Into the canon of films dealing with the Iraq War comes American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the memoir by former US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper). Watching Hollywood, and indeed world cinema, reacting to the events of September 11, 2001, has been fascinating. This film fits into the better end of the quality spectrum in that sub-genre, and overcomes its modest flaws to offer a convincing and involving perspective of the Iraq War.
Kyle’s is a well known name, particularly in the US, because he accumulated 160 confirmed kills during the conflict, and became known (partially as a result of his own memoir) as one of the most lethal snipers in US military history. We see the war from his perspective; the film does not attempt to portray a balanced account of proceedings, but that doesn’t mean that is it jingoistic or narrow-minded.
It depicts Kyle’s transformation from Texas cowboy to grizzled soldier – a transition inspired by a reaction to the 9/11 attacks, which were the catalyst for many citizens to sign up to the armed forces – and then into war veteran, proud of but scarred by his actions in Iraq. In early scenes, which are only partially successful, we see Chris being schooled by his aggressive father in the art of shooting. These scenes are efficiently done, but I’m not sure the film needed to depict the genesis of Chris’ skills and mindset so blatantly. We also follow Chris as he is trained as a SEAL, and marries his sweetheart Taya (Sienna Miller), who he charms in a bar in an early scene, before being sent to war.
What follows is a series of chapters, each a tour of Iraq, bookended by shorter sequences in which Kyle spends brief periods on leave with his family. It took me a while to warm to Kyle as a character, but Bradley Cooper’s performance has depths that it does not initially appear to have. We see him changed by the war, clinging onto the values of patriotism and, frankly, revenge, which saw him sent to Iraq in the first place. Kyle seems determined to continue to view the war simplistically, even after it begins to take its toll on him, and there is a sadness in that, as well as a quiet musing on the role of the soldier. The other soldiers around Kyle are two-dimensional characters, but are well played, and there is a sense of camaraderie established over time.
Eastwood is a veteran director and has previous in the genre, so we should expect him to be at home in the action sequences, which for the most part are relatively small in scale (with the exception of one late sequence) and shot in a gritty, believable style. This is war filmmaking in the more traditional mould, but no less effective for it. Scriptwriter Jason Deal Hall’s decision to flip-flop between the war sequences and Kyle’s home life is, generally, a good one. Sienna Miller gives a heartfelt performance in a difficult role – the kind of role often sidelined by films in this genre. Her performance gives gravitas to some of the film’s least subtle dialogue, and she and Cooper have a convincing chemistry.
The role of director was originally due to go to Steven Spielberg, and we’ll never know what kind of film he would’ve produced, but Eastwood has done a good job here of blending the action and the emotion. The film is subtly effective in portraying the ways in which Kyle’s experiences in the war are slipping through into his everyday life, which sits well with a couple of tense action scenes, in particular a climactic shootout which escalates as a sandstorm hits.
I have not read Kyle’s memoir, but reports suggest the film has left a lot of material out – some of which might not have fitted so snugly into the story painted here. But the fact that this is a Hollywood-ised version of a story doesn’t by default strip it of interest or worth. American Sniper depicts even ts that saw Kyle revered as a hero among his military colleagues, but the film, and Cooper’s performance, challenge what that word may mean. There is something to be said for that.