16 January 2015
For his 37th outing in the canvas chair, Clint Eastwood directed American Sniper. It is based on the memoirs of highly decorated Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who completed four tours of Iraq between 1999 and 2009.
With 160 confirmed kills to his name (and, he claims, many more unconfirmed), Kyle was America’s most deadly sniper of the campaign. His efficiency in the region of Ramadi earned him the nickname among local insurgents of Shaitan Ar-Ramadi (‘The Devil of Ramadi’).
In the film, Kyle (played by a beefed-up Bradley Cooper) is an all-American man’s man. He likes drinking beer, riding bulls, dressing like a cowboy, and pumping iron. Answering the call of duty, he endures jibes for being older than the other SEAL hopefuls, but is never in any doubt about what he wants to do: go to Iraq, protect his brothers-in-arms, kill the ‘bad guys’.
The film has been accused of flag-waving, hyped-up American patriotism. Big jocks blasting their way into Iraqi homes and ‘neutralising the threats’, pumping fists to celebrate each life taken. Eastwood, however, is careful never to portray Kyle in this way. He remains stoic and detached. For him, there is a job to do, and he does it with cold efficiency. This idea of duty, of Kyle’s belief that his actions are protecting his country, his family, his friends, runs throughout the film. It is this belief, we are often reminded, that gives him the strength to make split-second decisions – who is a threat and who is not? Who lives and who dies?
But these regular reminders feel a little hollow. The more we are told that Kyle kills for the safety of his country, and the more we see the relish with which US troops charge into the fray to avenge the killing of their friends, the more ‘protecting one’s nation’ starts to sound like one big excuse for warmongering.
There was a lot to be packed into this film, and it certainly feels that way. The narrative only briefly touches on Kyle’s own experiences of PTSD, and the scenes back home, by the third or fourth time, begin to drag and get repetitive. Despite this, the film manages to be gripping, incredibly tense, and deeply moving.
Chris Kyle was shot twice during active service, and survived the detonation of six separate IEDs. But in 2013, a year before Eastwood’s film was due to come out in America, and four years after he had been honourably discharged, Kyle was killed on a shooting range while trying to rehabilitate a veteran suffering from PTSD.
I saw American Sniper at a screening before its release, and before the trial for Kyle’s murder had begun. As such, learning of his tragic death at the end of the film was a real shock. The information, and his death, is handled incredibly tastefully with shots of the real Kyle’s funeral parade. It is a delicate ending to a taut and brutal film, whose message I would recommend taking with a pinch of salt.
Review by George Clode.
This article appeared in issue 55 of Military History Monthly.