Clint Eastwood brings his typically fat-free directorial style to this biopic of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. In many ways, his simplicity of approach and focus makes Eastwood the perfect filmmaker to tackle the story of Kyle the soldier, a brutally efficient military weapon with 160 confirmed kills during his military career and an estimated total of over 250. But it’s a simplicity that also makes him the absolute worst filmmaker to tackle the story of Kyle the man, and Kyle the myth.
American Sniper opens with Kyle (Bradley Cooper) on his first tour of Iraq, then flashes back to economically present the doctrine handed down to him by his father, his beginnings as a good ol’ boy rodeo rider and the reasons he signs up for duty. Cooper is fantastic, subtly portraying the swagger and sense of invulnerability that led to Kyle being dubbed “Legend” by the troops in-country, but also the weakness and confusion suffered between tours with wife Taya (an equally strong Sienna Miller) and their young family.
Eastwood is not concerned with any nuanced arguments about the Iraq war: instead he mines his recurring themes of “necessary” violence in the name of defence, and the toll it can take on designated or self-appointed protectors. And this, of course, produces some great cinema: the hardship and fraternity of Kyle’s SEAL training is perfectly rendered in a tiny fraction of screen time; there are several enormously tense, visceral sequences in the heat of the conflict; and there's real melancholy on the homefront. Its technique is quite brilliant, with Kyle the tortured, all-American hero at its core.
But Kyle was a much more complex character than that. This is a man who said his only regret of his time in service was that he didn’t kill more; who bragged about murdering looters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; who claimed to have shot two carjackers, for which he received letters of congratulation and thanks from law enforcement officers throughout the country; who even thought he’d get away with fabricating a tale of punching Jesse Ventura for badmouthing SEALs and questioning the war.
No matter how well made and compelling Eastwood’s film is, to produce something this incurious about its troubling real life subject, to promote his “legend” with little more than jingoistic hagiography, is at best disingenuous and distasteful. At worst, in the current landscape, it’s grossly irresponsible.