Movie Review: American Sniper

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Image Source: Wikipedia

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production Companies: Village Roadshow Pictures, Mad Chance Productions, 22nd & Indiana Pictures and Malpaso Productions
Director: Clint Eastwood
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper and Peter Morgan
Scriptwriter: Jason Hall
Main Cast: Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller
Released: January 16 2015
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Certificate: 15

American Sniper, a true story based on American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History by Chris Kyle, is a difficult movie to summarise. It has an equal amount of praise and criticism for very different reasons. As a viewing experience, however, one cannot deny that the film is thoroughly engrossing, even if some of its messages can be somewhat misleading.

We start with Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper, at the heart of war, seemingly about to decide whether or not to shoot a mother and child who are potentially armed. After a flashback to Kyle’s childhood, which sees his father explain when and when not to defend the honour of another person or group of people, the story fast-forwards to more recent times when Kyle, a cowboy, decides to enrol in the US Navy, with a keen desire to protect his country.

Along the way, he meets Taya Renae (Sienna Miller) who he eventually marries and has two children to. In the meantime, however, both are shaken up by the 9/11 attacks and, at Kyle’s wedding party, he and fellow servicemen are informed that they are being sent to Iraq. This begins Kyle’s military experience, and leads to the aforementioned opening scene.

Before we move on, I want to point out a flaw. If you are unfamiliar with American history, the precious scenes would have you believe that terrorists from Iraq were responsible for 9/11 when that is not the case. The war on terror began after 9/11 in late 2001; American forces entered Iraq in early 2003. It is likely that the September 11 footage was included to show that Kyle was more motivated to defend the honour of his country, but the way in which these scenes are presented suggest that entering Iraq was America’s answer to 9/11, which is simply not true.

So, we return to the opening scene where Kyle is in a tough position: the mother and child may be armed, but can he really kill them? As the movie rolls on, Kyle earns the nickname of “Legend” for the number of deaths he causes, which in turn makes him the deadliest marksman in US military history. However, situations such as this and other similar instances cause Kyle to feel a greater amount of remorse, which in turn eventually causes him to feel cold and just get on with it because, as his fellow servicemen remind him, he’s just doing his job.

In the meantime, the war itself has a greater impact on his emotions. Each trip to Iraq sees Kyle edge closer to death, whilst seeing catastrophic scenes (some of which he has to bring about) which haunt his mind, and seeing some of his colleagues seriously wounded and killed.

Add to that the pressure put on his family, particularly his wife who feels that she will never have the old Kyle back to look after their growing family, and you have a real struggle for his strong character. Yes, he’s doing his job for his country, and is doing very well, but the psychological effect it has on him is enormous. Can he get out in time to survive? Without giving too much away, the film has a shocking conclusion, but one has to see the film in its entirety to truly feel the impact of its ending. (If you know the story of Chris Kyle, then you will know what to expect; if you don’t, wait until you see the film before you try to find out more.)

As stated, the film is very gripping and Cooper does a tremendous job as Kyle, as does Sienna Miller as Taya; however, it does have some flaws. Besides the aforementioned confusion over the link between 9/11 and Iraq, there is also a problem with how Iraq and Iraqis are portrayed. At no point does the viewer receive any information on why the Iraq war happened (as stated, someone with no knowledge of history would assume the direct cause was 9/11). This was a war which many have described as unjust, both at the time and today, and regardless of whether the war should have happened or not, that the justification is not explored feels like a whitewash, especially when words like “savages” are used to describe the Iraqis during the movie (and in the film, we very rarely see any Iraqis who are not on the enemy’s side in some way). The scene when an injured serviceman thanks Kyle for saving his life is touching and does remind the viewer that the Americans were trying to do the right thing, but is it really true to hint that all Iraqis were villains?

As the “Legend” nickname suggests, the film seems to glorify killing, even the killing of women and, most shocking to see, children in the name of war. Whilst Kyle’s inner torment is apparent, it’s as if the overriding message is “Well, they’re just doing their job, even if it means killing women and children.” This glamorises the act of war despite the horrific effects it has for so many involved. Combined with the earlier mixed messages, this can make people believe that the movie is a big example of American propaganda, despite showcasing Kyle’s psychological damage.

For this reason, this has invited comparisons with Inglorious Basterds (2009), a fictional movie in which the Nazis create a propaganda film on a sniper who killed many people – much to the joy of fellow Nazis watching it, but to the haunting dismay of Fredrick Zoller, the sniper who actually played himself in the promo film. The horrors of conflict are not explored; it gives the impression that killings which are deemed necessary for a country to achieve its goals are not only justifiable but something to celebrate. Unwanted comparisons to the Nazis maybe, but the message from American Sniper is very similar – and unlike Basterds, this movie is based on true events.

American documentary maker Michael Moore has also commented on Sniper, saying that director Clint Eastwood may have confused Iraq with Vietnam in his storytelling, although the greater story involving Moore and this film came from his criticism of snipers in general, calling them cowards in relation to the death of his father during the Second World War. This has drawn much criticism in response; but needless to say, American Sniper has drawn a significant amount of detraction.

Which is not to say that this is a bad film. I was completely drawn into this from the beginning to the very end, and whilst Kyle seems like just another American patriot at the beginning, as the plot progresses, one truly cares for him and is desperate for him to get home in one piece. If you are undecided about whether to see this, I strongly suggest that you do; however, the mixed messages about the cause of Iraq, the lack of acknowledgement over its justification and the feeling of American propaganda prevent this from being a true classic. Had these issues been addressed, I would give American Sniper the highest possible recommendation.

Overall Rating: 8/10 – Very Good