In recent weeks, American Sniper—which is titled after Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s autobiography—has become increasingly controversial. Some have claimed the heroic nature in which the film portrays Chris Kyle glorifies the soldier as a sadist with racist tendencies. This question is important to the broader canon of critique for director Clint Eastwood. With a cigar always dangling from his lips and squinty eyes glistening in the Mojave Desert, Eastwood seems to evoke the cool dynamism of yesteryear. His films, however, are burdened with sexism (Million Dollar Baby) and racism (Gran Torino, American Sniper). Why is Eastwood so obsessed with racism? Can we really take his worldview seriously?
The answer is yes (with reservations).
The beginning of the film is filled with an unnecessary amount of movie tropes and incredibly bad dialogue. Chris Kyle’s father gives the most blase and God-fearing moralistic speech on the three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs (Lord, please lend me the strength to leave this theatre right now). Father Kyle isn’t afraid to hit his boys, but restrains because “we protect our own,” a prominent theme that manifests itself throughout the movie.
After the succession of lazy filmmaking, the real plot of the film commences with the grown Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) wanting to be a cowboy. It is clear that he has ambition. After being injured at the rodeo, he comes home early to see his girlfriend having an affair. His younger brother Jeff (Keir O’Donnell) is the only real friend he has and adds an air of levity to Kyle’s personal turmoil. Patriotic fervor veils Kyle after he watches the 1998 bombings of the American embassy in Nairobi to the point where he wants to join the United States Army. He is recommended for SEAL training and survives the brutality, which claims over 90 percent of enrollees.
His membership in the Navy’s elite special forces gives Kyle the necessary boost he needs to pick up his future wife at the bar—Taya Renae Kyle (Sienna Miller). After their marriage ceremony, the call comes in for the SEALs to join the fight in Iraq. During his first tour in Iraq, Kyle’s skill with a rifle is lauded, and he quickly racks up many kills as a sniper. It was during this first tour that Kyle has to confront the evil in which he sees, killing his “enemies”—women and children.
Two separate threads/missions, however, arise that force him to come back again and again to Iraq. First, a counter-insurgent enforcer named the Butcher leads a brutal campaign against the Americans. The Butcher instills mass fear in the Iraqi people. His instrument of torture is a power drill—used every time an Iraqi gives information to an American soldier. Second, the counter-insurgency contingent is joined by a Syrian Olympic gold medalist in riflery named Mustafa. His skill with a rifle rivals that of Kyle’s as the two duel throughout the film.
As Kyle inches closer and closer to finding and killing these rivals, he spirals deeper and deeper into hate and obsession, neglecting his burgeoning family at home and signing up for more tours of duty in Iraq. Not since Oscar winner The Hurt Locker (2008) has a war movie attempted to paint the thrill and desperate need to fight in the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars as American Sniper. Some may call it glorifying murder, especially against those that Chris Kyle calls “savages,” but Clint Eastwood does an amazing job of portraying the job as a soldier as one that protects the innocent Iraqis against the Butchers and the Mustafas.
The film is clearly on track to be the highest grossing war film in American film history (not adjusted for inflation). It does deserve its credits and a Best Picture nomination, but merely that—it definitely should not be considered equal to the top contenders (Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma) for this year’s most prestigious film awards.
Featured Image Courtesy of Village Roadshow Pictures