American Sniper (2014)

★★½ / 👎

American Sniper (2014) poster

One of my favorite things about Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker is the line he tries to walk (not always successfully) between giving us the violence and certitude we want, and critiquing those desires, often in the same film. American Sniper is no Unforgiven, but it’s also no Heartbreak Ridge.

The film sketches Chris Kyle as someone raised to believe that violence in defense and support of others is both righteous and a moral imperative. Despite the lionizing—oh, sorry, sheepdogging—it’s quite possible to watch American Sniper and come away with the impression that Kyle was a selfish, self-righteous asshole long before he ever became a hero. That the very mental outlook that allowed him to nobly serve his country meant he faced great difficulty in being a husband and father. That his four tours in combat permanently ruined his psychological health and warped his already low sense of empathy. And that the “cowboy” culture that shaped the course of his life led directly to the manner of his death. (There’s a “playful” scene built around a jarring violation of basic firearm safety which is entirely typical of Eastwood’s career-long ambivalence about The Way of the Gun.)

Which is not to say that the film doesn’t whitewash Kyle. It does. The film portrays Kyle as unfailingly modest about his kill count and status as “The Legend,” which does not seem to accord with reality. It also makes no reference to any of the “tall tales” he seems to have told, including some in the memoir that serves as the film’s source material. It also shows a pre-Navy Kyle casually using violence during a domestic dispute that could easily have resulted in an assault charge—if he hadn’t been a white male rodeo rider in shit-kicker territory—but the scene is played mostly for laughs, complete with a joke to button the scene.

Last, but not least, American Sniper does feature one literally incredible prop infant, which is as lethal to a pivotal emotional scene as a sniper round from 2,100 meters. It’s a shocking lapse that genuinely hurts the pacing and experience of the film, at least with a crowd.