The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
American Sniper

Reviewed by James Slaymaker.

Director Clint Eastwood
Length 132 mins
Certificate 15
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article It’s true that Eastwood’s Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) - a sniper who amassed the most lethal track record in the history of the American military while serving in post-invasion Iraq - is undeniably a more sympathetic character from the real Chris Kyle, an unabashedly jingoistic and unremorseful individual who never expressed anything but pride when reflecting on his experiences. This isn’t to say, however, that the film simply renders him noble. Eastwood has a well-documented ambivalence towards the sort of traditionalist, cinematic archetypes of stoic masculinity he himself helped to perpetuate, and his primary focus here is on the aggressive denial complex that allowed Kyle to commit these acts relatively guilt-free, which is linked to the social institutions and ultra-macho popular myths that actively encourage Kyle’s worst tendencies. In other words, he may not have made a film about the actual Chris Kyle, but he made a film that explores why people like the actual Chris Kyle exist.

Those who have labelled the film jingoistic or racist have tended to overlook the sequence that portrays Kyle’s decision to join the military. He’s just come back from a rodeo in which he and his brother (Max Charles) performed to a sparse crowd - enthusiastic in a jokey way - decked out in campy neo-cowboy gear. He arrives home to find his live-in girlfriend Sarah (Marnette Patterson) in bed with another man, and, following a brief fight, she drops the insult on him: “you think you’re a cowboy because you rodeo. You’re not a cowboy; you’re just a lousy ranch hand”. In the next scene, Kyle, deciding that this is true and seeing war footage on the news (which he talks over, thus divorcing these images from their context) impulsively decides to sign up. His choice is therefore not a political or moral one, it’s simply a way of repairing his wounded masculinity and re-assuring himself of his own worth.

In the moment, Kyle takes no pride in his killing. It’s only after the fact, when a stream of myth-makers tell him how noble and heroic he is that he begins to believe it himself. What this ultimately boils down to is self-mythologizing as a self-justifying defence mechanism. And throughout his life he finds a multitude of individuals willing to re-inforce his delusions; his father, who simplistically divides the entire population into sheep (the helpless who need to be protected), wolves (aggressors who need to be fought) and sheep dogs (those few who are strong enough to protect the sheep without becoming wolves); his fellow soldiers, who deem him a legend when they discover his number of confirmed kills; and, perhaps most importantly, pop culture archetypes that glorify masculine individualism, egotism and stiff-lipped rationality, such as the comic book hero The Punisher (whose logo adorns the clothes of the troop Kyle fights with), and those aforementioned cowboys. It’s true that the Iraqis Kyle fights are portrayed as a non-distinct “other”, but that’s only because the process of military training sets them up that way. A group of soldiers who don’t consider questions of morality are easier to control, and for Kyle, a very complex war is boiled down to a simple task of shooting anybody who is threatening the U.S. military. He’s encouraged to not think about anything but the immediate moment and the few meters of land immediately in front of his vision. To him, these are not individuals with histories and families and motivations that are as noble to them as his are to himself, they’re simply a hazy abstract. And the problem isn’t just that Kyle is unaware of these wider implications, he actively relishes his wilful blindness.

The only character who doesn’t treat Kyle like a hero is his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), who’s also the only one who openly recognizes his emotional isolationism and refusal to reflect on his actions as signs of insecurity, not strength. The ennui he feels when back home seems less a result of PTSD and more of an expression at his alienation in an environment that doesn’t reward him for these qualities. Kyle’s increasing alienation from her is framed as a retreat into self-absorption.

This review was published on January 26, 2015.

Post your views

Article comments powered by Disqus

Share this article

Special FX

- Jump to the comments
- Print friendly format
- Email article to a friend

Similar articles

- Guardians of the Galaxy: Alternate Take
- Guardians of the Galaxy

More from this writer

- Blackhat: Alternate Take
- Phoenix
- Inherent Vice: Alternate Take
- Results
- Gone Girl: Alternate Take