The true story of the marksman credited with the most kills in American military history was never going to reach the screen without treading through troubled waters. The political dimensions of America’s involvement aside, there’s the issue of wading into the very grim, exceedingly grey line of moral purgatory in which such a man must exist to carry out his duties. On paper there seemed such potential for a penetrating, deeply unsettling exploration of Chris Kyle’s internal battles and motivations. The final product however, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), falls way short of its target however, dealing almost exclusively in wearied clichés and leaden symbolism, reducing Kyle to a translucent figure whose complexities remain hidden from view and disappointingly unexplored.
Bad omens abound in the film’s early scenes. A childhood flashback is meant to be encapsulation of how the young Chris’s intestinal fortitude is forged by the lesson-bearing words of his father at the dinner table on the night he beats a schoolboy senseless for whipping his young brother. There are three types of people in the world according to dear old dad – sheep, wolves and sheepdogs…………….thank God for Americans and their uncannily innate ability to neatly quantify the parameters of so many human characteristics. It’s an awful scene and clumsily handled by Eastwood in the way of many similar scenes in his films involving young actors whose abilities are seemingly not tested or stretched beyond a single take. Gran Torino (2008), and the less than stellar work from its two young first time actors, comes to mind. At the conclusion of dad’s speech in which he assures his boys that becoming a sheep or wolf as they trek into manhood is unacceptable, we see the affirmative nod and look of certainty on young Chris’s face. Again, it’s risible stuff and the film never really recovers, shedding credibility as early on as it does.
Eastwood’s casting too is deeply suspect. Other than Bradley Cooper – who is by no means wholly convincing as Kyle especially with his often indecipherable Southern accent – the men strewn around him on the battlefield are wretched stereotypes in continual dress-up mode. Not a single man exudes the authority of his post, rendering null and void any attempt at creating a living and breathing reconstructed world. The battle scenes are a series of fabrications loosely and poorly structured. Their ultimate goal is to illuminate cause and effect; to allow perfunctory glimpses into the psyche of Kyle as he battles his personal demons. But where are the fresh insights, the profound truths beyond the obvious ones mined by a thousand other war films? The soldier-warrior returns home between tours and is unable to cope with the horror of war. His domestic life suffers, as he becomes withdrawn, robotic, emotionally stunted. His wife resents him, they teeter on the edge. Surely these men deserve a deeper, one that looks for investigative angles beyond the fall-back clichés?
Kyle was obviously a complex, remarkable individual, on one hand a cold-blooded marksman whose conscience was eroded with each kill, and yet possessed with the resolve to serve his country’s needs, whatever they are, never wanes. American Sniper is devoid of suspense beyond a couple of brief scenes in which Kyle’s scope hones in; two in particular, involving a woman and children, are especially contrived, though effective. Little else sticks in the memory however; the film is plodding, one-note and obvious in almost every way. Sienna Miller tries valiantly as Kyle’s suffering wife but her role is as thankless as they come: the poor put-upon woman who falls in love with the wrong man – after meeting him, it must be stressed, in the first of the only two ways it’s possible for men and women to ever meet their prospective partners according to the unwritten laws of American cinema: 1. In a bar, or 2. With eyes meeting across a crowded dance floor.