“American Sniper” is political propaganda through and through, in the same way “Zero Dark Thirty” was and every Michael Moore documentary is. It’s essentially Neocon porn, with a vaguely seedy undercurrent of Islamaphobia in the massive box-office turnout (fueled, no doubt, by the tragedy in France) and conservative social media ecstasy, and director Clint Eastwood’s patriotic fingerprints all over every frame.
Unfortunately, all of this political subterfuge is masking the fact that “American Sniper” is kind of a terrible movie. What we have here is Bradley Cooper, as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, playing first-person shooter game for two hours with no motivation behind his obsession to kill terrorists, an absence of understanding how assassinating so many people (including a child) might have made him feel on the inside, and menacing-looking Arabs squinting their eyes and practically stroking their beards like Dick Dastardly. All the while, Kyle’s put-upon wife (a tragically underutilized Sienna Miller) serves no function other than to sit at home and wait for his occasional land-sat calls and scream at the sounds of machine gun fire over the phone. All of that, to me, is far more offensive than the politics.
Sad, then, that the movie is based on a true story: Kyle joined the military after 9/11, and eventually became known as the deadliest sniper in the world (“The Legend,” according to his comrades) after serving four tours in Iraq. In a tragic and somewhat ironic twist of fate, he was shot to death at a shooting range by one of the very veterans he was trying to help cope with PTSD.
The movie gives a brief, perfunctory, and wholly unrealized introduction to Kyle and his little brother as kids, as their father, during an awkward dinner table moment, deems Kyle a sheepherder and his brother, who’s sporting a black eye courtesy of the local schoolyard bully, a sheep. One is the protector; the other needs to be protected. That’s dad’s big pronouncement. The scene extends to no further than that, and we’re launched forward several years, where Kyle is now a budding rodeo cowboy. He meets Taya in a bar, marries her, gets her pregnant, and quickly joins the military after watching the Twin Towers collapse into Lower Manhattan. Kyle proves his skills with a gun, and before you can say CUT TO: EXT. ROOFTOP – AFTERNOON, Kyle is picking off terrorists through the site of his high-powered rifle.
We’re introduced to a series of one-dimensional characters, most of whom serve the screenplay as eventual terrorist targets, but get small blessed relief in the complex Marc Lee (Luke Grimes, very effective), the would-be preacher doing his best to guide his troops through an impossible war. At this point, the movie detours sharply into trite action territory, as Kyle agrees to lead the pack on the hunt for Al Zarqawi’s Number 2, aka “The Butcher,” who does his dirty work with a power drill and is one of those menacing-looking Arabs I mentioned earlier.
The other Arab is a sniper who Kyle must face off against in a dramatic scene that culminates (SPOILER ALERT!) with Kyle and his unit trapped on a rooftop as hundreds of terrorists storm the building with machine guns blazing. The entire passage feels glossy and false—surely what every Hollywood executive must believe it’s like to spend a tour in Iraq not knowing if you’ll ever make it home to your wife and kids.
Throughout all of this, the movie offers zero glimpses into Kyle’s psyche to ask the most important questions: why and how. Why does Kyle go to such obsessive lengths to rack up a documented kill count of 160? And how does it make him feel to have done it? There’s a tacked-on scene near the end of the movie, as Kyle meets with a therapist who seems to ask him all the right questions. Kyle, however, grunts and offers up nothing. No remorse, or lack of it. No emotion. No second guessing, or pronouncements of proud and unwavering patriotism. The movie tries to manipulate us into feeling something by having the camera push in dramatically on Kyle’s face every time something is about to happen or swelling the music in dramatic tempo, but it doesn’t work. If the central character in the film feels nothing, then why should we? The movie is basically dead inside.
As for Cooper, he’s very good here in a tricky and problematic role. I imagine the real Chris Kyle was far more nuanced and complex than anything “American Sniper” gives us, and probably deserved a much more authentic film about his life; but Cooper does everything he can to do the man justice and carry the film on his shoulders. Now consider how vastly different the character of Chris Kyle, with his burly physique and sharp Texas twang, is from the neurotic detective in “American Hustle” and the bipolar dance partner to Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook,” and you get the idea that Cooper is the real deal. I just wish “American Sniper” had been a better movie to showcase his talent.