American Sniper is based on Chris Kyle’s memoir and I’m led to understand that it’s quite a faithful adaptation. But the problems one encounters when turning memoirs into movies are myriad. In this case, they include having a famous actor embody a real person, a military hero with a fascinating and fraught legacy (Kyle accumulated a record 160 confirmed kills during his four tours during the Iraq War), and shifting perspective from the book’s first-person to the movie’s inherent third-person, which inevitably imposes a political reading on personal reportage—and with that political reading comes an enormous moral responsibility. Whatever you might think of director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall’s personal politics, their take on American Sniper renders a thorny chapter in the history of US foreign policy as a somewhat dunderheaded white hat/black hat rah-rah western.
It doesn't help that some scenes are the sort of thing that should land Hall in the screenwriters’ stockade. Take the early scene in which Kyle (a beefy-burly and uncharacteristically opaque Bradley Cooper) comes home to find his live-in girlfriend with another man. “I do this to get attention. Can’t you see that?!” cries the cheater, who has apparently never heard of subtext. Kyle later meets his real love interest in a bar. She acts all tough but vomits after downing shots, which is another way of saying that, unlike Kyle, she ain’t no Navy SEAL. There’s a later scene in which PTSD is invoked by having Kyle seated before his television, from which we hear, as though through his ears, the sound of a war movie, but when the camera spins around the TV isn’t even on! Much of American Sniper’s dialogue fits into the Lone Survivor model: when soldiers aren’t punctuating every word with “fuck” it’s because they’re saying nothing but “fuck.” Defenders may cry verisimilitude, but that hardly excuses redundant, unimaginative verbiage that might otherwise be used to help tell a story.
American Sniper is one of Eastwood’s least inspired films as director; visually speaking, its incredibly boring coverage harkens back to TV movies of the ’80s. But the more troubling issues concern point of view, the way we’re invited to watch countless foreigners get shot to hell while Kyle’s tragic death at the hands of a fellow veteran is only alluded to in the film’s flat final moments, or the way Kyle’s nemesis, a dreadlocked sniper rumored to be a Syrian Olympic medalist, is provided with counter-close-ups yet still comes off as mere caricature. Perhaps this material needed Sam Fuller to inject it with manic energy instead of Eastwood’s macho solemnity. Perhaps it simply needed a screenwriter with moral vision, one capable of finding a dramatic way to grapple with the deeper questions about what Kyle’s life, career and untimely death mean to us as we survey the consequences of 9/11 and the Bush administration’s irrevocable response to that day that, one way or another, really did change everything. I think of that speech Kyle’s dad makes about how there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Kyle was one hell of a sheepdog. But let’s talk about who was his master.