Movie review: "American Sniper" sets sights on a black-and-white view of war

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Friends have been asking me about “American Sniper” since seeing the movie’s ubiquitous, tense-as-hell trailers. You know, the ones with the pounding heartbeat that end on an “oh, god, what happens?” moment.

Director Clint Eastwood’s entry into the year-end rush of biopics is one of the most uneven and troubling. His telling story of the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history toys with complexity at times, but it too often shies away from grays. It’s cast in the same moral black-and-white that is necessary for a person to “do their job” on the battlefield, and it makes the film often devolve into hero worship.

The basis for the movie is Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a real-life Navy SEAL who is officially credited with 160 kills. Near the beginning of the movie, a young Chris and his brother are being lectured by their father at the dinner table in a scene that lays the groundwork.

“There are three types of people in this world,” Chris’ father intones. “Sheep, wolves and sheepdogs.” Sheep, he explains, are those who believe that evil doesn’t exist. Wolves prey on sheep through violence. And sheepdogs are “those who have been blessed with the gift of aggression … an overpowering need to protect the flock.”

This worldview resonates throughout, as Kyle moves on from being a rodeo cowboy to enlist in the Navy. He goes on to serve four tours in Iraq, earning the nickname "Legend" among his fellow troops. Meanwhile, his life on the homefront slowly begins to show the strains.

Eastwood is deferential to the source material, Kyle’s best-selling autobiography, and it’s not unusual for a biopic to either lionize or demonize its subject matter, particularly if, like Kyle, they are now deceased.

But there are troubling undertones that flirt with propaganda. We see Kyle watch in horror as the Twin Towers fall on 9/11, and two scenes later, we see him with an Iraqi child and mother in his sights. The equivocation that got him to Iraq is not addressed.

Onscreen, Kyle declares the Iraqis to be “savages” — a belief that also seems deeply held by Kyle in real life. This is a necessity for the job he is given, but Eastwood seems to reinforce this at every turn, perhaps most notably with a rival (and fictional) Syrian sniper. The inhumanity of war is a topic mostly unexplored, and Kyle’s mental scars seem to only come from the American lives he couldn’t save.

The many battle sequences are tense, but the execution is, at times, less gripping. Some of the dramatic devices Eastwood uses strain the “true story” credibility to a breaking point. Kyle makes phone calls home to his wife (Sienna Miller, in a role that could have been better cast) in the middle of firefights one too many times.

Cooper is far and away the best thing about the film. In a breakout dramatic role, he casts more emotional complexity than the material provides, and his performance is deserving of a better movie.

Eastwood wants to cast our morally complex modern wars into “good vs. evil” in a movie that places the blame for the toll on a faceless other. “American Sniper” will surely resonate with an audience that wants an old-school war hero, but I can’t get past that.

"American Sniper"

Opens Friday

2 stars out of 4