the war hero end and the truth begin?

Most of American Sniper is seen through the perspective of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), decorated U.S. Navy sniper and author of the memoir on which the film is based.  Through Cooper’s extraordinary performance, Eastwood gives us the portrait of man who is drawn to war not because he seeks glory or an adrenaline rush, but because he has deep-seated psychological needs.

His father, you see, was a hard man who gives Kyle a bit of a Superman complex.  He has a compulsive need to save people, and he sees that as his mission in life.  Once he chooses a path, he stubbornly adheres to it, ignoring or criticizing any evidence that would force him to confront his choices.

Tennyson once wrote, “Theirs not to question why, theirs but to do and die.”   Kyle would certainly agree with that statement, but Eastwood forces us to confront the consequences of that mindset.

For example, Kyle has an Enemy at the Gates (2001) style duel with Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), who Kyle sees as evil. The only time Eastwood shifts the film’s independent perspective is to Mustafa.  He is briefly shown as a family man, proud of his accomplishments in the Olympics, and no less determined a soldier than Kyle.  It is clear that Kyle sees him as a one-dimensional villain, but Eastwood is asking us to look more closely.

There has been some criticism of American Sniper focusing on whether Kyle’s often troubling perspective is what the movie is trying to say.  It’s clearly an imperfect perspective, but like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) this is the point of the film.  Eastwood doesn’t ask us to agree with Kyle, only to try to understand him.

Kyle never confronts why he goes to Iraq, why he keeps going back at the detriment of his family, or the effect of his experiences on his own psychological well being.  The closest he gets is towards the end of the film when he starts working with wounded veterans – but even that is an extension of his compulsive savior complex.

It’s tragic that Kyle’s story ends before he can fully come to terms with his reality.  He comes home for good, but he cannot leave the desert behind.  There is only the desert for him.

You might like American Sniper if: You are interested in a layered examination of the motivations behind the modern soldier and the consequences of their decisions.

You might not like American Sniper if: You want a socially, culturally, and politically balanced examination of the Iraq War – in which case there are many excellent documentaries on the topic.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe