American Sniper is a film that provokes strong reactions. If a viewer is opposed to machismo and militarism, they are likely to be angered. If a viewer is inclined towards firearms and US patriotism, they may find the film laudable. But the evidence for either reaction is problematic because of the film’s stripped-down, character-centred approach, typical of director Clint Eastwood’s oeuvre.
American Sniper depicts the life and career of Chris Kyle (played by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper), the deadliest sniper in US military history. The ethics of Kyle’s actions are never questioned and the conservative upbringing that he received is not problematised. Nor is the viewer treated to a nuanced view of US military action in Iraq. Kyle joins the Navy SEALs to serve what he believes is “the greatest country in the world”; he embraces military ideology, follows orders and protects his fellow soldiers, and he has a ruthless willingness to kill the enemy. However, the film does not present Kyle’s actions as noble or profound, denying any sense of triumph in his military exploits. There are moments in the film, particularly towards the end, that are ripe for patriotic sentimentality, but Eastwood steadfastly avoids manipulative reconstruction in favour of stock footage and utilises silence rather than stirring music. War is hell, but it is not grandiose or Wagnerian, Kyle and his fellow soldiers presented as dedicated professionals doing their (extremely dangerous) job. Whatever value may be ascribed to this job comes from the viewer rather than the film. Kyle is only a hero in the eyes of other characters, and his neglect of his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in favour of his “duty to his country” is presented matter-of-factly rather than with an emotional, ethical or political inflection. The film therefore presents Kyle’s life and career, with intricate production design, intense action sequences and powerful performances, often creating a visceral and nerve-wracking experience. The presentation, however, does not offer explicit judgement in either direction.
It is tempting to see this lack of judgment as an implicit affirmation of the philosophy Kyle lives (and, if taken as a true story, actually lived) by. But the film includes Kyle’s post-traumatic stress, his inability to leave the war behind and his encounters with other veterans who were badly injured. The film therefore depicts the cost of war and the suffering of those who fight, and barely touches on the plight of Iraqi civilians, while Iraqi combatants are largely presented as cyphers, their identities irrelevant because they are simply “the enemy”. Again, this comes back to the film’s focus on its central character – the film is about Chris Kyle, not the Iraq War or American machismo or patriotism. Nor do we necessarily gain an in-depth understanding of our protagonist, as Kyle remains largely impenetrable, only his actions apparent. This inflects the film as a whole, the events of the narrative presented without explanation or commentary. American Sniper therefore treats its audience with great respect, allowing us to decide its meaning without guidance or manipulation, offering itself (successfully) as a topic for debate and discussion.