On That Wall, by David Bax
From its first scene, in which Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is faced with killing an Iraqi child or allowing American soldiers to come to harm, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper gives a powerful impression of the daily trauma of modern warfare. Yet, like Bill O’Reilly shouting down one of his dissenting guests, Eastwood refuses to allow any reflection on the subject or on Kyle himself. In the same way that Zack Snyder, in a film like Man of Steel, uses constant noise and spectacle to pummel his audience into dumb submission, American Sniper’s relentless assault of violence and hard-nosed jingoism leaves no room for questions. According to Eastwood, the war in Iraq is horrible, yes, but worthwhile. And he will not hear otherwise.
Based on the story of Kyle’s life, American Sniper follows its protagonist from an aggressive child who beats up his younger brother’s bully to a rodeo star who beats up the man with whom he catches his girlfriend cheating to a man stirred by latent patriotism into joining the military and then motivated by apparent pride into proving himself as a Seal. After that, Eastwood settles into a rhythm, gliding between each of Kyle’s four tours and the time spent with his wife (Sienna Miller) and their growing family stateside.
In the interest of creating a narrative through-line, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall (who adapted the book by Kyle, Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice) invent an opposing sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) to be Kyle’s nemesis. Giving Kyle a quarry to pursue and including briefings about other major al-Qaeda players like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi turns American Sniper at times into a dumbed down Zero Dark Thirty. In that film, director Kathryn Bigelow allowed herself to indulge in action set-pieces but stood at a clinical remove from the morality of the characters’ actions, giving us leave to decide for ourselves how we felt. The people she depicted were heroic but they also engaged in ethically murky practices which Bigelow invited us to question without the political rhetoric that usually comes attached to such issues. Eastwood, on the other hand, only introduces uncertainty in order to assuage it a scene or two later.
For what it’s worth, none of the blame lies with Cooper, who is as precise as usual. He may occasionally be hard to understand through his thick Texas accent but chalk that up to Cooper’s dedication to the man he’s portraying. Despite the opacity of the film around him, we come to understand Chris Kyle not as the lobby standee hero Eastwood seems to have envisioned but as a man, with all the breadth and depth that implies. The same can’t be said, unfortunately, for Taya, Kyle’s wife. Though introduced as a too-smart-for-the-room lady who challenges Chris to rise above his bro tendencies, she quickly ceases to have any hint of a life outside of her husband. When he is abroad, it’s difficult to even imagine that she exists when she’s not talking to him on the phone. Miller can’t really be blamed for the faults in the screenplay but, between this and Foxcatcher, she’s carving out a spot as the inconsequential wife of the year.
Some of Cooper’s best acting comes in depicting Kyle’s possible post-traumatic stress. Kyle not being the kind of character to have an Oscar-clip breakdown (if the Oscars still showed clips), Cooper must translate his mental state via thousand-yard stares or sudden shifts in attention. In one of the film’s best scenes, a marine who had been saved by Kyle approaches him at an auto repair establishment back in Texas. As the man thanks and praises Kyle, Cooper makes his discomfort so palpable, you start to wonder why the marine doesn’t notice it and just shut up already. With almost no words, Cooper does more in this scene to generate empathy for Chris Kyle than the rest of the film put together.
It’s strange, then, to see the effects of war so heartbreakingly personified only to have the film seem to solve them neatly by the end. Kyle attends one therapy session, devotes himself to charity work and, there you are, he’s fixed. It’s as simple as that, apparently. There are so many questions American Sniper doesn’t explore. Maybe this is why Eastwood likes talking to empty chairs. They don’t talk back.